On Saturday evening, October 13, Barbra Joan Streisand triumphantly concluded a two-night engagement at Brooklyn, New York’s brand-new Barclays Center. The two evenings marked her first public performances in the borough of her birth since she dropped the “a” from Barbara and followed the call of superstardom, first to Manhattan and then to Hollywood. Streisand recalled to the audience of 19,000 that her last time singing in Brooklyn was on a stoop! Still, she serenaded the community with special, lighthearted lyrics set to Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” relishing her hometown comeback. More serious than all the talk of knishes and bialys, however, was Streisand’s deeply emotional performance of a song introduced in the 1967 Broadway musical Hallelujah, Baby!
“Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” was written by Funny Girl composer Jule Styne, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and it translated a central point of Arthur Laurents’ provocative book into song. (Laurents, of course, was another close associate of Streisand’s, having directed her Broadway debut in I Can Get It for You Wholesale. He would later pen The Way We Were for the star.) In the musical, a young black woman harbors dreams of stardom, cognizant that she must be more than superlative to overcome the obstacles society has placed due to the color of her skin. Though Streisand wouldn’t compare her own journey to that of the character in the musical, she found resonance in the lyric, as an artist famously branded as a “perfectionist” and as a performer for whom being simply good is altogether insufficient.
This wasn’t the first time Streisand tackled the song, though. It was originally slated to open 1985’s The Broadway Album, as a mission statement of sorts. That album was a homecoming, too: back to the style of music on which Streisand’s career was launched. An acting as well as singing tour de force, the anthemic “Being Good” simply soars under Streisand’s control. “I’ll be the best or nothing at all,” she defiantly trumpets, as if there were simply no other option. She’s supported at every dynamic turn by the orchestration of Peter Matz, repeating his duties from the original musical. Yet the decision was ultimately made to instead open The Broadway Album with Stephen Sondheim’s dazzling and contemporary “Putting It Together,” with Sondheim having rewritten the lyrics to reflect an artist’s struggles in the music business. “Being Good” was shelved. It’s just been revisited alongside ten other “lost” tracks on Release Me, the first archival collection of Barbra Streisand’s catalogue since the 1991 box set, Just for the Record. Drawing on decades of vaulted recordings, Release Me adds up to one of the most wholly satisfying releases of Streisand’s long career. “Being Good” finally gets to open an album after some 27 years, and it kicks off the album with a burst of drama.
We dive in, after the jump!
A travelogue through the artist’s many periods, Release Me impressively covers every one of Streisand’s transformations: from Broadway leading lady to contemporary pop singer to Hollywood star, and then finally as a grand dame of records and the concert stage. Some of the strongest material here is the most unexpected. Though Streisand never recorded a country-themed album, she attempted Larry Gatlin’s melodic “Try to Win a Friend” for 1977’s Streisand Superman. The song was left unfinished, until now. Producer Fred Mollin has added pedal steel, piano and background vocals to Streisand’s restrained lead vocal, completed in 1977, and all aspects mesh beautifully on this bittersweet paean. Another out-of-left-field treasure is an excursion into bossa nova. Peter Matz scored “Lost in Wonderland,” the witty lyricist Marshall (Once Upon a Mattress) Barer’s tongue-twisting English translation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s beguiling “Antigua.” Streisand’s vocal is light as the breeze.
As the 1970s dawned, Streisand began to embrace the younger crop of songwriters, resulting in two more remarkable tracks here. She began her sometimes-uneasy flirtation with contemporary repertoire in 1968 with some Jimmy Wisner-arranged single sides (including the terrific, as-yet-unreleased on CD “Our Corner of the Night”) and then the album What About Today with offbeat song choices from Lennon and McCartney (“Honey Pie,” “Goodnight”), Paul Simon (“Punky’s Dilemma”) and Jimmy Webb (“Little Tin Soldier”) alongside compositions from theatrical stalwarts Harold Arlen and Martin Charnin, and Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. Streisand finally hit on the perfect formula to explore modern pop sounds with 1971’s Stoney End, produced by Richard Perry. The upbeat album was Streisand’s most successful in five years, and evinced a warm rapport between the singer and the songs of Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and especially Laura Nyro. Two songs on Stoney End were penned by Randy Newman, “Let Me Go” and “I’ll Be Home.” A third was recorded, and finally appears here: a piano-and-voice version of the melancholy “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” with Newman at the piano, accompanying Streisand’s sensitive one-take vocal. Streisand connects with the evocative lyric, no doubt bolstered by Newman’s sympathetic presence.
Just as good is a rendition of Jimmy Webb’s similarly much-recorded “Didn’t We,” intended for an unreleased album entitled The Singer. That project was eventually set aside in favor of Stoney End, but Claus Ogerman’s lovely orchestration makes a perfect marriage with Streisand’s emotive performance. Another unreleased album given the spotlight here is Life Cycle of a Woman. Five songs by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand were recorded for the project in 1973, two of which first appeared on the Just for the Record box. A third, “Mother and Child,” appears here, featuring a duet performance between Streisand and Streisand like her showstopping “One Less Bell to Answer/A House is Not a Home” from Barbra Joan Streisand.)
Rupert Holmes (“Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” The Mystery of Edwin Drood), is equally well-known for his forays into theatre and for his impressive pop music credentials. After producing Streisand’s 1975 Lazy Afternoon and working on 1976’s A Star is Born, Holmes reunited with the singer in 1988 for a follow-up to The Broadway Album. When Back to Broadway was finally released in 1993, though, all of Holmes’ productions were absent. This clearly wasn’t for any lack of quality, as a stunning medley of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” and “The Heather on the Hill” (from Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon, respectively) proves. Theatre music bookends Release Me. Charlie Smalls’ “Home,” from The Wiz, was also left on the discard pile from the original Broadway Album when the choice was made to largely concentrate on classic Broadway sounds. The uplifting pop-soul of “Home” makes a breathtaking fit for Streisand’s vocal acrobatics, and it lends the album a grand finale. It, too, has been overdubbed in 2012, with its original rhythm section (Randy Waldman on piano, Neil Stubenhaus on bass and J.R. Robinson on drums) reuniting to provide a new track. A Hollywood musical is represented with the first-ever release of the studio version of “With One More Look at You,” written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher for A Star is Born.
A second volume of Release Me is already planned. This, of course, is good news, as the eleven songs here are truly just the tip of the iceberg. Rupert Holmes’ Back to Broadway production of “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is promised for a second volume of Release Me, as are two more songs from the abortive Life Cycle of a Woman, “The Smile I Never Smiled” and “Once You’ve Been in Love.” One hopes that the late Marvin Hamlisch, to whom this first volume is dedicated, might appear via 1996’s unreleased “It Doesn’t Get Better Than This.” Another prime candidate for release would be Rupert Holmes’ arrangement of the deliciously clever “Better,” written by Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line collaborator Ed Kleban and recorded by Streisand in 1975. (Streisand was mightily devoted to getting this song right. She had attempted two prior recordings of the song with Richard Perry and Marty Paich in 1973.) Streisand could also reach back to her first year at Columbia Records, when she recorded Harold Arlen and “Yip” Harburg’s “Right as the Rain” for possible release on 45.
Though the relatively brief 11-track sequence of Release Me suggests a project aimed more at casual fans than collectors, the package is as lavish as any deluxe archival reissue. Streisand and her co-producer Jay Landers both provide introductions to the project, and Landers then offers detailed track-by-track liner notes in the 20-page booklet. The album sounds as good as possible thanks to Stephen Marcussen’s remastering; every track has been derived from the original master tapes except for “With One More Look at You,” the multi-track master of which could not be located.
Barbra Streisand’s fiftieth anniversary celebration at Columbia Records is now underway, with a multi-DVD box set already in the pipeline along with the second volume of Release Me. A comprehensive singles collection is long-overdue, as are deluxe editions of her classic albums (The Barbra Streisand Album, anyone? Stoney End?). May all future projects continue to raise the bar for an artist for whom even being great isn’t good enough.
You can order Release Me here!