Still a Funny Girl, with a little help from her friends: Barbra Streisand's Encore is a theatrical tour de force
September 25, 2016
The first Barbra Streisand album for two years finds one of Broadway’s greatest singing stars going back to show tunes. Subtitled Movie Partners Sing Broadway, it is witty, theatrical and a teensy bit corny — in short, everything we have come to expect from Streisand.
Out today, the record pairs the 74-year-old with a string of Hollywood A-listers, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman among them. Well-worn standards are given lavish makeovers, but there are a few surprises, too, including a soulful finale by Jamie Foxx and an unexpected duet with Seth ‘Family Guy’ MacFarlane.
What shines through, though, is Streisand’s longevity and work ethic. In addition to this album, she is writing her autobiography, touring America and readying herself for a part in the forthcoming film adaptation of the musical Gypsy.
At an age when most singers are past their prime, her voice has lost little of its warmth, control or dynamism. Notoriously nervous on stage, she seems to revel in the studio environment, sounding equally at home on exuberant ballads and simpler, jazz-based material.
She has been here before, of course, although 1985’s Broadway Album and 1993’s Back To Broadway were more traditional solo affairs. Her guests give her scope to flaunt her flair for collaboration, and she trades musical verses and verbal quips with aplomb.
Encore also parades her comic skill. At The Ballet (from A Chorus Line) finds her jousting with AnneHathaway and English actress Daisy Ridley in a fictional audition, with Barbra playing the feisty Brooklyn diva to a tee as the three women sing about their family traumas before concluding that ‘everyone is beautiful at the ballet’. Anything You Can Do (from Annie Get Your Gun) is a playful sing-off with comedy actress Melissa McCarthy in which Barbra corrects her counterpart on the pronunciation of her surname: ‘Strei-sand, like sand on the beach. As soft as . . .’
The latter’s jazzy lilt, powered by upright bass and brushed drums, is a perfect backdrop for the duo’s wise-cracking, a quality to the fore again on The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened (from Sondheim’s Road Show), a duet with Alec Baldwin.
Mercifully, the album contains only one of those eerie beyond-the-grave duets with a dead artist. Streisand’s ‘virtual’ collaboration with British singer-songwriter Anthony Newley, on Who Can I Turn To, is a strange inclusion, although it does make one wonder what a collaboration between Streisand (who once covered Life On Mars) and Bowie might have sounded like.
Newley’s nasal Mockney tones were a huge early influence on Bowie and it is easy to imagine The 'Thin White Duke' tackling the same song, co-written by his hero for the musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint — The Smell Of The Crowd.
Encore closes with big string ballads. Pure Imagination (from Willy Wonka) is pure schmaltz, although MacFarlane, who has recorded three solo albums, is a surprisingly capable partner.
Antonio Banderas, too, is solid enough on Take Me To The World (from Evening Primrose), and Foxx adds soulful nuance to The Sound Of Music chestnut Climb Ev’ry Mountain.
If Encore offers little in the way of progression, we shouldn’t be that surprised. An acoustic album of gritty, Johnny Cash-style Americana with a producer such as Rick Rubin wouldn’t be Streisand’s style. Especially when she can still deliver standards with such panache.