Barbra Streisand's Magnificent 'Encore'

Barbra Streisand is considered one of the greatest female singers of all time not just because of the sound of her voice, but what is behind it: intelligence and depth of understanding.
08/25/2016 09:44 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2017

Barbra Streisand is considered one of the greatest female singers of all time not just because of the sound of her voice, but what is behind it: intelligence and depth of understanding.

After the smashing commercial success of her last studio album, Partners, it would have been so easy to play it safe and follow up with more of the same. The intelligence I mentioned leads her to move in more adventurous directions.

The duets theme stays, but instead of working with more big music stars, the 'actress who sings' had the idea to perform Broadway show tunes with other actors and actresses who sing.

It's a gutsy move. The choice to buck the easy route to commercial success feels ever so slightly reminiscent of Streisand recording The Broadway Album in 1985 after the relative disappointment (not to this writer) of a 1984 pop album called Emotion, and amidst tremendous pushback from her record company.

In one of the greatest cases of 'artistic justice' in pop music history, The Broadway Album became one of the biggest events of Streisand's career, selling seven and a half million copies worldwide to date, and earning Streisand a Grammy for Best Female Vocalist in early 1987.

Encore, subtitled Movie Partners Sing Broadway, is as bold a statement as The Broadway Album and its legacy is likely to match. At least it deserves to. It's more a companion to The Broadway Album than the 1993 sequel, Back to Broadway, and may even be better, if for no other reason than the arrangements are less likely to "date" to a time period.

Yes. Encore - particularly the deluxe version sold exclusively at Target -- is Barbra Streisand's most compelling and powerful work of studio recording artistry since 1985.

While I adore the lush romanticism of recent albums such as A Love Like Ours, The Movie Album and What Matters Most, something else is going on with Encore. A reinvigoration. A different energy. The sense of fun, joy, and play is something Ms. Streisand has not entertained too often since her albums of the 1960s.

On top of that, by some miracle I have yet to figure out (it is not digital trickery, as proven during Streisand's current concert tour) there is even more revitalization to her voice than appeared on Partners. Given what might otherwise logically be expected, I can only shake my head in astonishment.

Consider her interpretation of Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," one of four extra songs on the deluxe version (the version to get, frankly). Here, Streisand expertly glides between gentility, Ella Fitzgerald-esque licks and belting with the same ease, nuance and surprise she always has. (Hereon, other 'deluxe only' tracks are noted with *)

Then there is "Fifty Percent,"* a dramatic piece from the musical Ballroom. Towards the close, and after the orchestra has swelled into the appropriately grand feeling of a ballroom dance, Streisand belts a monstrously delicious final note to match. I can't imagine any fan able to keep from applauding and squealing with delight!

I attribute much of the renewed strength to the material. Streisand has spoken often about her love for songs rooted in a character or treating songs like "little plays with a beginning, middle and end."

Up to now, her singing has always been left to do the acting work on her records. For Encore, spoken dialogue and (occasionally) full on "scenes" are used as a framework. It's a unique and inspired idea, giving the album the feel of an actual Broadway cast recording.

The opener of The Broadway Album ("Putting It Together") contains this lyric: "even when you get some recognition / everything you do you still audition."

Whether the symmetry is intentional or not, it's interesting that the first track and "scene study" on Encore is set at an audition. A piece from the mother of all auditions to boot: A Chorus Line. "At the Ballet" is an audacious selection that immediately justifies the addition of dialogue.

As familiar with A Chorus Line as I am, I'd never considered that certain themes in "At the Ballet" seem tailored to aspects of "the Streisand narrative" through the years: beauty, absent or difficult parents, and to a comical degree (in the spoken set-up), good lighting.

Hearing Streisand navigate the complex pattern of the verse is a real treat, and the harmonic blend between her, Daisy Ridley and Anne Hathaway is tremendous. Additionally, some clever nods to other moments from the late Marvin Hamlisch's score make for a sweet and affectionate tribute.

"Any Moment Now" is another Hamlisch piece; an un-produced song from the original and never-completed version of the musical Smile, written with lyricist Carolyn Leigh. It's one of the biggest breaths of fresh air in Streisand's recent recording output.

The song structure and arrangement fully supports the spoken and unspoken dynamics of a troubled relationship. Reality is interrupted by fantasy, which is then interrupted by reality. One side of the coin is ominous, moody chords, while the other is a burst of life-infusing flourishes that were one of Hamlisch's trademarks.

It's particularly pleasurable to hear Streisand and partner Hugh Jackman luxuriate in the rhythms and light of the latter. However, when the song ends on a question, the lack of resolution lingers and haunts.

In contrast to Streisand's posthumous pairing with Elvis Presley on Partners, the emotion pouring through "Who Can I Turn To?" with the late Anthony Newley is unmistakable. Streisand recently revealed that the two shared a significant connection.

The original stage context of "Who Can I Turn To?," from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, was a character singing to God. Taking that and the Streisand/Newley friendship into consideration, the pairing takes on metaphysical qualities. It's as if Newley has reached across space and time to answer Streisand's "Hello. I miss you." In an album filled with chill inducing, goose-bump moments, this is near the top.

In addition to "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened," a lovely and mischievous Stephen Sondheim softshoe featuring Alec Baldwin as the perfect foil, we are treated to four additional Sondheim songs. All are shining examples of why the world stops when Streisand and Sondheim meet, and masterworks within a masterwork. Have Kleenex nearby.

Since 1994, I've longed for Barbra to record "Loving You," a brief but affectingly potent song sung by the character of Fosca in Sondheim's Passion. As a character, Fosca seemed to fit another aspect of the Streisand "template": a woman whose attractiveness is in question or who experiences unrequited or unfulfilling love.

The end result is even more exceptional than the "aural vision" I'd had all these years. Streisand's timbre as well as her spoken and sung acting choices combined with the riveting voice of Patrick Wilson make "Loving You" one of the most unabashedly emotional moments not only on Encore, but also in Streisand's entire musical career.

A soaring "Take Me To the World," with Antonio Banderas, is nearly as passionate. Banderas perfectly communicates the hesitation and fear of his character while Streisand strikes just the right note of wide-eyed innocence with hers. When her character manages to convince his of what she wants, the shift and opening to possibility becomes apparent in his vocal. It's a superb example of acting and singing craft from both.

Given Streisand's general notion to bring forth "the actress who sings" on Encore, it's fascinating that she chose not to sink her teeth into the standard version of "Not A Day Goes By,"* which is filled with an inherent bitterness and bite. Instead, she has recorded the lesser-known reprise from Act Two of Merrily We Roll Along.

In the reprise, the song goes though a radical shift in point of view and is more a declaration of love that is strengthening. It renders this version distinctly Streisand's but absolutely no less devastating. Her control and phrasing (particularly on the two instances of the lyric "If you do, I'll die") are breathtaking. It's always thrilling to hear Streisand turn a song I thought I knew on its head.

Streisand was able to silence stadiums with "Losing My Mind"* during her recent tour. The album version is equally transfixing and definitive. Again, just when you think a song has been done to death, Streisand manages to breathe new life into it and make it unlike any version heard before. The tremor and verge of tears in Streisand's voice throughout indicates a stellar actress at work playing a character truly near the breaking point. The final moments are shattering.

In a lighter moment on the album, "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better," featuring surprise duet partner Melissa McCarthy, is a real kick with special lyrics written for the two. Pairings with Seth MacFarlane and Chris Pine on "Pure Imagination" and a medley of "I'll Be Seeing You / I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" (respectively), are evocative and captivating. Pine's voice is a particular eye and ear opener. I don't recall his tone being so delectably 'old school' in Into the Woods.

Jamie Foxx helps Streisand close the album with a showstopper to end all showstoppers; an absolutely electrifying "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" from The Sound of Music. An additional compliment I can pay is they've made me care for a warhorse of a song I've never cared for! I'd be very surprised if this duet is not recognized by the Grammys in upcoming nominations.

Speaking of the Grammys, of late Ms. Streisand's work has been nominated only in the 'Traditional Pop Album' category. I believe Encore is worthy of the same 'Album of the Year' nomination accorded to The Broadway Album 30 years ago. It's shocking that Streisand has not won a Grammy since then; now is the time to correct that!

With Encore, Barbra Streisand, with a little help from some friends as well as Co-Producer Walter Afanasieff and Arranger William Ross, reinforces that her talent is truly otherworldly. All should be incredibly proud of this accomplishment. It makes me proud to be a 'Streisand documentarian.'

Carry on, Barbra. I am so grateful you're still showing us all how it's done!

.....and yes. ENCORE!