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Barbra Streisand enlists pal Melissa McCarthy, Anne Hathaway and others for Broadway album

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?”

 

On the Web

http://encore.barbrastreisand.com/

Skylight succeeds with a personalized ‘Les Miz’

Les Misérables isn’t exactly traditional holiday fare. But Skylight Music Theatre’s production, which opened Nov. 22, is a true holiday gift — a thrilling night of musical theater.

Few musicals equal Les Miz in blending a strong storyline, a soaring musical score and a compelling cast of characters. No wonder the musical’s return to Broadway in March is being so eagerly anticipated by fans. An astonishing 65 million people worldwide have already seen a stage production of Les Miz, and millions more have seen the film version starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway.

Set in 19th-century France during a time of revolution, the story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. It follows the journey of Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, Valjean is rejected by all except a kind clergyman. The clergyman’s singular kindness makes such a strong impression on Valjean that he is transformed. He vows to spend his life correcting injustice. 

He has his work cut out for him, as there is injustice aplenty in Les Miserables. The young mother Fantine has been abandoned by her lover and must work to pay another family to care for her daughter. Then she’s fired by a factory manager after spurning his sexual advances. On her deathbed, Fantine pours out her heart to Valjean, who has by now become the successful owner of the factory in which she toiled. She fears for her daughter’s future, and Valjean vows to find and raise the girl.

But hot on Valjean’s heels is the police officer Javert, who will spend the rest of his life attempting to put Valjean back behind bars. 

Also part of the plot is a group of young men who vow to liberate Paris from what they see as a corrupt government. Their stirring commitment to freedom is brilliantly realized under director Marie Rhode’s direction. The young fighters literally create a barricade before the audience’s eyes as they deliver a rousing rendition of the anthemic “The People’s Song.” 

Rhode deserves credit for taking Les Miserables to a personal level. Her production depends more on character development than on splashy scenery. She dresses her cast in bland, sand-colored outfits. As the cast sings its way through the opening number “At the End of the Day,” some actors don military uniforms while others put on prison outfits. This makes for a seamless transition to the scene in which Javert first confronts Valjean in the prison yard. 

The cast is uniformly superb, led by Luke Grooms as the escaped convict Jean Valjean, and Andrew Varela as his pursuer Javert. A polished, operatic tenor, Grooms easily masters the challenging score. He is a big man whose physical presence matches his importance to the story. He can lead the production numbers with his booming voice, but he can also sing sweetly and tenderly when offering a prayer.

Equally impressive is Varela. His strong baritone lends Javert his authority. Varela’s every movement is spot-on as well, probably due to his prior engagement as Valjean in Broadway’s Les Miz. He’s also played Javert before — in the 25th-anniversary tour of Les Miz.

Despite her hideous, Goldilocks-style blond wig, Susan Spencer as Fantine does a fine job of delivering the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Melissa Fife shows off a spectacular voice as Eponine. Her unrequited love for the dashing Marius (played by a very good-looking Kevin Massey) is given more prominence than usual in this production. This makes her plight, as well as her death scene in Marius’ arms, even more compelling.

Eponine’s parents, the Thenardiers, do their part to lighten the proceedings. These bawdy, crude and money-grubbing innkeepers are played to the hilt by Eric Mahlum and Rhonda Rae Busch. They give “Master of the House” all the gusto it requires.

Cabot Theatre’s intimacy is its most charming feature, but its small stage is not equipped to handle the set demands for Les Miz. Rhode was able to dodge this problem when directing her former Skylight blockbuster Sound of Music. She never attempted to duplicate the Alps, for instance.

But in Les Miz, once the massive barricade appears, it never really goes away. Even the clever lighting can’t compensate during scenes that contain only one or a few characters.

This is a slight drawback to an otherwise exceptional show that will create memories that linger throughout the holiday season.

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Les Miserables continues in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, through Dec. 29. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or go to www.skylightmusictheatre.org.

Should his and her Oscars be done away with?

Do Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Helen Mirren need affirmative action to snare one of Hollywood’s favorite accessories, an Oscar, Emmy or Screen Actors Guild trophy?

In a society tilting steadily toward gender neutrality, the separate-but-equal awards that divide actors into one camp and actresses into another have the whiff of a moldy anachronism.

True, the Association for Women in Science gives honors to encourage female participation and success in male-dominated fields. But to mark enduring achievements, would its members ever yearn for a Women’s Nobel Prize in physics?

In contests of intellect or artistry, should gender ever matter?

“It’s not like it’s upper body strength,” Gloria Steinem dryly observed of the requirements of acting.

The separate labeling of male and female performers is losing favor in the industry. Actresses often swat the distinction away by calling themselves “actors,” standing shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts.

Usherettes are long gone from movie theater lobbies, after all. And defense officials said Wednesday the Pentagon will be lifting its ban on women in combat.

SAG, which holds its awards ceremony Sunday, edged toward neutrality with its trophy dubbed the Actor, although the guild gives separate honors to best performance by a male actor and by a female actor.

That cracks the door open, but only slightly. Fling it wide so that Daniel Day-Lewis’ majestic performance in “Lincoln” and Jessica Chastain’s steely turn in “Zero Dark Thirty” vie for the grand prize!

“That’s a great idea,” said Mark Andrews, writer-director of the animated film “Brave.” “At the end of the day, we’re all storytellers, and I don’t think when we’re defining a character that the gender is the major defining factor.”

In all other awards-eligible fields, including directing, writing or cinematography, everyone is “going for it,” male and female alike, Andrews said.

That may be progress in theory for performers but not in practice, according to Sally Field, a SAG and Oscar best supporting actress nominee for “Lincoln.”

“If you do that you won’t see any actresses up there (on stage) at all,” she said. “The percentage of roles is so weighted toward actors. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Exactly, concurred Naomi Watts, “The Impossible” best actress SAG and Academy Award nominee.

“There’s so much competition in life and I do think we are different,” she said. “Yes, we should be able to have the same things as much as possible … (but) life’s a battle already and there’s so many great roles written for men. Women are definitely at a disadvantage when it comes to volume.”

Rapper Nicki Minaj, who’s considering launching an acting career, has a pragmatic take on the issue.

“You see all those divas in the audience looking so pretty, and they all want to beat each other out,” she said. “It’s entertainment.”

Hathaway, in the running for SAG and Oscar supporting actress honors for “Les Miserables,” considers the gender split “an awesome question worthy of an awesome debate.”

“Can I conceive of a world where performance becomes a genderless concept? Absolutely. Do I think it’s going to happen anytime soon? No,” she said.

As Fields pointed out, the bedrock challenge is that women get fewer substantive roles than men. Ironically, that’s obscured by the artificial parity on stage each year at awards shows. Five women compete, five men compete, two winners are crowned.

So what’s the problem? A quick numbers check makes it clear: Females comprised about a third of the characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

This, despite the fact women make up slightly more than half of the U.S. population and, according to the center’s previous research, the finding isn’t an anomaly.

In this context, feminist leader Steinem sees legitimate reason to retain separate acting awards. When two unequal groups are combined it’s the less-powerful one that loses, she said, as when 20th-century U.S. school desegregation lead to mass layoffs of black principals and administrators.

Tom O’Neil, editor of the Gold Derby awards prediction site, said strong forces are arrayed against any such change in Hollywood.

Awards shows routinely try to add celebrity-driven categories, not drop them, to increase a show’s “glamor and glitz” quotient, he said, as well as mask the industry’s unequal treatment of women.

“It’s criminal,” he said, bluntly.

In the behind-the-scenes film and TV categories in which the sexes compete, women rarely make it on stage at awards ceremonies. The Oscars started in 1929, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the first woman, Kathryn Bigelow, was honored as best director (for “The Hurt Locker”). Statistics again provide clarity: Women made up a paltry 9 percent of the directors on 2012’s top-grossing films, a new San Diego State University study found.

Let’s give two-time Oscar winner Field the last word in this debate.

Actresses “should be in their own category because they ARE in their own category,” she said. “They face their own specific kind of difficulties surviving in this business that actors, bless their hearts, don’t face.”

Anne Hathaway shears her hair, and shares the story of her best year ever

Newly married Anne Hathaway, 30, looks stunning in a black turtleneck sweater and white flared trousers. Her cropped hair, which was shorn for her role in the film version of “Les Misérables,” suits her. She’s doing interviews to promote the film, which critics say is likely to earn her another Oscar nomination,

Hathaway is glowing. She married Adam Shulman in September, after recovering from a disastrous affair with the Italian businessman Rafaelo Folieri. He was convicted of wire fraud and served time in jail.

Now, she says, Hathaway is having the best year of her life.

You look stunning with short hair.

Thank you. It is what it is for the time being. When it was first cut, as it was growing in, there was a moment where it was about an inch long around and it was this kind of sweet Mia Farrow thing that I really liked. Then it was kind of awkward for a few months, and this is the first cut that I’ve had since then that I am happy with, but honestly, I don’t think about it that much, it’s just kind of my hair at the moment.

Were the Friday nights at Russell Crowe’s hotel sing-a-longs real? Everyone keeps talking about them.

Oh, yeah, they were so real, and it wasn’t a hotel but a cottage he had on the hotel grounds, so it was just kind of homey and very cozy. He would have us over, he would make everyone else steaks and then make fun of me for being a vegan (laughs). But he did make me a very nice carrot salad, so I had that going for me. And then after dinner we would all move into kind of another room and someone would start playing the piano and we would usually all start with singing “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen song. Everybody would take a verse and it would kind of just relax everyone and get everyone singing. It was a way of getting some of the people who were maybe a little shy out of their shells.

People say that you are every girl’s BFF.

Nice, that’s cool, I love everybody (laughs)! So I am glad to hear that.

Is it difficult to maintain those relationships?

I have the most wonderful, wonderful friendships, especially with my girlfriends, my group of friends from high school. We are all still friends and we get together every few months and have dinner together, and we are all still very up to date with each other’s lives. And my group of friends from college, which includes men and women.

How many bridesmaids did you have?

Seven. I have a lot of friends (laughs). Some of my friendships date back to like the day I was born, and most of my bridesmaids I’ve been best friends with for 12 years. We’ve all grown up alongside each other and helped each other grow and rooted for each other and held out faith for each other when we stumbled. I know they have for me.

Does it feel different being married?

It does, in a way that I didn’t realize that I was aching for.

This is a huge year for you and you will most likely earn another Oscar nomination.

Thank you for saying that, I hope that that comes true. We will find out in a few weeks if I am even in the running for it. And I can say with absolute assurance that 2012 has been the best and greatest year of my life.

What kind of mother do you think you’ll be one day?

Well, a cool one (laughs) – a stylish one, all that stuff. I just want to be one that they love, I just want to be their guide towards being good people. And I’ve wanted to be a mom since I was 16.

Do you think it would be hard to say no? Being a good mom also means you have to say no.

Oh yeah, definitely, yes, of course, I was told no many times in my life, it’s a very healthy thing.

You are often compared to Audrey Hepburn.

I know. I think everyone is on glue (laughs).

What about the latest comparison to Liza Minnelli?

I’m compared to Liza Minnelli? Well, she is certainly a bucket full of talent. Wow, that’s very flattering. Thank you. She’s also just the nicest lady, she’s so sweet.

This movie is about passionate love. Do you believe in love at first sight?

I think that I believe in soul mates, I believe in soul recognition, but love at first sight, I think that it doesn’t always pan out and I’m not sure that I believe in the one at first sight. … I do believe that our souls recognize each other on a deeper level than we are conscious of.

How did you celebrate your 30th birthday?

I threw a costume party. I am on the board of the Public Theater, so I asked them to let me use Joe’s Pub and I screened the movie “Auntie Mame” with Rosalind Russell and so we all dressed up as characters from the show and I got drunk and danced with my friends (laughs).

How do you usually celebrate New Year’s?

It’s different. I don’t have a typical way of celebrating it, it’s just wherever my life is at. A few years ago I was at a wedding, sometimes I am with friends, this year I am going to be with friends.

Can you talk about the first time you saw “Les Mis”?

The first time I saw “Les Mis,” I was seven years old and my mother was in it playing the factory girl, and different members of the ensemble. I remember that pretty well, but the first time I really remember connecting with “Les Mis” was when I got to see my mother perform the role of Fantine.

How much did you want this role?

A whole lot. I wanted to be involved in the film because my mother played the part, I always kind of thought that this is her role and untouchable, so I was very familiar with all the other parts. I actually never considered singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” but when I found out that that was the only role that I was up for I just thought, “OK great, then I want to play Fantine” (laughs).

Was it easy going from Catwoman to Fantine?

I found them to be more related than I initially thought they would be. They are both warriors; they are both incredibly strong and all of the physical training that I had to do to play Selena Kyle translated into this and it made me much stronger mentally. It made me much more disciplined and a much harder worker. I needed all of that to play Fantine.

You had a musical sequence with Hugh Jackman three years ago at the Academy Awards. Was that a seed for this project or was it unrelated?

I mean I think it can’t help but be related now. I mean, it’s just that it put it out there into the universe that Hugh and I wanted to do something musical together. We’ve been looking for something since then and of course the project that arose had nothing to do with either of us, it just sort of happened and we happened to get the parts together and I am thrilled. I want to do more, that’s the thing about Hugh Jackman, just you get a taste and you just want more and more and more.

You have come a long way from “The Devil Wears Prada” to here and your roles are getting more serious. What have you learned?

Yeah (laughs), I don’t know where to begin. What have I learned? My only regret from “The Devil Wears Prada” was, I felt so insecure being in the company of the actors I was in, that I didn’t let myself enjoy the experience. I learned from that experience that you need to fight through that feeling, you need to take stock of where you are at and even if you don’t know that you’ve deserved it or earned it, enjoy it.

What was your area of study in college?

When I was at school, I focused on English literature and romantic poetry.

Was your husband on the set with you when you shot this film?

My husband and I, we had worked it out that I was going to do the first part by myself because he has a job, he has a life, he can’t just drop everything to be with me every second, so we planned it that he could only spend a certain amount of time with me throughout the entire shoot. So in the beginning, we were going to be apart and then he was going to come and stay with me when I had to do the weight loss, because I would be so depleted. It was about three days into the weight loss that I realized I was going to have to ask him if he didn’t mind me being by myself because he was making me so happy (laughs). And I was having way too much fun (laughs), and I said, “I really need to be a bit more miserable actually,” and he went home and I crawled inside the misery of the character just fine without him.

How does it feel to call him your husband instead of boyfriend?

I’m so super into it. I say the word way too much, I like saying it. It feels wonderful and natural and still like very delicious.

 

Hooper’s ‘Les Miserables’ is relentless

Tom Hooper’s extravaganza – big-screen telling of the beloved musical “Les Miserables” – is as relentlessly driven as the ruthless Inspector Javert himself. It simply will not let up until you’ve Felt Something – powerfully and repeatedly – until you’ve touched the grime and smelled the squalor and cried a few tears of your own.

It is enormous and sprawling and not the slightest bit subtle.

At the same time, it’s hard not to admire the ambition that drives such an approach, as well as Hooper’s efforts to combine a rousing, old-fashioned musical tale with contemporary and immediate aesthetics. There’s a lot of hand-held camerawork here, a lot of rushing and swooping through the crowded, volatile slums of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century France.

Two years after the release of his inspiring, crowd-pleasing “The King’s Speech,” winner of four Academy Awards including best picture, Hooper has vastly expanded his scope but also jettisoned all remnants of restraint.

But he also does something clever in asking his actors to sing live on camera, rather than having them record their vocals in a booth somewhere as is the norm, and for shooting the big numbers in single takes. The intimacy can be uncomfortable at times and that closeness highlights self-indulgent tendencies, but the meaning behind lyrics which have become so well-known shines through anew. You’d probably heard “I Dreamed a Dream,” the plaintive ballad of the doomed prostitute Fantine, sung countless times even before Susan Boyle unfortunately popularized it again in 2009. An emaciated and shorn Anne Hathaway finds fresh pain and regret in those words because her rendition is choked with sobs, because it’s not perfect.

That’s definitely part of the fascination of this version of “Les Miserables”: seeing how these A-list stars handle the demands of near-constant singing. Hugh Jackman, as the hero and former prisoner Jean Valjean, is a musical theatre veteran and seems totally in command (although the higher part of his register gets a bit nasal and strained). Amanda Seyfried, as Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, whom Jean Valjean adopts, had already proven she can sing in “Mamma Mia!” but hits some freakishly high notes here – which isn’t always a good thing. Eddie Redmayne is a lovely surprise as the love-struck revolutionary Marius. And of course, Samantha Barks gives an effortless performance as the lonely and doomed Eponine – everyone here is doomed, it’s “Les Miserables” – a role she’d performed on the London stage.

And then there’s Russell Crowe as the obsessed lawman Javert, who has pursued Jean Valjean for decades for breaking his parole and insists he’s still a dangerous man, despite the pious and prosperous life Valjean has forged. Although Crowe has sung in rock bands for years, he’s vocally overmatched here, which strips the character of the menace that defines him. Seeing him sing opposite Jackman makes you wish you could watch these same actors having these same conversations with, like, actual words. But again, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort, the risk it required to take on the role.

For the uninitiated, Javert hunts for Valjean against the backdrop of the Paris Uprising of 1832. Adorable street urchins, sassy prostitutes and virile subversives band together to build barricades, and to sing on top of them, until they are gunned down by French troops. The adorably smitten Cosette and Marius wonder whether they’ll ever see each other again. Thieving innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, garishly over-the-top even by the characters’ standards) wonder when their next unsuspecting victim will come along. And Jean Valjean wonders whether he’ll ever truly be free.

How you feel walking out of this film two and a half hours later will depend a great deal on what you brought into it going in. Maybe you listened to the soundtrack fanatically in high school and still know all the words to “On My Own.” Perhaps you were thrilled to see the show on stage during a vacation to New York (and there’s a nice little cameo from Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from the London and Broadway productions). You will probably be in far better shape than someone coming into this cold.

You may even cry when key characters die, even though you know full well what fate awaits them. There’s no shame in that – we’re all friends here.

On the Web…

http://www.lesmiserablesfilm.com

Anne Hathaway’s sale of wedding photos to benefit marriage equality campaign

Actress Anne Hathaway plans to donate the proceeds from the sale of the photographs of her and Adam Shulman’s wedding to nonprofits fighting for marriage equality.

One such recipient will be the Freedom to Marry.

Freedom to Marry’s Adam Polaski told The Advocate, “Hathaway is doing her part to ensure that same-sex couples across the country can enjoy a fairytale wedding like hers; this week, she announced that she’ll be donating some of the sales from her wedding photographs to non-profits advocating for marriage for same-sex couples, including Freedom to Marry.”

Hathaway has a gay brother and she says she’s an advocate for LGBT equality. In 2008, she received the Ally Award from the Human Rights Campaign.

At that time, she said, “I don’t consider myself just an ally to the LGBT community, I consider myself your family. And so, I’m doing what we should all do with our families — I’m loving you, I support you, I completely accept you as you are, as I hope you do me, and if anyone ever tries to hurt you, I’m going to give them hell.”