Back in 1988, Barbra Streisand had a minor pop hit, a tune she recorded with Don Johnson called ”Till I Loved You.” Johnson sang first, a friendly placebo with a harmless, sweet tenor voice. Then Streisand barreled in and blam! Was there someone else singing? She was Johnson’s lover at the time, but vocally she wiped him out.
I kept thinking of that as I listened to Streisand’s latest release, Back to Broadway, on which she overwhelms two duet partners, not to mention the songs she sings. The album — her 50th! — is in theory a return to her musical-comedy roots, and, of course, an echo of her 1985 smash, ”The Broadway Album,” the last Streisand record of any kind, single or album, that went to No. 1. Maybe she’s looking for a lucky charm, because, apart from three numbers by Andrew Lloyd Webber, she echoes the music she sang in 1985, again choosing ”Guys and Dolls,” Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin, and lots of Sondheim; there’s even another ”West Side Story” medley.
But, hey, if another hit were all she wanted, I’d have no problem; what leaves me reeling is a vocal style that seems to aim at nothing less than world domination. ”The Broadway Album” was, by comparison, an innocent romp in Streisand’s old theatrical playground, the work of a supreme singer-actress still unspoiled enough to fall in love with the characters she sings. But this time Streisand turns the star power up so high that she’s the only character in sight. She was always commanding; now she reaches heights of self-involvement that, maybe luckily, no other singer may have ever attained.
For an almost supernatural example, listen while in close harmony with Michael Crawford she softly intones, ”Hard as lightning, soft as candlelight,” a corny line from ”The Music of the Night” (the big tune from Webber’s ”The Phantom of the Opera,” which Crawford starred in). She vaults off the ellipsis, making the tiny word as such a deft and breathlessly precise advertisement for herself that you forget Crawford’s even alive. (Poor lightweight Johnny Mathis, who rashly joins her on the ”West Side Story” selections, is even more thoroughly eclipsed; you can’t focus on him even when he’s singing solo.)
If she can blow a partner in song away with one single syllable, imagine how she roars down the vocal highway alone. At the end of a song, just for instance, she’ll belt out a high note, then crack an unexpected final consonant like a whip, just in case you’d stopped paying attention. As she starts ”I’ve Never Been in Love Before” (a classic ”Guys and Dolls” duet, which she sings alone) she finds a tone of such riveting purity that time all but stops. Later in the song she tops even that when she sings ”So please forgive this helpless haze I’m in,” and turns each syllable into a priceless jewel, mounted in its own distinct, glowing universe.
With power like that, Streisand steamrolls even her orchestra, which has a climax all to itself in ”The Music of the Night” until she starts scatting along. Unlike, say, the great Billie Holiday, who dissolved herself in her music, letting her pain and passion illumine each song from within, Streisand never lets you forget that she’s the one who’s singing.
Her headiest fans won’t care, of course, because she’s giving them exactly what they want: more Barbra per cubic second than they’ve ever heard before. They probably won’t even mind when her jazz improvisations take songs like ”Some Enchanted Evening” pretty far from their Broadway roots. But me, I’ll take ”The Broadway Album,” which was recorded when the lady stood just a few steps further away from the center of Hollywood and Washington power and, maybe because of that, is alive with generous drama and true simplicity.