Thursday, April 27, 2017

LIZ SMITH: The Ladies and Their Music

The “Greatest” stars — Lena and Barbra.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

A Lena Horne Theater? The Ladies of "Anastasia." Happy (Belated) Birthday, Barbra!

“NOW, I’m gonna sing a sad song about an old broad. With money! She falls in love with a young, young stud. Actually, she should have known better. She couldn’t have been so dumb, or she wouldn’t have all that money.

Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music at the Nederlander Theater in 1981.
“Let’s say, she permitted herself to get weak, once in a while. That happens. And let’s say this young, young stud wasn’t always as slick as he was supposed to be. That happens sometimes too. Rarely, but it happens.”

So riffed Lena Horne, as an introduction to the Rodgers and Hart classic “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” during her legendary year long concert stint at the Nederlander Theater in 1981.

Recently, as I was approaching the Nederlander (on 41st Street between 7th and 8th Avenue) to see “War Paint” with press rep Scott Gorenstein, I mused, “You know, I’ll always think of this as ...” and we spoke simultaneously — “The Lena Horne Theater!” We broke up laughing, reminisced about Lena’s great run. I printed that little exchange here, before reviewing the delightful Patti LuPone/Christine Ebersole musical.

Well, we received more than few emails saying that was an idea whose time had come, including this one from a Broadway insider: “Great thought on a Lena Horne Theater. The Nederlander was kind of dumpy before Lena ran for a year and put it on the map. Plus, the August Wilson is the only theater named after an African American. Another would be terrific!”

So, James L. Nederlander and Nick Scandalios — what do you think?
IT LOOKS like a lot of money and effort have been poured into the new Broadway production of “Anastasia” which is based on the animated film of some years ago. With its enormous, colorful, fast-moving screen backdrops and lush costumes, it is dazzling to look at. And this thing really moves! The Broadhurst Theater was packed to the rafters on a Saturday afternoon matinee and it was packed with “Anastasia” fans who cheered and applauded every number they recognized from the movie — and the new ones they didn’t, too. There was many a happily weepy eye as the cast took their final bows.
The two leads — amnesiac Anastasia (Chisty Altomare) and her initially greedy beau/teacher Dimitri (Derek Klena) are mighty attractive and talented. But the show’s true honors fall to Mary Beth Peil as the tormented-by-imposters Dowager Empress and her lively lady-in-waiting (Caroline O’ Connor). Even if you think you don’t care much about whether or not Anastasia really is who she thinks she is — the last of the assassinated Romanovs — you will want to see the performances of Ms. Peil and Ms. O’Connor. One tragic and elegant; one comic and rousing. Both, superb.
ON MONDAY, Barbra Joan Streisand turned 75. The earth did not tremble, gravity was not lost, volcanoes did not erupt, birds did not attack Tippi Hedren, and zombies with iPhones and iPods set to their Streisand playlists didn’t roam the countryside. And shame on all of them, I say!

I watched a few Streisand films on Turner Classic Movies Monday night, re-appreciating, in particular, the shameless romanticism of “The Way We Were.” (This includes one of my favorite Barbra scenes, with Robert Redford. “Look ...” he says after one of their many arguments. Streisand lifting one exquisitely manicured hand goes: “Oh, God, please don’t start a sentence with ‘look.’ It’s always bad news.”) 
Also, I marveled again over the beauty and passion of “Yentl.” And Barbra’s shocking omission by the Academy as a Best Director nominee. I don’t know if TCM showed Vincent Minnelli’s ravishing “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” The movie and especially Barbra’s delicious performance are ripe for re-evaluation. (The less said about Yves Montand, the better.)
So here are a few belated birthday words to celebrate the great Barbra’s three quarters of a century.

If not the “greatest” star — as she so confidently sang in “Funny Girl” — she is right up there in the top five, and is most assuredly the last great transformative star. She changed what the industry found acceptable as leading lady, she didn’t look or sound or behave like anybody else.  She appeared — much like Madonna and Diana Ross — to be a bottomless, brazen well of self-confidence and a sense that she was a star long before she was.  And like the other two, all that much-criticized, ruthless sense of self masked an insecurity and vulnerability she was loath to show. 
Barbra’s life had and has been an often painful quest for self-realization as a woman, and perfection as an artist. I don’t know, despite a warm mellowing in recent years, how successful the former has been (she is still wed to her beautiful goy, James Brolin — living out the plot of several of her most famous films.)  But as an artist, she has achieved perfection, as far as I am concerned.
When Barbra returned to concertizing in 1994 — after almost 20 years of sporadic live appearances — I attended her opening night at Madison Square Garden.  I was not much familiar with Barbra onstage.  She was a movie star to me. (Considering the dearth of her live performing, I was not alone.) She appeared onstage gleaming, sleek as a seal, glamorous. Then she began to sing.  The audience and myself took a collective gasp of pleasure, the voice of the movies and so many albums, still exquisite. (My escort literally burst into happy tears.) There had been the usual behind-the-scenes tales of her demands for this and that, all regarding the show.  But as Barbra took her final bows to an audience that was in a genuine state of euphoria, I thought — if nagging perfectionism results in, well, perfection, she’s right, she’s damn right.  Maybe she is the greatest star.
I saw Barbra onstage last year in her “Back to Brooklyn” stint in ... Brooklyn. She sang.  No political statements, just the pleasure of her company.  The voice has matured, naturally and beautifully. She knows where her power is, and how to savor the low notes and save the high ones for when they are really needed. She has become an even greater artist. 

Does time heal everything? Not at all. Nor do Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, innumerable gold records and records broken in every medium.
Barbra Streisand remains a woman still searching, if not to “find” herself, then to better understand the self she is, and in many ways, always has been. (“It’s taken more years on more analysts’ couches  to sing this song and really mean it,” she declares now, before launching into “On a Clear Day ...”)

Her marriage endures, her devotion of her son Jason is fierce and loving, her politics unabashed and unafraid.
Vital and healthy, she still has time to work and look ahead. And reflect. But reflection is not looking back. Barbra has her eye on the prize, and that prize is being whole for her friends, family and her art. If we approve, she’s okay with that. 

But she’d rather we do the same for ourselves and let her evolve as she wants. She appreciates her fans — and her stardom — more than she did during the feverish height of her career.

Oh, yes, I do hope to see Barbra again, when she plays at Barclays in Brooklyn in May. Who says a “once in a lifetime” experience has to be only once?

Contact Liz here.