Barbra Streisand is linked to the musical theater, which is a bit of a mystery as she hasn’t been in a play in over 50 years. Her long and prolific discography, though, is sprinkled with tunes for the Great Way. In 1985 she had one of her greatest recording triumphs with the number 1 hit album, The Broadway Album, and she followed up with a sequel in 1993. Since then, she’s released a string of pop albums, soundtracks, and live albums, but has finally returned “home” so to speak with her 35th studio release, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. Like her last album, Partners, Encore is a collection of duets – this time by actors who sing. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable record with few missteps. Though the concept – Streisand cuing up to the mic with a fellow superstar – feels hackneyed given that she just had a duets album out a couple years ago, she’s collected an impressive group of actors to share the spotlight. Each partner delivers an enjoyable performance, though, she may be accused of cheating a bit when hiring Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman, or the late Anthony Newley, as all three of these guys have had great success on stage, screen, and vinyl. But the thespians less known for their vocal work – Melissa McCarthy, Patrick Wilson, and Chris Pine all acquit themselves admirably.
The song selection is all over the place – a little bit of Sondheim, a touch of Rogers & Hammerstein, a soupcon of Berlin. Her close and departed friend, Marvin Hamlisch is represented by two songs: “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, which Streisand sings with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley; and “Any Moment Now” from Smile. Hamlisch and Streisand were kindred spirits, so it makes sense that the songs show Streisand off at her best: she gets to show off her supple voice – still buttery, still strong, though now flecked with grit – but also gets to act. On “At the Ballet” Streisand trades lines with Hathaway and Ridley, each playing the part of a hopeful hoofer. With “Any Moment Now” Jackman and Streisand play a couple on the verge of a breakup, though each feels neglected by the other. The music is syrupy and the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle, but it’s Broadway, so more is always more. Jackman, who fancies himself a song-and-dance man slips easily into the song, his light voice a good contrast to Streisand’s; her sparring with Hathaway and Ridley also works, though knowing the vast age difference between Streisand and her guests stretches the song’s credibility.
Also successful is the playful rewowrking “Anything You Can Do” as a feminist anthem. Streisand is paired with comedienne Melissa McCarthy, and the two Funny Girls start of as adversaries, but they quickly abandon the song’s original conceit of one-upsmanship, and rework the lyrics as a Girl Power theme. McCarthy is a solid vocalist and the two singers are funny, though the song takes on some unintended poignancy in light of McCarthy’s Ghostbusters pal Leslie Jones’ online harassment. The song is so funny that listeners will remember just how funny Barbra Streisand really is. In fact, it’s too bad that she doesn’t devote a whole album to comic songs – there are lots of standards and Broadway tunes that are hilarious, and it would be a refreshing detour from the more staid and serious songs she usually records. And Alec Baldwin – another accomplished screen comedian – has a fine set of pipes, and personality to spare, and proves to a great foil (I’d love for them to collaborate on that comedy album I proposed).
As with any Streisand duet, the success of the song largely depends on the partner. If it’s a vocal cipher with little-to-no vocal oomph of his/her own, then Streisand has a tendency to drown him/her out – poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, Don Johnson (yup, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson), Bryan Adams, and Josh Groban have all been victims of Streisand’s vocal body slam. So poor Chris Pine just didn’t even have a chance. Despite a respectable showing in Into the Woods, he’s not distinct or assertive enough of a singer. And Antonio Banderas, a solid singer in his own right, also cannot seem to keep up with Streisand’s belting.
But more of than not, Encore works. When Jamie Foxx and Streisand tackle the nearly-operatic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” the album closes on a high note (literally). Though Foxx’s range is naturally limited and Streisand’s has been narrowed with age, there are some subtle key shifts and tone changes that accommodate for that, and the two end up really selling the song.
At 74, Barbra Streisand’s been recording for over 50 years. At this point in her career, when it seems like she’s recorded every song possible, it’s a little difficult to be innovative or cutting edge. The A.V. Club had a feature in which the writers suggested how veteran artists can shake up their later-day recordings – someone suggested that Streisand hook up with Jack White for a total makeover. But as seen on Encore, Streisand is no longer looking to be the envelope-pusher of the 1960s. The album is lush, plump, and luscious – with wall-to-wall orchestra. And Streisand is in fine voice, hitting notes divas a quarter of age would only be able to reach via an elevator. If she’s become predictable, that’s okay – she’s also consistent.