For those who have been waiting for that red-letter day when Barbra Streisand decides to do another Broadway musical, "The Broadway Album" (Columbia 0C40092) will be welcomed as an encouraging sign. Emerging from the thicket of pop and rock music through which she has whacked an erratic path for more than a decade, here she is again singing what used to be called show tunes, before Stephen Sondheim got us all thinking of them as art.
Sondheim is, in fact, the composer/lyricist of choice in the album. Five of the 11 numbers are his, and he wrote the lyrics for two others. For Streisand, he even recast some of the intricate wordplay of "Putting It Together," that exploration of the eternal war between art and commerce from "Sunday in the Park with George." Streisand uses it to express her conflicting feelings about putting together an album -- "sheet by sheet, chart by chart, track by track." The song is preceded by dialogue of Streisand's own imagining, and while it will never win her a Pulitzer, at least she's thinking in dramatic terms.
It was Broadway, of course, that provided her with the two steps it took to get to Hollywood and supercelebrity -- the musicals "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" (in 1962) and "Funny Girl" (1964). Listening to her build "Being Alive" (from "Company") to its defiantly beseeching crescendo, it's obvious that she still retains her old power to galvanize. This is the Streisand who sent "People," "He Touched Me" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" through the roof, and if some choose to look upon that as regression, Broadway buffs can only take heart.
More than half of the numbers reveal Streisand in her full dramatic colors. The voice is clear, the articulation immaculate, the phrasing sure. Starting off with the lilting "Pretty Women" (from "Sweeney Todd"), she segues into a punchy, biting "The Ladies Who Lunch" (from "Company"). Peter Matz's orchestration surrounds her with flashy brass and driving percussion, and it's almost like old times.
In a softer, more plaintive key, she acquits herself beautifully by "Not While I'm Around," that protective ballad that is like an island of sanity in "Sweeney Todd"; manages to make the overexposed "Send in the Clowns" ("A Little Night Music") fresh; and gets away with a heartfelt "If I Loved You" ("Carousel"), although her temperament does not take naturally to the abundant sweetnesses of Rodgers and Hammerstein. A medley of "I Loves You Porgy" and "Porgy, I's Your Woman Now" ("Porgy and Bess") demonstrates that she's always been as much an actress as a singer.
Not all, however, is first-rate. Streisand has a tendency to go for the overproduced and the overwrought -- the musical equivalent, you might say, of wearing too much makeup. Trying for a space-age feel in "Somewhere" ("West Side Story"), she appears to be singing from a distant galaxy, and when she intones "There's a place for us," you're tempted to retort, "Mars, maybe?" She also undertakes a hopelessly hokey medley of "I Have Dreamed," "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "Something Wonderful" ("The King and I") that is riddled with phony exotica.
Such numbers, fortunately in the minority, betray the promise of the album. The essence of the Broadway musical is, after all, its spontaneity. Throwing the electronic wizardry of the recording studio into high gear produces the opposite effect: It robs Streisand of the quality that makes her so unique -- her blazing, knock-'em-dead directness.
If Streisand is going back to her roots, opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa is venturing way out on a limb with "Blue Skies" (London 414 666-1), a collection of standards by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, among others. According to a note on the jacket, these are the numbers she sang in her youth in the nightclubs of New Zealand. Hot spots they couldn't have been if her performance on this misguided album is any indication.
Relying exclusively on her lower, nonoperatic register, shaping her vowels with mournful lugubriousness and never varying the dirge-like pace, she makes every number sound exactly alike. Since the bill of fare includes "Blue Skies," "How High the Moon," "True Love," "Yesterdays," "It Might as Well Be Spring," "Gone With the Wind" and "So in Love" (or "Soooooo in Luuuuuve," as it comes out), this has to be considered an achievement of sorts, although not one that will win Te Kanawa a wide, popular audience.
The thin and predictable orchestrations are by the late Nelson Riddle, who must have given his all to Linda Ronstadt, because there isn't a hint of lush life here. It's plunkety-plunk all the way.