BARBRA OUR 50-YEAR AF­FAIR

Hus­band and wife Alan and Mar­i­lyn Bergman have writ­ten some of great­est songs for some of the great­est singers

The Jewish Chronicle - - Front Page - BY JOHN NATHAN

IT IS pos­si­ble to trace the start of one of the most en­dur­ing and pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ships in the mu­sic in­dus­try back to one night, 50 years ago, at a gig in New York’s Green­wich Vil­lage. In the au­di­ence were Alan and Mar­i­lyn Bergman, two peo­ple who had ahead of them not only stun­ning ca­reers as lyric writers but one of the most suc­cess­ful mar­riages in show­busi­ness. Mar­i­lyn and Alan had al­ready been mar­ried for two years by then, and so it is not their re­la­tion­ship that is the is­sue here, but the one be­tween them and the un­known singer they saw per­form that night — Barbra Streisand.

In the decades since then, Streisand has sung over 50 songs writ­ten by the Bergmans — among them You Don’t Send Me Flow­ers, The Way We Were and the en­tire score for the first film Streisand di­rected, Yentl. And now this month, Streisand pays tribute to her favourite lyri­cists by re­leas­ing What Mat­ters Most, an al­bum de­voted en­tirely to the Bergmans’ work.

“This is not just long pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship” says Mar­i­lyn, speak­ing on the phone from their hom in Berver­ley Hills, “but a deep and last­ing per­sonal one.”

The al­bum con­tains many songs that Streisand has not sung be­fore. Some were com­posed specif­i­cally for oth­ers in mind, in­clud­ing Nice ’n’ Easy, which was writ­ten for Frank Si­na­tra.

“They wanted an easy-go­ing song for Si­na­tra’s al­bum that matched his per­son­al­ity. We could have only writ­ten it for Si­na­tra,” says Alan.

“He made a one-act play out of that song,” adds Mar­i­lyn.

The way Si­na­tra sings it, Nice ’n’ Easy sounds like fore­play. The way Streisand sings it, it has an al­to­gether more ten­der mes­sage about nur­tur­ing a re­la­tion­ship — not just con­sum­mat­ing it. Which is not in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­sid­er­ing that in the notes for her new al­bum Streisand writes that the Bergman’s lyrics work so well be­cause the cou­ple — who are both in their 80s and have been mar­ried for 52 years — are still in love.

“Their spec­tac­u­lar mar­riage gives the lyrics an au­then­tic­ity, mak­ing them both deeply per­sonal and, at the same time, com­pletely uni­ver­sal,” says Streisand.

“You can only write from what you are and what you know. In many in­stances, if we were writ­ing about a re­la­tion­ship, we would have to look at our ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Mar­i­lyn.

Cer­tainly that turned out to be the case with one of the Bergmans’ most pop­u­lar and evoca­tive songs – the lyri­cal and sur­real stream of con­scious­ness that is Wind­mills of Your Mind. In the movie, The Thomas Crown Af­fair, the song soars while on screen Steve McQueen catches ther­mals in his glider. The cre­ative process be­gan straight­for­wardly enough. Di­rec­tor Nor­man Jewi­son showed the en­tire movie to the Bergmans and then spooled back to the glider scene.

“I’d like you to un­der­line the anx­i­ety of McQueen’s char­ac­ter,” said the di­rec­tor. Com­poser Michel Legrand, who would later work with the Bergmans on Yentl, flew in from Paris and stayed with the lyri­cists so that they could work ev­ery wak­ing hour.

“Michel wrote eight melodies,” re­mem­bers Alan.

“Each one was very dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers,” adds Mar­i­lyn. “Each said some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent about what was hap­pen­ing on the screen.”

But the cou­ple re­mem­bered some­thing that di­rec­tor Jewi­son had said as he and his song­writ­ers watched McQueen’s Thomas Crown fly through the air — “it could all come crash­ing down”. And so Mar­i­lyn and Alan knew that the song had to not only paint a por­trait of a smart and trou­bled guy, but de­scribe some­thing to­tally dif­fer­ent from what was on the screen.

“If we had writ­ten a song that said ‘what a lovely day to fly a glider’, what would have been the point?” says Alan.

Af­ter sleep­ing on it, the three de­cided on a melody as dizzy­ing as the loop-the-loops per­formed by Crown in his glider. But the im­ages con­jured by the Bergman’s lyrics came from an en­tirely dif­fer­ent place.

“Like a cir­cle in a spi­ral/Like a wheel within a wheel/Never end­ing or be­gin­ning/On an ever spin­ning reel.”

“When I was seven I had my ton­sils out,” ex­plains Mar­i­lyn. “And as they gave me the ether anaes­thetic I re­mem­ber this cir­cu­lar de­scent into a sleep state. Alan had had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. And that’s how we got the idea to write for Michel’s cir­cu­lar melody.”

So it turns out that Wind­mills is more stream of un­con­scious­ness than con­scious­ness.

The process for com­ing up with the lyrics to Yentl could not have been more dif­fer­ent. Alan and Mar­i­lyn are both Jewish — Brook­lyn born and raised, both born in the same hos­pi­tal in fact. But al­though Alan had been bar­mitzvhed and Mar­i­lyn had al­ways “loved be­ing Jewish”, nei­ther were equipped to write about the at­ti­tudes and tra­di­tions of an Ortho­dox com­mu­nity. So they went to cheder.

“We stud­ied for about a year,” says Alan. “We talked to rab­bis. One was Ortho­dox and the other was Re­form. I think she was the first or sec­ond woman to be or­dained.” The re­sult was yet an­other Academy Award to add to the those won for Wind­mills of Your Mind and The Way We Were. There have been 16 Os­car nom­i­na­tions in all.

Song­writ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions usu­ally take the form of one com­poser and one lyric writer — not one com­poser and two lyri­cists.

“It’s un­usual I know,” says Mar­i­lyn. “Some­one said it’s like three peo­ple mak­ing a baby.”

A few days be­fore this in­ter­view took place, the Berga­mans re­ceived a tele­phone call from one of their old friends and long–time col­lab­o­ra­tors, Tony Bennett. “He called to tell us that Amy Wine­house had died. He was so sad,” says Mar­i­lyn of the 85-year-old Bennett who had re­cently recorded with Wine­house. “He said she was ex­tremely tal­ented,” says Mar­i­lyn. “It was ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble news,” echoes Alan. Work­ing with en­dur­ing per­form­ers such as Streisand and Bennett — and Si­na­tra, Johnny Mathis, Ray CharlesandMichaelFinestein­too,among­manyothers —per­haps the Bergmans have an in­sight of just how much has been lost with the death of Wine­house.

Not that the lyri­cists have fin­ished adding their own con­tri­bu­tion to mu­sic. Just as they have for the past 52 years, they con­tinue the work that has re­sulted in some of the great­est pop­u­lar songs of all time. Per­haps sur­pris­ingly for a hus­band and wife team, it is a process that in­volves no ar­gu­ment, and cer­tainly no cre­ative tantrums. “Maybe oc­ca­sional dis­agree­ment,” says Alan, whose de­scrip­tion of one of the most pro­duc­tive song­writ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions in the world could not be more un­der­stated.

“We just go into a room,” he says. Barbra Streisand’s new al­bum ‘What Mat­ters Most’ is out Au­gust 22 on Sony Mu­sic.Visit www. bar­bras­treisand.com

PHO­TOS: GETTY IM­AGES

Mar­i­lyn and Alan Bergman with Barbra Streisand. Their re­la­tion­ship with her is “a deep, last­ing per­sonal one”, says Mar­i­lyn

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