DIVA TALK: A Sensational Streisand Plus a Chat with Mame's Sandy Duncan

DIVA TALK: A Sensational Streisand Plus a Chat with Mame's Sandy Duncan News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Barbra Streisand in concert
Barbra Streisand in concert Photo by Firooz Zahedi (headshot)

BARBRA STREISAND
Last Saturday I received an invitation that I will probably never be offered again: the chance to attend a Barbra Streisand dress rehearsal at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, PA. Not only would this be the first time I had ever seen the Academy Award-winning actress perform live, but I was also able to bring five people with me to the by-invitation-only event.

Knowing this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I wanted to share the day with some of the people I love most and those who I knew would truly appreciate the experience: my mom, my sister, my sister-in-law, my friend Tod and his mother Joyce. The six of us — some coming from New York, some from New Jersey and one in Pennsylvania — all headed to the 15,000-seat Wachovia Center on Tuesday for the afternoon concert.

The concert was primarily attended by friends and family members of the musicians in the 56-piece orchestra or those working on the concert tour as well as such celebrities as Rob Marshall, Liz Callaway, David Zippel and Donna Karan. And, as we all waited to be let into the theatre on the suitably sunny day, there was true excitement in the air, a feeling that continued to build as we took our seats in the mammoth stadium. Most of the 900 or so attending were seated in the floor section, and my family, friends and I could hardly believe that we were going to have the privilege of enjoying a Barbra Streisand concert from the fourth row.

The set design for the tour, it should be noted, is simple, yet elegant. A few raised pathways with lit handrails encompass the orchestra, and there are three areas where a modest bouquet of roses adorn a small round table and chair.

As the audience anxiously awaited the star's entrance, that aforementioned sense of excitement seemed to transform into a palpable sense of electricity that flowed throughout the arena. At 2 PM the lights dimmed and Richard Jay-Alexander, who, with Streisand, co-directed the concert, made his way onto the stage to welcome the audience. Jay-Alexander joked that Streisand had tired of her "audience of six" and was eager to try out her new show for today's crowd. The original overture to Jule Styne's Funny Girl — the 1964 Broadway musical that garnered its star her second Tony nomination — began the concert and was greeted with an enthusiastic applause, but the sight of Streisand, who, at 64, remains a striking figure, brought the audience to its feet for the first of many times that day.

Streisand began her concert with Richard Maltby and David Shire's "Starting Here, Starting Now," and I have to admit hearing the sound of her voice live — those lush, rich, golden, rounded tones that seem to magically pour out of her — was surprisingly moving. There have been many singers throughout the years who, intentionally or not, have imitated her sound, but when hearing Streisand live, one quickly realizes there is no substitute for the real thing.

After welcoming the animated crowd, Streisand noted that she hadn't performed in Philadelphia for over four decades, not since she filmed her 1965 television special "Color Me Barbra."

"Down with Love" preceded one of the afternoon's highlights, the Academy Award-winning theme song from the 1973 Streisand-Redford film "The Way We Were." There was a gentle hush as Streisand delivered the opening lines, "Memories light the corners of my mind. . .," and I suspect there was nary a dry eye as she finished the Marvin Hamlisch-Alan and Marilyn Bergman tune on a beautiful sustained, almost ethereal high note.

Before belting out a terrific version of the Harold Arlen standard "Come Rain or Come Shine," Streisand explained why teleprompters are a must for her tours. During her monumental 1967 concert in Central Park, she forgot the lyrics to three songs, and that experience was so "frightening and embarrassing" that she was unable to sing in public for nearly 30 years. "When I performed my fundraising concert in 1986," she said, "by then they had invented the teleprompter. . . . Now I have them in case I have a senior moment!"

One of the many things that struck me during the generous, three-hour concert was the warmth that Streisand exudes onstage. And, not only is she tremendously intelligent — evidenced in both her spoken word and her lyrical interpretations —she is also extremely funny, joking throughout the show, often at her own expense. She drew laughs when detailing all the local food she had sampled in Philly, noting "The only thing I like more than American democracy is eating." When she played a wrong note on the piano — during "Ma Premiere Chanson" — her simple "Oh sh**!" was delightfully down-to-earth, and when a loud sneeze from the audience preceded the final note of a song, her quick "God bless you" drew laughs and applause.

"I Finally Found Someone," a song based on the love theme from "The Mirror Has Two Faces," preceded her best-known composition "Evergreen." As Streisand explained that one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing songs has been hearing other people interpret them, the tour's special guests — Il Divo — joined her for the remainder of that song, which explores "the meaning of one love."

The strong-voiced Il Divo — comprising David Miller, Sebastian Izambard, Urs Buhler and Carlos Marin — joked a bit with Streisand, before taking the stage with five solos: "Senza Catene" ("Unchained Melody"), "Passera," "Regresa A Mi" ("Unbreak My Heart"), "Si Tu Me Amas" and the Sinatra classic "My Way"; the latter was dedicated to Streisand.

As Il Divo began singing The Phantom of the Opera's "Music of the Night," Streisand returned to much applause, joining the four men for a gorgeous version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber tune. Whether she's singing solo or with a group, one can't help be impressed by Streisand's innate musicality. As opposed to today's "American Idol"-type singers who sing three notes for every one, Streisand's simple riff here or gentle lick there seem completely organic and add to rather than detract from the melody.

The first half of the evening concluded with several songs from Funny Girl: the extended, full show version of "Don't Rain On My Parade," the bittersweet title song, a powerful medley of "The Music That Makes Me Dance" and "My Man" (which was added to the film) and, of course, one of Streisand's many anthems, "People." The crowd again jumped to its feet as Streisand's voice soared on the song's climax: "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world!"

The concert's Entr'acte featured a portion of the "Funny Girl" movie score; "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever"; music from "The Prince of Tides"; and the "Yentl" ballad, "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" Streisand then reappeared, singing a glorious rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When."

The Grammy winner then had some fun with her audience, answering questions from the crowd [those attending the concerts will have the chance to fill out "Ask Barbra" cards prior to each show] and performing a version of the classic Judy Garland-Streisand duet "Get Happy"/"Happy Days Are Here Again" with a special guest star (I won't ruin the surprise).

Streisand then built Harold Arlen's "When the Sun Comes Out" to a thrilling, full-voiced finale. While discussing her "pride and joy," her son Jason, a piece of music he composed for his mother while she was making "Yentl" was played in the background. A wonderful, poignant medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" and Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" followed.

One of the most welcome surprises of the afternoon was the inclusion of Maury Yeston's "Unusual Way." Streisand's voice was perfectly suited to the beautiful Nine ballad, and her acting of the song was also impeccable. In fact, it made one long to hear what she could do with some of the more current theatre scores.

"Like the Gentle Rain," performed as a bossa nova, was followed by the Bergmans "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," and two early Streisand favorites, "Woman in the Moon" and "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?" followed; the latter was particularly impressive.

Streisand offered the West Side Story anthem "Somewhere" as a "prayer for tolerance, compassion and peace," and was again joined by Il Divo. As the thrilling sound of the five voices and the orchestra — conducted by William Ross — swelled to dramatic effect on that Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim tune, the entire crowd spontaneously rose en masse.

"God, you're a great audience! Can you come back tomorrow?," Streisand quipped before delivering two more songs to the appreciative crowd: "My Shining Hour" and a terrific arrangement of "A Cockeyed Optimist." There was one final encore, but I'll leave that as a surprise.

If I were asked to sum up the afternoon in one word, it would have to be joy. There were tears of joy, joy in people's smiles, joy in watching a performer reclaim the concert stage, joy in sharing this day with my family and friends, and the simple joy of music superbly performed. And, now, Streisand has the chance to spread this joy throughout the U.S. and Canada as she embarks on a two-month tour that will visit such cities as New York, Washington, Toronto, Quebec, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

For more information about Streisand 2006 Tour with Special Guest Il Divo, click here.

SANDY DUNCAN
Sandy Duncan — who remains one of my all-time favorite Roxie Harts in Chicago — is currently taking on a much different role in the musical theatre canon: the free-spirited Mame Dennis in the classic Jerry Herman musical Mame. Duncan is starring in a concert version of the award-winning musical for the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. Directed by Julianne Boyd, the production, which runs through Oct. 15, also boasts Diane J. Findlay as the boozy Vera Charles, Eric Ulloa as the adult Patrick, Mark Jacoby as Beauregard Jackson Picket Burnside and Joyce Chittick as Agnes Gooch.

During a rehearsal break late last week, Duncan — a triple-threat, whose performances on stage and screen have garnered her three Tony nominations (for Canterbury Tales, The Boy Friend and Peter Pan) and two Emmy nominations (for "Roots" and "Funny Face") — spoke with me about her latest stage role. That brief interview follows.

Question: How are rehearsals going so far?
Sandy Duncan: I'm trying to think. [Laughs.] At this point [I'm] in the . . . totally overwhelmed [stage]. I've never seen [Mame] and didn't know the music, so we're trying to figure out how best to do this. It was primarily going to be a reading/concert version, and it's kind of gotten out of hand because now the musical numbers are staged, and we have props. It's just something we have to figure out so that the audience isn't led into an expectation that can't be fulfilled because we're doing [the show] with no set. We start putting down our scripts so often that it starts to be like, "Oh, are they doing the [full] production," and we don't have the [rehearsal] time to do that.

Q: How did this production come about for you?
Duncan: Julie Boyd, the woman who's the artistic director [of the Barrington Stage Company], called and asked if I would do it. It's not a part I've ever wanted to do or pursued, but I thought, "What the hell?" [Laughs.] "Let me take this on, and see if I can bring something to it that maybe had not been done with it before," which is the only reason to do a revival anyway.

Q: What have you discovered about the character of Mame?
Duncan: Not that she's two different human beings, but I think all that artifice that she has, I think she is somebody who's very "on," in terms of persona and how she wants people to perceive her, but then in [other] moments, there's much more reality to her — like with Patrick and with Beau. . . She sort of bares her soul a little bit, and all that arch, histrionic, dramatic thing has to be dropped. That's a character she does. I think if she did that day and night, somebody would shoot her. [Laughs.]

Q: Do you have children?
Duncan: I have two boys, 22 and 23.

Q: I was wondering if the show at all resonates for you with the idea of a child or children leaving the nest.
Duncan: Oh yeah, absolutely. The other day when I was doing "If He Walked Into My Life," I had to go over and sit down at the piano and just bawl my way through it so I could get that out of my system. I just had to sob throughout the entire song, so now I can push that down and sit on it.

Q: What are your sons doing now?
Duncan: One's graduated from N.Y.U., and is an actor and a writer, and my other son is in his second year at Tulane.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Mame?
Duncan: The scenes and the relationship with Patrick, which I think is the most important part of the show. As many musical numbers and lyrics as there are, I think the core of the show is their relationship, so I guess my favorite part of the show is that — establishing that and bringing the warmth to it that certainly Mame has to have. Q: Switching shows, I thought you were one of the best Roxies I've seen. What was that experience like for you?
Duncan: Thank you. [It was] fabulous!

Q: Will you be involved with the tenth-anniversary performance of the show?
Duncan: No, they called . . . [but] I'm busy with [Mame], and [then] I'm working on [a production of] Glass Menagerie. Also, I'm not comfortable with the [one-night events]. . . . You feel like an amateur by the time it's over. . . because there's not enough prep time, and it's like being shot out of a canon. I've finally learned the "no" word. [Laughs.]

Q: You mentioned you're doing The Glass Menagerie, and I was wondering whether you have a preference for doing musicals or plays.
Duncan: I think plays. . . . The female leads in most of these [musicals] are [for] younger [women] or should be, and it starts to feel not age-appropriate. And I don't want [people to say], "Oh look at the old broad. She's still at it. . ." [Laughs.] I like the concentration in plays, I like the internal work, and at this point in my life it just feels better to me than a musical.

Q: You've also toured in The King and I and Anything Goes. Do enjoy touring?
Duncan: I do love working in musicals, and I continue to get work in them; just given the preference, I think I would do plays. But I love being onstage doing a musical. In fact, I enjoy doing musicals more than I enjoy watching them! . . . I'm one of those people that doesn't play show music. It's just a form that I don't enjoy watching. That's weird, isn't it?!

Q: What music do you listen to?
Duncan: Classical. It's larger than life and inspiring. I like rock-n-roll, too, fifties rock-n-roll.

Q: Do you have a favorite Broadway memory?
Duncan: I think one of my favorite moments that I've had is when the wire — way back during Peter Pan — literally got hooked around a light, and they could not lift me into the air. So I stopped the show and said, "You all paid a lot of money to see this flying, so we're going to get it [done]." I had one of the stage guys come on, we got the wire unhooked, and by the time we got up in the air, the audience was just screaming and yelling all through the flight. It was just one of those moments that you couldn't duplicate anywhere, except in theatre. [There was] applauding and yelling the entire flight sequence. That was pretty thrilling.

Q: You also switch back and forth between stage and screen. Do you have a preference?
Duncan: I prefer the stage. Certainly work in television has subsidized my theatre career because it pays so much better than the theatre, but it's not really where my passion is.

Q: What do you like about the stage?
Duncan: That thing between the audience and you, which is very personal and very private. There are even songs that are hard for me to rehearse because they are so intimate and personal in a rehearsal room with the lights on and the people sitting around, I can't do them. And then when I get on the stage, you would think that would be more public, but it's not. . . . That "circle of truth," that secret place between audience and performer is what I love the most about it, and I think that's when the hold on you happens because it's almost an out-of-body experience when you're doing it right. It's kind of religious in feel.

Q: Are you interested in doing new works?
Duncan: Oh yes. I just did a new Lee Blessing play out at the Old Globe. It was called Body of Water. It was a three-character show, and it was kind of complex as a play, and I think he may have gone back to rework it. . . . It was very existential, and people either got on the ride or they didn't. If they were trying to take it literally, it was frustrating, but if you took it in the larger sense of life and existence, it was mind-blowing.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Duncan: I do concerts, again to subsidize theatre. My husband and I do concerts with symphonies and performing arts centers, and that sort of paves your way to taking things that don't always pay so great. I don't have a lot of ambition, to be honest with you. [Laughs.] I never have. I take things as they come along and present themselves. I don't have any game plan. . . . I just roll with the punches. . . . I've never really counted on [the business]. I have a life outside of it that's completely fulfilling, and I'm kinda lazy. I'm just happy sitting at home gardening! [Laughs.]

Q: Do you enjoy working onstage with your husband?
Duncan: I love it. He doesn't do much of it anymore because he got into real estate 15 or so years ago. But when we do these concerts, just to dance with him is amazing.

[Mame — with Sandy Duncan — is playing the Barrington Stage through Oct. 14. For ticket information call (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Tony Award winner Betty Buckley — who will make a New York concert appearance Feb. 10 in the Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series — has four concerts scheduled for the month of October. On Oct. 7 the acclaimed singing actress will perform at Reinberger Chamber Hall in Cleveland, OH. Tickets for that engagement are available by calling (216) 231-1111. On Oct. 13 An Evening with Betty Buckley will be offered at the Hampton Arts in Hampton, VA; reservations can be made by visiting www.hamptonarts.net. Buckley will bring her eclectic repertoire to George Mason University in Fairfax, VA on Oct. 14 (visit www.gmu.edu), and she will perform the following evening, Oct. 15, at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, FL; for tickets to the latter log on to www.mahaffeytheater.com. The end of 2006 will also include a Master Class and concert in Champagne Urbana, IL, at the Krannert Center (Nov. 10 and 11) and an evening at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ (Dec. 2). For more information visit www.bettybuckley.com.

The third annual Broadway Unplugged concert — featuring Broadway stars performing without microphones — will be presented Nov. 13 at Town Hall. Created and hosted by Scott Siegel, the evening will feature tunes from the American musical theatre. Nearly 20 stars will lend their unamplified voices to the one-night-only event. Those performers scheduled to participate include Tony Award winners Sutton Foster, John Lloyd Young, Beth Leavel and Chuck Cooper as well as Marc Kudisch, Euan Morton, Nancy Anderson, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Bill Daugherty, Jeffry Denman, Lisa Howard, Cheyenne Jackson, Douglas Ladnier, Norm Lewis, Liz McCartney, William Michals and Connie Pachl. Show time is 8 PM. Tickets for Broadway Unplugged, priced $25-$75, are currently on sale by calling (212) 307-4100 or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com. Tickets will also be available beginning Oct. 20 at the Town Hall box office.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Sandy Duncan and Mark Jacoby in the Barrington Stage Company's production of <i>Mame</i>
Sandy Duncan and Mark Jacoby in the Barrington Stage Company's production of Mame Photo by Kevin Sprague