Eight years ago, Barbra Streisand's "The Broadway Album" project was dogged by skepticism in certain quarters - an atmosphere of doubt that she, Stephen Sondheim and friends skew ered with the perfect opening track, "Putting It Together."
"Look, no one's going to buy it; no one," says one mogul as the music begins."It's not what's selling these days," adds another adviser.
"This is like your old stuff! You've got to appeal to the kids."
"The Broadway Album" zipped to No. 1, sold millions and earned Streisand two more Grammys. Thus she proved that the conventional wisdom needed a tuneup.
Streisand has again dipped into the repertoire from the Great White Way for her lavish 50th album, "Back to Broadway." And it's somewhat ironic that, in the wake of her own success and that of others, notably Natalie Cole, the conventional wisdom now seems to be that the approach is too safe and the "standards" are too familiar.
But the fact is, for her legions of fans, the wait has been quite long enough, and her big-concept perfectionism and that glorious instrument, her extraordinarily versatile voice, deliver enough of the goods to satisfy.
Which is not to say "Back to Broadway" is equal to "The Broadway Album." Unfortunately, it is not. The ambitious 1985 album conveyed a sense of humor and fun that's entirely lacking this time around, and several songs then offered an emotional intimacy that's only spottily achieved here.
"Back to Broadway" presents showstopper after showstopper in a part-pop, part-art style that serves up many pleasures but can occasionally wear out its welcome. And like many another established artist - recent song-sermons by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson come to mind - Streisand seems to now see a record album as a soapbox. Several of the songs, like Sondheim's expanded "Children Will Listen," from "Into the Woods," and a modernized, feminized and occasionally awkward "Luck Be a Lady" (she admits it was meant to be sung by a man) come off more as messages or poses than entertainment.
Others are needlessly overproduced, with vocal and orchestral embellishments too gaudy or grandiose for the songs being performed. Among these are the disenchanting opening track, "Some Enchanted Evening," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," and "With One Look," the weaker of two premieres from Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, "Sunset Boulevard."
Happily, the other "Sunset Boulevard" debut is the poignant "As If We Never Said Goodbye," with Streisand in a musical soliloquy as faded silent cinema star Norma Desmond (remember Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's 1950 film?), returning to a movie set for the first time in years.
"Back to Broadway" also transforms two songs into duets so successfully that listeners might wish she'd taken that course throughout the album. Michael Crawford (her co-star in 1969's "Hello, Dolly!") joins Streisand on "The Music of the Night," from his star-making "Phantom of the Opera." Together they make the mildly menacing Lloyd Webber song into a loving paean to shared trust and creativity. Johnny Mathis is her guest on a medley from "West Side Story," wonderfully interweaving "I Have a Love" and "One Hand, One Heart."
Streisand and her team take a silken, jazzy approach to "Speak Low," the Kurt Weill-Ogden Nash song from "One Touch of Venus"; give a just-right late-night torchy touch to the Gershwins' "The Man I Love," and get more intimate on "I've Never Been in Love Before," from Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls" - although the singer may be asking a lot of us to accept her in such a pristine pose after all this time.
The show closes with the big, and meaningful, "Move On," another recast Sondheim number (it was a duet in "Sunday in the Park With George"), as an anthemic declaration about evolving relationships with an arrangement full of the vocal swoops and soarings that have become signatures of Streisand's big-as-Broadway style.
At least the album ends better than it began.