Thursday, June 16, 2016

Schulenberg's Page: New York, Part LXIV

Text and Illustrations by ©Bob Schulenberg

Jack Godby
and I met for lunch. He was working with Jack Schlissel and Linda Otto at the David Merrick office and the conversation turned to Barbra, who was having such success in "FUNNY GIRL" at the Wintergarden Theater.

I asked Jack if he'd like to hear what Barbra sounded like at the very beginning and said I'd call Barré (Barry Dennen) who had tapes of her singing, some of which were from before she started at the Bon Soir (from when Barré was forming an act for her). On the tape he accompanied her on the guitar as she sang "A Taste of Honey" and some others. There was also a tape of her performing her act early on at the Bon Soir.
So I called Barré and set it up for us to get together after meeting at The Hip Bagel in the Village.
I hadn't heard the tapes for a long time — even before I'd gone to Paris but the memories all came back to me. It was amazing to hear Barbra so young (18) and yet so accomplished. She had instinctive taste and an astonishing command of her voice.

I had been a piano student for close to 20 years only quitting when I competed as a finalist in a National Federation of Music Clubs competition and didn't win. I noticed that there were some passages in a few of the songs that Barbra treated as if they were the most subtle French art songs or German lieder.

I knew she wasn't aware of much classical music — it was just instinctive. And close to genius!
I asked Barré what he'd thought of her performance in "Funny Girl" and to my surprise he said he hadn't seen it! He said he hadn't wanted to spend the money for it as he was on a tight budget.

I called Barbra and mentioning this, asked if she would arrange a house seat for him. She agreed and so Barré finally went to see "FUNNY GIRL"!
After the show, we went backstage to see Barbra in her dressing room. Elliott (Gould) was there talking with Barbra's mother on the telephone. He told Barbra that her mother wanted to talk to her and Barbra told Elliott to tell her to forget about it — Barbra didn't want to talk to her. At all!

Barbra and her mother.
Barré and Barbra hadn't been in touch with each other for a long time, not since Barbra recorded "Cry Me A River," motivated by her unpleasant breakup with him — so I'd hoped that getting them together might lead to her burying the hatchet and even Barré working with her to develop more unique material.

It was Barré who had suggested she sing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" and the rest of the material that comprised her first Bon Soir success!

He'd also put together the act's concept and acted as director/acting coach for her as well as initially giving her some ideas for her role in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale!" It was such a terrific collaboration and so successful that I'd hoped to see it repeated! He was an extraordinarily intelligent and gifted mentor for her.

It was just a pity that they fell in love with each other.
Backstage, everything was going well (if not warmly). Barbra told Barré she would like to have her tapes, the ones Barré had played for Jack and me. And Barré said no — that they belonged to him!
I don't remember what happened after, but it was not pleasant and any bit of warmth between them that I'd hoped for froze over.

I did remember the time I carried Barré's heavy Ampex tape recorder as Barbra and I walked from his apartment on 9th Street to The Bon Soir on 8th Street. It was not a long distance, but seemed longer due to the fact that I was carrying a 50-pound Ampex tape recorder! And it was during a very cold winter.

Phyllis Diller's act was being recorded for her LP, "Wet Toe In A Hot Socket" and she'd arranged for them to record Barbra since Barbra had access to Barré's Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder.
It was the Christmas season and Barré had gone home to visit his parents in Beverly Hills. His belated return was the reason for their breakup so I'm sure that the whole episode had unhappy memories for Barbra.
At that time I didn't remind him that he hadn't recorded Barbra at The Bon Soir and later I said to Barré that I'd always thought that he'd be a legend and that Barbra would be a very famous cabaret and supper club singer.

Barré answered, "I never wanted to be a legend — just a working actor."

Years later, he was living in London and starring in "CABARET" as the MC. As reference, he'd asked me to go to the German record store in Yorkville and send him some 1930's Vaudeville recordings.
When the film came out I recognized some of Barré's mannerisms that Joel Grey, who'd seen the show in London, had apparently borrowed in his interpretation of the character.

After that, Barré created the role of Pontius Pilate on the recording of "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR" and having been in Norman Jewisson's film production of "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF," he persuaded Jewisson that "SUPERSTAR" would make a great film and recreated the role of Pilate in the film.

A "working actor," indeed!
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