Sometimes even Barbra Streisand needs a little help from her friends. The 74-year-old stage and screen legend decided early on that her 36th studio album would feature Broadway duets.
So she called on some of her friends and favorite actors, including Anne Hathaway, Daisy Ridley, Hugh Jackman, Chris Pine and Bradley Cooper, to bring her vision to life.
The result, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway, is a quirky mix of surprising and entertaining collaborations pulled from hit musicals like My Fair Lady and A Chorus Line, as well more obscure productions such as Evening Primrose and Smile.
Despite the group effort, the album is still authentically Streisand.
“Records I have control over,” said Streisand, who was hands-on with every aspect, from song conception to directing each performance.
“That’s what I cared about as a young performer as well. I didn’t know about what salary it was,” she recalled. “I cared about creative control. That nobody can tell me what to sing or force me to sing or album cover design or anything that had to do with my creativity. It had to feel right to me.”
In a recent interview at the oceanside Malibu, California, studio where she recorded Encore, Streisand delved into her directing process with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
BALDWIN CAME READY TO PLAY
Streisand admitted that some stars took a little persuading. Alec Baldwin, for example, feared he didn’t have the vocal chops.
“And I said, ‘You’re a personality and it’s perfect for the song,” she said of her early conversations with the 30 Rock actor. “Will you try with me? Because if it’s really terrible we won’t use it. Will you experiment with me? Will you play with me?”
Luckily he agreed and the outcome is the cheeky, romantic duet, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” from Stephen Sondheim’s lesser-known musical, Road Show.
“It’s hard work getting the notes right for people who are not singers, but I know they can act their way through it. They’ll get it and that’s the fun of doing this kind of project,” Streisand said.
FUNNY GIRLS UNITE
Streisand wanted a new twist on the classic “Anything You Can Do,” from Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun.
So the Funny Girl star tapped fellow funny lady Melissa McCarthy to reimagine the song as comedic banter between showbiz frenemies.
“When I approached Melissa, the first thing she said to me was ‘I can’t sing you know’ and so she’s a little bit tone deaf,” Streisand explained. “But she compensates with so much personality and so much laughter and so much spontaneity.”
Streisand recalled how McCarthy struggled to hit some of the notes, but other times she nailed it.
“There are moments she sings and I go, ‘Melissa that was fantastic! You sang that beautifully!’ And she surprises herself,” she said.
WILLY WONKA REIMAGINED
“When I was a child I had imagination. I lived in Brooklyn. You know, I slept in the living room. But I imagined myself as somebody, as having something worthwhile to be noticed and somehow I manifested it. So I know anything is possible,” said Streisand.
This was the idea behind her heartfelt duet, “Pure Imagination,” from the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Streisand teamed with actor-filmmaker Seth MacFarlane for the dreamy ballad and penned a spoken-word introduction about imagination she hoped will resonate with modern audiences.
“The divisiveness, the violence, these are very sad times,” she said. “I just believe in the power of whatever it is _ faith, prayer, visualization … who knows what that can manifest?”
FOXX FOR THE FINISH
Streisand had full confidence that Jaimie Foxx would rise to the challenge of performing one of Broadway’s most-beloved songs: “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music.
“I did because I saw him get an Academy Award for playing Ray Charles. So I know he can sing,” she said. “His soulfulness, his great voice …. he was able to sing it in one session, you know. I mean he’s that good. So I was thrilled. I was thrilled to sing with him.”
Streisand closes the album with the soulful, moving duet, which she said is about “having dreams and taking chances.”
“Step-by-step we will get there,” said Streisand of her approach to any obstacle. “We will climb that mountain. You have to have faith in today’s world. Don’t you?”
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Madison theatergoers will have one last Broadway splash before the summer doldrums set in when Capital City Theatre mounts a production of Gypsy June 17 and 18 at the Overture Center.
Considered by many to be the best musical ever written, Gypsy tells the tale of Rose, the consummate stage mother. She bullies, begs and boasts her way through vaudeville’s waning days to create a life for her daughters, transforming one of them into Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most celebrated burlesque artist. The musical is one of the first to feature lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, with music by Jule Styne.
CCT has upped the ante for this production by casting Broadway performer Michele Ragusa in the pivotal role of Rose, a character that has helped define the careers of Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters and others who have played her. Broadway director Jeff Whiting will helm the semi-staged musical production, further strengthening the show’s pedigree in ways that CCT artistic director Andrew Abrams says will help the two-year-old company carve a deeper niche for itself in the Madison marketplace.
“We’re trying to become Madison’s first regional professional musical theater company,” Abrams says. “We hope to expand to a full season of musicals, including classic and contemporary shows, as well as new works and concert productions of lesser-known or hard-to-produce works.”
Gypsy will no doubt help those efforts along. The Wisconsin Gazette caught up with Ragusa and Whiting to find out more about the production and what’s in store for Madison audiences.
What was your first exposure to Gypsy?
Jeff Whiting: I’ll never forget (seeing) Bernadette Peters when I saw Gypsy for the very first time. I’ll also never forget the overpowering feeling I had afterwards about how powerful the theater can be. It moved me beyond words and I knew that I wanted to experience that feeling over and over. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed attached to the theater world with all of its ups and downs — to tell compelling stories through music and movement.
Michele Ragusa: My first exposure to Gypsy was auditioning for the Tyne Daly revival. After not getting cast as the “Hollywood Blonde,” I was still excited to see Tyne’s performance. She was transformative! I loved the show then and, after stepping into Rose’s shoes, even more so now.
Critics have described Gypsy as the greatest of all musicals. What does it have that other shows lack?
JW: I think Gypsy is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time because it ticks all the boxes of what makes powerful theater:
A strong story. It reaches to the core of anyone who’s ever had a dream. What are you willing to do, to sacrifice, to push, in order to get your dream. And, is it worth the cost?
The score. Nearly every single tune and lyric in this score has become iconic because of the melody and rhythm that connect so closely to the story.
The relationship: Gypsy explores the chemistry and relationships between a complex family and the pursuit of a dream on all levels.
MR: The overture, in my opinion, is the best one there has ever been. Talk about getting the audience into the spirit of the show!
Numerous actresses have played Mama Rose, including Ethel Merman who originated the role. What is your take on the character? Is she truly the worst of all show business mothers, or are there more dimensions here?
JW: Rose is probably the best-known stage mother there is. She’s driven by her determination to chase after her dreams, sometimes to excess, but she truly believes she’s doing what’s best for herself and her family. This is the reason so many great actresses are drawn to the character.
MR: The show takes place during tough times and I feel that Rose was a very sensual being. She knew how to use her wiles to get “favors”. I don’t think she’s a battle-axe or a monster, as some think. In her mind, there isn’t a person living who wouldn’t want to be in show business. This is her gift to her daughters, how she shows her love and devotion to them.
I also feel it’s important to show a real love between Rose and Herbie. The audience needs to see a real connection; otherwise, it’s just a “using relationship” and I don’t think, as an actress, you have anywhere to go with that. Rose is a force. I’m hoping the audience will see all the layers and colors that I’m going to paint her with.
Sondheim’s lyrics for the show were an early effort by one of Broadway’s most prolific composers. How well do these lyrics serve the Sondheim legacy?
MR: I think you can see how Sondheim’s creativeness was beginning to bloom. The lyrics here really do move the storytelling along and I think his rhymes in “Together, Wherever We Go” are delightful. His later works are much more complex, but I do think you can see the genius beginning to develop here.
JW: I think Sondheim’s lyrics are a huge part of the success of Gypsy. The juxtaposition of “curtain up” and “light the lights” set in the context of the play are pretty surprising and brilliant. I think the most surprising thing, though, is that Sondheim was originally asked to write the score, but Ethel Merman didn’t want an “unknown” doing the score. Stephen agreed to do the lyrics, but I find it a great reminder that every “unknown” has to start somewhere.
Gypsy is clearly a product of its time, yet it endures. What are the show’s deeper themes and does it still resonate with contemporary audiences?
MR: Gypsy has stood the test of time because its themes are universal. I think the audience can relate to all the characters and their relationships. The show also has such wonderful comedic moments that the balance between the drama and the comedy is perfect.
JW: The more things change the more they stay the same. We all have dreams. Some people seem to achieve their dreams more easily. Some people push harder until they get it. But at the heart of the show is what Rose says at the end: “I just wanted to be noticed.” I think we can all relate to that sentiment, and this is the reason the show hits at the core of today’s audience.
Capital City Theatre’s production of Gypsy runs June 17 and 18 at Overture Center, 221 State St., Madison. Tickets range from $25 to $45. Call 608-258-4141 or visit capitalcitytheatre.org.
Stephen Sondheim sounded enchanted.
Note by note, pianist Anthony de Mare and three dozen composers had put their own imprints on songs Sondheim wrote over the past half-century, a tribute to the man who redefined Broadway.
“You don’t even have to complete the question,” Sondheim said. “What could be more flattering than to be taken seriously by your peers? And also, some of these are more than peers.”
“Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano” was released last month as a three-disc set by ECM. It features 37 original compositions by an All-Star team of composers that includes William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Wynton Marsalis, Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, Duncan Sheik and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
Listening to more than three hours of luminous interpolations, there’s much familiar — and much peculiar.
“They all said it was tricky in a lot of ways because the songs are already perfect,” de Mare said one afternoon at his Manhattan home.
It’s difficult to discern who feels more honored — the 85-year-old Sondheim or those commissioned to contribute. On a rainy Friday afternoon after arriving in Connecticut for a weekend in the country, Sondheim said he was.
“I just thought, gee, is my stuff interesting enough to occupy these composers’ minds?” Sondheim said.
He may have felt that in reverse. The contributors wondered whether they were up to the task of rethinking the originals.
Heggie, now 54, dedicated his 2010 opera, “Moby-Dick,” to Sondheim. He recalled seeing “Sweeney Todd” for the first time in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
“The axis of my world shifted. I just remember time stopped and I had to re-evaluate everything,” he said. “It literally blew the top of my head off, and that’s when I sort of went very deep into the Sondheim world and became addicted to his shows.”
Winner of eight Tonys, eight Grammys, an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Sondheim is known for more than his famous shows. He transforms, teaches and tutors. And these composers have listened.
De Mare came up with the idea of the piano project in 2007, brought on Rachel Colbert to produce and through a lawyer sent a letter to Sondheim. Within two weeks, Sondheim wrote back and suggested a chat.
“One of his tenets is less is more, so his notes were always so much said in the most concise way,” de Mare said.
Milton Babbitt, one of Sondheim’s teachers, agreed to participate and chose “I’m Still Here,” Carlotta’s great elegy from “Follies.” But Babbitt died in 2011 at age 94 just after starting his piece and was replaced by his student, Frederic Rzewski.
Some thought about it, had sleepless nights and backed off. De Mare said Adam Guettel advised he was too nervous. Elvis Costello, Sting and Tori Amos didn’t have the time.
Muhly relished the endeavor, labeling Sondheim “an insane genius.”
“My entire high school life was driving around Providence with my friend listening to everything on repeat,” he said.
For him, “Color and Light” from “Sunday in the Park With George” felt comfy and cozy.
“It’s repetitive, it’s obsessive, it’s pointillistic, it’s got everything a neurotic boy could want!” he said.
In some of the songs, such as Sheik’s soaring “Johanna in Space,” the melodic line is clear, the structure only slightly rearranged. Some were more daring, deconstructing Sondheim’s original.
“Sometimes I have trouble following the composer’s mind as to what he took and what he was developing, and then when I listen to it two or three times, it becomes clear,” Sondheim said. “Some of them are very far removed from the original, from the source material and some of them are not, and so I like to follow the track of the composer’s mind and see what it was that grabbed him and what it suggested to him.”
De Mare, 58, wrote the coda himself. Reich’s “Finishing the Hat — 2 Pianos” is the only one for multiple keyboards — de Mare recorded a track he uses when performing it in solo concerts.
David Rakowski’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” in a chromatic critique of Joanne’s bender in “Company.” Fred Hersch’s “No One is Alone” moves, Paul Moravec’s “I Think About You” obsesses, and Heggie’s “I’m Excited. No You’re Not” romps.
This tribute is a sign of Sondheim’s staying power. But Sondheim himself isn’t so sure.
“I never think about that because there’s no way of knowing,” he said. “Think of it, there’s endless instances of all kinds of art that everybody thought in their day were quote immortal and now nobody ever hears. Who’s heard (Antonio) Salieri? Only people who study music — I mean, he does not get performed much. Who hears (Louis) Spohr? The most popular composer of his day. So, I find it foolish to think about that.”
Good theater makes a compelling statement, while great theater carries with it truths that stand the test of time. That’s the measuring rod that Mark Clements, artistic director for Milwaukee Repertory Theater, uses frequently.
Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” – a musical revue featuring history’s most infamous U.S. presidential assassins – received mixed reviews when it first opened in 1990. But its characters’ search for sudden celebrity and the show’s celebration of the country’s growing gun culture has more relevance today than ever before, Clements says. The Rep opens its 2012-13 season Sept. 4 with the controversial work.
“In the 22 years since it was written, I believe that the statement the piece makes has grown in importance,” says Clements, who also is directing the production. “It’s deeply rooted themes force the audience to look into the mirror of our society, one which nurtures and maybe even encourages the kind of disenfranchised people we encounter in the show.”
The disenfranchised characters are many, and some are better known than others. From Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth to Kennedy’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald, from Charles Guitreau, who shot James Garfield, to Leon Czolgosz, who murdered William McKinley, the stage is occupied by social miscreants who believe their right to happiness includes license to kill a U.S. president. In fact, “Everybody’s Got the Right” is one of the show’s signature numbers.
The narrative structure is a series of vignettes built around the slim history that’s available about the characters. The book by Sondheim collaborator John Weidman, adapted from an original work by Charles Gilbert Jr., uses both fact and conjecture to good effect in what Clements describes as a complex work.
“It’s a very rich, very nuanced and very apt satire,” Clements says. “There are definitely elements of comedy in it, but there is so much more to it than that. It’s hard to label it as purely a dark comedy.”
Central to the show, which won five Tony Awards during its 2004 revival, are the guns used by the assassins. Jim Guy, prop master for the Milwaukee Rep, did a thorough search for the types and vintages of the actual weapons used in the crimes. Acquiring the weapons turned out to be easier than first thought.
“The Rep’s prop department actually had several of the harder-to-locate guns in stock from previous productions,” Guy says. “For the others I have been working through trusted vendors with whom I have been doing business for some time to locate or supply guns that duplicate or very closely resemble the ones noted in the script.”
The most difficult guns to replicate, he said, were the ones with which most of the audience is already familiar – the single-shot derringer with which Booth killed Lincoln and the bolt-action rifle used by Oswald to shoot Kennedy.
The Quadracci Powerhouse’s excellent acoustics allows Guy to load the weapons with less than full powder behind the blanks, which reduces the weapons’ recoil. Still, gun safety remains paramount in a production like “Assassins,” he says.
“Safety instruction is absolutely necessary every time a gun is used on stage because no two live performances are the same and nothing can be taken for granted,” says Guy, who teaches courses in firearms safety for the stage nationwide. “Before an actor touches a gun, the gun and ammunition undergo a series of tests in the shop and on the set to make sure that they are safe for the cast, crew and audience.”
As to the controversial final scene in which the assassins line up and fire their weapons into the audience, Guy is not tipping the director’s hand.
“The scene hasn’t been completely blocked yet, but serious discussion is already underway to make sure that the scene is absolutely safe for the audience and cast and generates the response that the director is after,” he says.
Regardless of how Clement’s version of the play ends, its themes ring true for the times, particularly following this summer’s mass shootings in Milwaukee’s Oak Creek suburb and in Aurora, Colo.
“No matter what your viewpoint on the right to have guns may be, the laws currently in place are not working,” Clements says. “Now is the perfect time to have a discussion about guns in our society, and I will be happy if ‘Assassins’ can be a catalyst for that conversation.”
The Rep’s season at a glance
“Assassins,” Sept. 4–Oct. 7
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Oct. 23–Dec. 2
“Sense and Sensibility,” Dec. 11–Jan. 13
“Clybourne Park,” Jan. 29–Feb. 24
“A Raisin in the Sun,” March 12–April 14
“Gutenberg! The Musical!” Aug. 24–Oct. 14
“Blues in the Night,” Oct. 19–Dec. 23
“Mind Over Milwaukee,” Dec. 28–Feb. 24
“Ring of Fire,” March 1–May 5
“The Mountaintop,” Sept. 26–Nov. 4
“How the World Began,” Jan. 16–Feb. 24
“Rep Lab,” March 1-4
“A Christmas Carol,” Nov. 29–Dec. 24
A 40-year passion for the works of openly gay musical-theater mastermind Stephen Sondheim has resulted in a generous donation to Marquette University – and a tremendous opportunity for musical theater fans and historians worldwide.
Marquette alumnus Paul Salsini has donated his vast collection of Sondheim memorabilia to the Milwaukee-based university’s Raynor Memorial Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives. In addition to being one of the Broadway composer and lyricist’s top fans, Salsini was co-founder in 1994 of The Sondheim Review, which he also edited for 10 years. That gave him privileged access to both the composer and his works.
“I began collecting material in 1971, when I first saw ‘Follies’ on Broadway,” says Salsini, a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor and part-time Marquette instructor. “I was blown away – the music, the lyrics, the story, the concept, not to mention the sets, costumes and performances.”
The Stephen Sondheim Research Collection, which is considered second in size only to the collection of personal papers that Sondheim committed to the Library of Congress, contains 40 years of Salsini’s passion for the composer’s works. Included in the collection are more than 600 programs and Playbills from productions on Broadway and elsewhere, more than 400 audio tapes, 200 videotapes and 100 compact discs of Sondheim shows. There also are more than four dozen personal letters written from Sondheim to Salsini when he was editor of The Sondheim Review.
“As a ‘collector’s collection,’ this is a remarkably deep and comprehensive set of research material,” says Matt Blessing, head of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives. “The hundreds of audio and video tapes are not the kinds of materials normally present in an individual’s personal papers. It requires considerable effort to amass a collection such as this.”
The collection also includes hundreds of articles, reviews and features about Sondheim, posters, window cards and long-playing records of Sondheim shows such as “Gypsy,” “West Side Story” and “Sweeney Todd.” Still active in the theater at the age of 81, Sondheim has won a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, eight Grammy Awards and eight Tony Awards.
“Stephen Sondheim is the most significant composer and lyricist working in theater today,” says Salsini, who teaches a Marquette course called “The History of the Musical in America.” “His originality is incredibly daring. But even in his more conventional musicals, such as ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘Into the Woods,’ there are so many layers, so many meanings in his lyrics.”
Sondheim isn’t Salsini’s only passion. He also has a collection of memorabilia of composer Kurt Weill, best known for “The Threepenny Opera” and “Lost in the Stars.”
“I love his work, but the collection is not nearly as extensive,” Salsini says. “I’m holding onto this one for awhile.”
The Sondheim collection, which has been tapped by various Sondheim biographers over the years, is a contrast to other Marquette collections, such as the original manuscripts of J.R.R. Tolkein, author of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the papers of social activist Dorothy Day. But the composer’s works are in step with Marquette’s commitment to research, Blessing says.
“The great majority of our archival collections connect in some way to Marquette’s identity as a Catholic and Jesuit institution. Tolkein was a Catholic writer and Day founded the Catholic Worker movement,” Blessing says. “Occasionally we are offered an extraordinary research collection that warrants the long-term curatorial care of an archive. The Sondheim collection represented one of those opportunities.”
Marquette’s archivists have prepared preliminary inventories and all parts of the collection are available to researchers. Researchers seeking access to the collection can call 414-288-7256.
An exhibit highlighting the collection will be on display in the Raynor Library’s lobby from Oct. 10 to Nov. 28.
Hearing Stephen Sondheim interviewed just feet away from me was completely unplanned. During my annual trek to Ravinia to see “Sunday in the Park with George,” a voice came over the loudspeaker and announced that Sondheim would be interviewed on the main stage in 10 minutes, along with James Lapine, who directed a number of Sondheim shows.
I made a mad dash to a front row center seat in time to hear Sondheim and Lapine, seated on living room-sized chairs, politely answer questions. The session was broadcast live on Chicago area radio.
For a theater junkie who has assiduously followed Sondheim’s career, the experience was as educational as it was magical.
How fitting then that Sondheim has titled the first volume of his new autobiography “Finishing the Hat” from a song in “Sunday in the Park with George.” The subtitle – “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes” – provides an accurate summation of what you’ll find in this illustrated, coffee table-size volume.
“Finishing the Hat” explores Sondheim’s process for making music. Given his collaborations with such creative luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Harold Prince, Arthur Laurents and Larry Gelbart, among others, the book offers great insight into modern day American musical theater.
For Sondheim-philes, the book is a must-have. It includes production information, cast lists and other details, and it offers a glimpse into the trials and trepidations of one of the most enigmatic composers living today.
It wasn’t until the premiere of “Gypsy” (1959) that Sondheim felt he finally had achieved success with his lyrics, despite the success of “West Side Story” two years earlier. “A Funny Thing Happened o the Way to the Forum” was the first time both his own music and lyrics would be featured in a Broadway show, but instead of exhilaration, “I felt a rapidly burgeoning panic,” he writes.
Sondheim doesn’t hide his sensitivity to criticism. Of “Company,” his experimental 1970 work about relationships, he admits, “I had no idea ‘Company’ would be so unsettling to public and critics alike, but then I’ve been similarly naïve about almost every musical I’ve been connected with.”
“Finishing the Hat” is an excellent primer on how musicals get put together, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. A case in point is the history of “Anyone Can Whistle.” During a pre-Broadway tryout, one of the main supporting players suffered a heart attack and a dancer fell into the orchestra pit and landed on a string player, who suffered a concussion and died a few days later. And the show’s star, Angela Lansbury, was not working out and was almost replaced.
“Finishing the Hat” makes Sondheim and his work accessible in a way not seen or read before. And since this first volume takes us only through 1981’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” there is so much more Sondheim to explore – and savor.