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Alan and Marilyn Bergman give Streisand more to sing about

Their longtime bond includes the new album 'What Matters Most.' On it, Barbra Streisand sings 10 Bergman numbers she had not previously performed. The lyricists reflect on their connection with the singer.

August 31, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

Lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman's professional and personal lives have been intertwined with Barbra Streisand's for five decades — from the night they first saw her as a teenager singing in New York to their latest collaboration, the CD "What Matters Most," which features Streisand interpreting 10 of the couple's songs she had not yet performed.

And in between those years, the Emmy-, Grammy-, Oscar- and Tony Award-winning Streisand has performed dozens of their songs, including "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?"; the Oscar-winning title tune of the 1973 Streisand-Robert Redford love story "The Way We Were"; and the songs in Streisand's directorial debut, 1983's "Yentl," which includes the Oscar-nominated "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" and "The Way He Makes Me Feel."

On a recent sunny afternoon, the Bergmans, who have been married since 1958, opened their warm, antique-laden Beverly Hills home to chat about Streisand and their songs. Sitting in the upstairs office where they keep their Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes, the two are unpretentious and welcoming.

They almost didn't go to see Streisand that fateful evening at the Bon Soir in the early 1960s. But composer Jule Styne, who would write the music to Streisand's Broadway triumph, "Funny Girl," insisted.

"We had spent the whole day auditioning girls for the juvenile lead for a show that we were doing that Jule was producing and directing," recalled Marilyn, 81. "After hearing about 50 girl singers, Jule said, 'Come on, we are going downtown. There is a girl singer you have got to hear.' We said, 'Jule, we have been listening to girls sing all day.' But he said, 'Not like this.' He was right."

"As soon as she started to sing, Marilyn started to cry," said Alan, 85.

Once backstage, Marilyn was met by Streisand. "I said, 'Do you know how wonderful you are?'" Though Streisand didn't answer her, Bergman believes Streisand did know "because I thought nobody can be that wonderful and not know exactly what they were doing."

By 1969, the Bergmans and Streisand were good friends. Her first major hit of theirs was the haunting "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," composed by the Bergmans' frequent collaborator Michel Legrand, for Richard Brooks' 1969 drama "The Happy Ending."

"Barbra came over for dinner, and we had just finished the song that day," Alan recalled. "It was on the piano and she passed the piano and saw the title — Michel was staying with us — and she said, 'I like the title, can I hear it?' So we sang it to her and she said, 'Let me hear it again.' She said, 'Let me sing it.' We have on tape the first time she sang it and it's all there, every nuance."

"What Matters Most," which was released Aug. 23, features some well-known Bergman songs including their first Oscar winner, "The Windmills of Your Mind" — which they wrote with Legrand — from 1968's "The Thomas Crown Affair"; the Frank Sinatra hit "Nice 'n' Easy," which they wrote with composer Lew Spence; and "That Face," which Alan Bergman wrote with Spence as an engagement present to Marilyn. Fred Astaire recorded "That Face" on an album and then performed it on a TV special, 1959's "Another Evening With Fred Astaire."

But a lot of the tunes, which mainly were written for film, aren't as well known. Streisand asked the couple to send her a plethora of their songs for consideration on the CD.

"We didn't send her everything," Marilyn said. "We culled through. There were songs we dreamed one day she would sing. There were some she chose and many that didn't make the cut."

One song that did make it is the title tune, a love song they penned with Dave Grusin for Franco Zeffirelli's 1979 version of "The Champ" that Zeffirelli cut out. The same thing happened with "Alone in the World," a tune they wrote with Jerry Goldsmith for the 1990 spy thriller "The Russia House."

"Director Fred Schepisi said, 'I don't want a song at the end,'" Alan said.

A half-century after they first met Streisand, the Bergmans believe that her voice has only become richer. "There is no piece missing," Marilyn said.

There were a lot of tears shed by Marilyn while Streisand was recording "What Matters Most" earlier this year. But Streisand welcomes them. "I sit right outside the recording booth so she can see me cry, because it is the litmus test [of a song] if Marilyn is crying," the lyricist explained with a smile.

susan.king@latimes.com

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