Barbra Streisand ... and Other Musical Instruments (1973)
Barbra Streisand had not done a television special for CBS since 1968 (A Happening in Central Park). “The reason we didn't do any special for CBS for a long time was because of my running battle with Mike Dann,” Barbra's manager Marty Erlichman explained about Dann—who was senior vice president in charge of programming at CBS. “He never believed in Barbra as a talent. His idea for her was to put her in a special with Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith ... The last special we did was Central Park and it was right before her film career took off. We had it in the can and Mike Dann scheduled it to air on Sept. 12, 1968. Funny Girl was set to open on Sept. 18, 1968 and I begged him to air the special after the movie opened because it would be a more important event for CBS and Barbra. He wouldn't do it and I swore we wouldn't do anything for CBS until Mike Dann was out. When Fred Silverman came in we were ecstatic and we love to work with him. That's another reason we decided to do this special.”
Barbra was also busy with her movie career. In 1972, What's Up Doc? and Up the Sandbox were released. Barbra had also completed filming The Way We Were in 1972, although it would not premiere until Fall 1973.
CBS announced that Barbra would make her return to television in her first special in five years and the sewing company, Singer, would sponsor the show. (One newspaper column reported that Singer would honor Barbra by presenting her with a gold sewing machine!)
For the new special, Barbra would utilize the "one-woman show" format that worked so well in My Name is Barbra and Color Me Barbra. “About five years ago [Barbra] had an idea to do an album where she sang with all sorts of musical instruments from around the world. We never did it, so she thought it would be a great idea for the special,” Erlichman stated.
Barbra's team invited Ray Charles (and his background singers, The Raettes) to join her on the special. Other musical artists joining her were Romeo Berti, a world renowned musical saw player, and Dominic Savage, a child pianist. [Savage played Ryan O' Neal's stepson in Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon. As an adult, Savage has made a name for himself as a documentary film director.] Berti told the press he was delighted to work with Barbra Streisand. “Technically, I admire her perfect pitch, which is amazing. You could never sing with a musical saw without that pitch. She's a magnificent artist who's far more gifted than she knows.”
Producers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion were tempted to relocate from the United States to Great Britian by Sir Lew Grade. The producers were recruited by him to head ATV's Specials program. In turn, the producers had to convince Barbra to produce the show in London at Elstree Studios. Smith told the BJS Music Guide, “the facilities were great. The trip would be fun, the lighting director, John Rook, was brilliant, so [Barbra] came.”
[Note: John Rook also did the lighting for One Voice in 1986].
“We also shot it [in England] because of the unions in the United States. Our music bill alone was $150,000 and the only way to make money on a special is with a repeat. If we had shot it in the U.S. we could not have afforded to repeat it,” Erlichman continued. “Of course there are problems in London, too, because there is no such thing as overtime. I can remember one incident when they had spent three hours lighting Barbra and she had only 23 minutes in which to shoot.”
The show, which cost over $600,000 and took ten weeks to do—a week of rehearsals in New York; two weeks of rehearsals and eight days of taping in London; plus weeks of preparation before that. It was produced by ATV and distributed by ITC.
Husband and wife team Ken and Mitzie Welch, who have written acts for many performers (including Lorna Luft, Barry Manilow, and Carol Burnette), were recruited to handle the show's musical material, themed around a wide array of exotic musicians, instruments, and styles. Their work with Barbra goes back to 1962 on the Garry Moore Show when they arranged "Happy Days Are Here Again" as an ironic ballad for her.
Production began at Elstree Studios in the summer of 1973. “We had to shoot the special in stages,” Marty Erlichman explained, “because everyone was busy with other projects. We rehearsed here and then went to London. We would shoot a few days and then Gary and Dwight or Joe Layton would have to leave because of a prior commitment. When that happened Barbra would rehearse with the choreographer or go over her special material. It was very difficult to work under these conditions and normally everyone connected with the show would never do it the way we did it, but because they all wanted to do it, we just stuck it out and did it that way. Ray Charles was only available on July 26 and 27 so we had to stop what we were doing and do his segment. It was not easy and that's why it took ten weeks, as long as any movie takes, but I think it was worth it.”
Several journalists visited the set to interview Streisand and report on the taping of the show. Barbra, working long hours with her crew, was described as relentless in the articles, when, in fact, she was just trying to get it right. She told one journalist from Cosmopolitan magazine, “Because you’re here I’m not having lunch with the director, the producer. I’m not discussing the shots and angles we’ll be working on for the next seven or eight hours. Yet what goes into those hours is forever, for posterity, that’s my show and a part of my life. But what am I going to get out of an interview? It doesn’t help the work to do an interview.”
With director Dwight Hemion talking to Barbra over a P.A. system from the production box above, the taping of Ray Charles' segment (3 songs) lasted from 8 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. with the crew doing several takes of each song.
According to the Joe Layton papers at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Ray Charles also sang “I Can Make It Through The Days (But Oh Those Lonely Nights)” for the cameras, although it was not used on the show that aired.
For the concert segment of the show, Barbra and her team considered singing the following songs: “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?,” “Better,” “Do Me Wrong,” and “The Way We Were.”
Photo, below: Streisand and the Raettes do a take of “Sweet Inspiration” with Streisand wearing a black satin pantsuit. In the final take which was used, she wore white.
Barbra's associates got into the act for Other Musical Instruments. Joe Layton, who staged Barbra's earlier specials and produced this one, donned Kabuki makeup to appear as a stoic musician during "Glad to be Unhappy." And longtime manager Marty Erlichman made a cameo appearance as the washing machine operator in the final number, "The World is a Concerto." When Barbra hops on top of the machine, she and Marty exchange a warm smile with each other.
Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments debuted on CBS November 2, 1973. Ratings for that week found Musical Instruments at number 35 (Lily Tomlin's special came in at 51). The show attained quite a status amongst Streisand fans. It was not released on home video until 2005 when it finally premiered on DVD—although fans exchanged bootleg videos of the special for years.
Behind the Scenes
Below: Laurence Olivier, filming The Merchant of Venice in the U.K. at the same time, visited Barbra Streisand on the set of her television special.
Below: Two rehearsal photos with Ray Charles.
1974 Emmy Awards
- Best Art Direction or Scenic Design - For a Musical or Variety Single Program of a Series or a Special Program: Brian Bartholomew (art director)
- Best Directing in Comedy-Variety, Variety or Music: Dwight Hemion
- Best Music Direction of a Variety, Music or Dramatic Program: Jack Parnell (music director); Ken Welch (music director); Mitzie Welch (music director)
- Director of the Year - Special: Dwight Hemion
- Musician of the Year: Jack Parnell (musician); Ken Welch (musician); Mitzie Welch (musician)
1974 Emmy Nominations
- Best Writing in Comedy-Variety, Variety or Music: Larry Gelbart, Mitzie Welch, Ken Welch
- Outstanding Comedy-Variety, Variety or Music Special
1974 Directors Guild of America Award
- Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Musical/Variety: Dwight Hemion; Bill Glaze (unit production manager)
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