July 10, 2021
In Musical Homage, Ann Hampton Callaway Channels Barbra Streisand
John Amodeo READ TIME: 9 MIN.
Concert and recording artist Ann Hampton Callaway has risen over the past four decades to become one of the most renowned interpreters of American song, from pop, to jazz to Broadway. A 15-time MAC Award Winner and Tony Award nominee (for her performance in "Swing"), Callaway is also a prolific composer, including having written the theme song for the television show, "The Nanny," on which Callaway, along with her sister Liz, sings.
Cabaret Scenes magazine quipped, "Is there anything she can't do? Her impeccable intonation and perfect pitch take each song to untold heights. Her dynamism is contagious." While Stephen Holden of the New York Times declared, "For sheer vocal beauty, no contemporary singer matches Ms. Callaway."
Callaway has created many shows built around leading women of song, including tributes to Sarah Vaughan, with whom she is often compared, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Linda Ronstadt, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Music lovers from Boston to Provincetown will have a chance to revel in the latter when Callaway performs "The Streisand Songbook" at The Music Room, in West Yarmouth, this Tuesday, July 13. Edge had a chance to catch up with Callaway from her home in Tucson, AZ.
EDGE: You introduced "The Streisand Songbook" in 2012. For those who may have seen the show before, has the show evolved at all over the years?
Ann Hampton Callaway: I premiered "The Streisand Songbook" with Boston Pops and Keith Lockhart. I worked with some of Barbra's people on the orchestrations. Alan Bergman was there, and WGBH Radio was recording and broadcasting live, and I had never performed the show before. I walked out there cold and sang it, and there were eight or nine standing ovations.
This will be my first time doing this as a one woman show, accompanying myself at the piano. Having done all my [virtual] shows by myself in the past 16 months has really made me a better pianist.
I usually do this as a Symphony piece or with a quartet. But because this is just me at the piano, I'm performing songs I've never played before, songs that would work better with just voice and piano. I also realized that even with me at the piano, I can sing "Don't Rain on My Parade," and play it, and ACT it! One of the songs I'm doing Tuesday is "The Way We Were." In my Symphony show, I do a beautiful arrangement done by Alan Bergman, but now I have to do it with just me playing the piano, so it's a new "The Way We Were." Songs become new because we become new. When you can do something real from yourself and nothing gets in the way of your heart, it becomes fresh and new.
I will also perform my favorite Streisand-esque hit song, where the audience helps me write the song [using random words shouted out by audience members woven into a completely improvised lyric sung to an improved melody.].
There are several songs, including some stuff from the Broadway album, that weren't in my Symphony show. For those who may have seen me do this show before, some of the older standards will be new to their ears. When Barbra got her first recording contract, she demanded a final say on all the material, and that continued throughout her career, which means she has five decades of amazing recordings to choose from. She's been a good friend to the Great American Songbook.
The story telling will be a little looser than the Symphony shows. I've gotten to know Barbra more over the years, so there are more stories. And since I premiered the show, the world has gone through many changes, so the songs now take on a different resonance. Like when I sing "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world," that means something different now to people who haven't' hugged their friends or family in over a year.
EDGE: In 1987 you wrote the searing anthem "At the Same Time," purportedly with Streisand in mind. How did it come about that, in 1997, 10 years later to the day, Streisand would actual release a recording of it?
Ann Hampton Callaway: Someday I'll write a whole essay about it, because it is a very thick plot of attempts. But in the final attempt, Barbra's [half-] sister Roslyn Kind sang the song at the MAC Awards, and Amanda McBroom and I were sitting together because we were nominated in the same category (she won). The next day Amanda went to a recording session with many recording executives, including Jay Landers, who was involved in Barbra's career and her recordings. Amanda was there to sell songs, and they asked for some new ones, and she didn't have any, but she recommended my song.
So, then I went to this meeting with Jay. I played him the song. He said, "This is really good for Barbra, but how would you feel about rewriting it?" Never mind that it had already been sung by Liza Minelli and Patti LuPone. After many attempts, I couldn't get it right, so I asked Jay if I could speak with Barbra directly. Her people called me while I was on the phone with my dad, and I said "Dad, can we talk later? Barbra Streisand is on the line." Literally, no one intimidates me except Barbra Streisand. When I spoke to her, I asked her what she wanted with the song, and she said [imitating Streisand's nasal intonations perfectly], "I want the song to be really simple, but profound." I asked her what she meant by that? And she said, "The lyric should be simple enough to be understood when I sing the first verse, then let me play with it in the second verse while people have already got the song's meaning." That advice gave me a good understanding from then on how to write lyrics.
EDGE: A year later in 1998, you wrote "I've Dreamed of You" for Barbra to sing to James Brolin at their wedding? How did that come about?
Ann Hampton Callaway: [Norwegian composer] Rolf Løvland ("You Raise Me Up") had previously written a melody that Barbra loved, and she wanted a song with lyrics to that melody. Through Jay Landers, she let me know she had liked the lyrics to "At the Same Time," and I was so touched, because she knows the Bergman's and so many other lyricists she could have called. So, I wrote a lyric called "Heartstrings," which she didn't like. I was living in Croton-on-Hudson then, and I had just visited my mother, who was recovering from an illness. On the drive home from her place, I went to the Chart House on the Hudson River to celebrate that my mother was well, and I had just read about Barbra and her relationship with James, and I thought, let me write the song now, here, and two white wine spritzers later, I had my first draft.
I sent it to Jay, and he said, "Ann this is very Bergmanesque," and I was very flattered. Jay asked me to send Barbra the song for a party she was giving, and I come to find [after the fact] the party was her wedding. What I had sent her was a recording of me singing the song and playing the accompaniment, but what she really wanted was just the piano track so she could sing it. Right after mailing the recording to her, I had left town to go on a spiritual retreat and was incommunicado while communing with spiritual healers. Having not been able to reach me, Jay Landers overnight mailed the recording to Irwin Fisch, a composer/arranger and performer who is also a recording engineer, who was able to separate the vocal track from the piano track the day before the wedding. But he was on a different coast than Barbra, so how to get this to her in time? Audiofaxing had just been invented, and Fisch was able to audiofax the recording to her record company who then messaged the final version to Barbra's home the day before the wedding. I came back from my retreat to a hundred manic messages, then finally heard from Jay that Barbra sang the song at her wedding. In People magazine, there was a picture of her at her wedding holding the lyric sheet and that was my lyric sheet! Marvin Hamlisch said it was a very beautiful moment.
In my career, I've had a lot of almosts, and a lot of slow, slow progress, then something like that happens. This year, we are finally releasing my first album of all of my own recordings, "Look for the Love," which is the title of the first single that we put out in February and Jay said he thought the title song might be perfect for Barbra's next CD. We'll see what happens.
EDGE: Many years ago, during one of our first interviews, you listed Streisand as one of your strong influences growing up. I asked you why, and you said "Because she sang every song as if she were saying 'If I don't sing this song, I don't know what I will do.'" How does that ethic inform your performances?
Ann Hampton Callaway: One of the things it informs heavily is the songs I choose to perform and to write. If I don't feel passionate about the song, then why. I think, "Oh now I get to sing this song! Now I get to tell this story!" I get to enter the world of the song. The stakes are heightened by what's going on in my life or in the world, or just in the moment. I have a whole new plot going through my head. That sense of urgency is a through-line for me. Each performance is a moment of discovery: the first time you realize you are in love, the first time you learn you lost someone, the first time you understand the meaning of something, the first time you realize you get to marry the person you love. It's my job to be alive in the song. If you don't know how to do that, you are missing some of the gold that can be mined in the songs. And what a role model Barbra was for that.
EDGE: Are you still in touch with Ms. Streisand?
Ann Hampton Callaway: [In 2013,] Richard Jay Alexander asked me to appear at the Chaplin Awards, with 600 celebrities, like Katie Couric, James Brolin, Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, to watch Barbra win an award. I was sitting with Katie Couric, and they presented clips of Barbra's films, and I was asked to perform an improv just as dinner was put down. Nobody was going to care about my improv, they wanted to eat. Per usual, I asked people to give me words I should use in the song. As I was doing that, they were showing a clip from "The Way We Were," and as I asked Barbra for her word, she put her hand on my cheek exactly the way she had put her hand on Robert Redford's cheek in that very scene. Kari [Ann's wife] leaned over to Katie Couric and said, "Oh my God, she's Hubbelling my wife!"
EDGE: Any parting words?
Ann Hampton Callaway: I hope some of the music lovers in Provincetown will come down to the show. It's a very gay-friendly show Most of the gay community embraces Streisand, don't you think? (she says with a wink). It's Bear Week in Provincetown that week. Even the bears might like Streisand.
Ann Hampton Callaway performs "The Streisand Songbook" on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, 8 PM at The Music Room Gallery and Wine Bar, 541 Main Street, West Yarmouth, MA 02673. Tickets $45-$125. For reservations call 508.694.6125 or visit https://musicroomcapecodtickets.com/events/ann-hampton-callaway-07-13-21/
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.