Songwriting greats Alan and Marilyn Bergman aren’t taking much time to bask in the glow of Barbra Streisand’s widely-praised new “What Matters Most” tribute album of their songs. They’re in the midst of working on a new version of “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.” The Emmy-winning television movie, about a lonely widow who finds love with a postal worker, was transformed into the Broadway musical (ital.) Ballroom (end ital.) in 1978, with songs by the Bergmans and Billy Goldenberg. Now it’s being planned as a Broadway vehicle for Tyne Daly, with revamping including, says Alan, “five or six new songs” — “at least,” adds Marilyn — on which they’re collaborating with Marvin Hamlisch.
“We love to work with Marvin. He’s a great composer and great fun to write with. He’s funny. He’s so enthusiastic,” notes Marilyn.
When will the show get going? “As soon as we’re finished,” says Alan with a laugh.
The Oscar, Emmy and Grammy award-winning couple, who’ve been contributing to the Great American Songbook for more than 50 years, have also been meeting this week with another favorite collaborator, Michel Legrand. He flew in from France to discuss a new project.
And they’re writing songs for a prospective animated film of the children’s book, “Broadway Chicken.” In case you didn’t guess, according to Alan, “It’s about a chicken who becomes a Broadway star.”
MEANWHILE: The Bergmans favorite muse is, of course, Streisand, who recorded dozens of their songs — including such classics as “The Way We Were” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” — before “What Matters Most.”
The new album contains immortal Bergman tunes that Streisand hasn’t recorded before — like “Windmills of Your Mind” and “Nice ‘n’ Easy.” They knew nothing of her plans for the record until “it came up in public. We were at the Motion Picture Academy one night, as part of a little panel discussion that Quincy Jones moderated, that Barbra and Alan and I were doing,” Marilyn recalls. “She said, suddenly, apropos of I don’t know what — ‘My next album is going to be a tribute to you guys.’”
It is, says Marilyn, “thrilling and moving.” And they have a lot to say about Streisand’s treatments of their songs. For example, her rendition of “Nice ‘n Easy,” which they penned for Frank Sinatra, is “much closer to the way I heard the song in my mind when we wrote it. I heard it slow, as a ballad,” Marilyn adds. “I remember being at the Sinatra session. We were surprised he allowed writers to come. We were kids, maybe he thought it would be an education. The first time I heard the arrangement, I thought, ‘Oh! That’s fast!’ I wasn’t so sure — but it became a classic record.
“Somebody said that Sinatra sang about falling in love, and Barbra sang about making love,” she continues. “I think that rings true. I think his version was kind of a sexy romp, and Barbra’s record is very seductive.”
Also surprising to the team is Streisand’s take on “Windmills of Your Mind,” which she bravely opens a capella. She doesn’t need to hide behind orchestrations, points out Alan; “She has a great voice.” And Marilyn adds, “It’s richer. Whatever experience you gather in all your years comes through in your voice, and she’s lived.”