The Song Writers Who Matter Most to Barbra Streisand
August 14, 2011, 6:00am – By Jane Clinton

THEY met her when she was an 18-year-old new kid on the block performing in a tiny club. Wearing an outfit of her own creation (a white blouse and a long herringbone skirt) she opened her mouth, began to sing and brought one woman in the audience to tears.

“I started to cry and I did not stop throughout this little gig in Greenwich Village,” says celebrated lyricist Marilyn Bergman who was with her husband and co-lyricist, Alan Bergman.

“It was awe-inspiring. I had never heard or seen anything like it before. She was so original. She had an original beauty, an original sound. I was overwhelmed.”

Her name? Barbra Streisand. Now 50 years since that first meeting Streisand has recorded 10 of the Bergmans’ songs for a new album, What Matters Most. It will bring the number of their songs she has recorded to 63 and the album is, according to Streisand, a homage to their working relationship and to their friendship. Streisand refers to their lyrics as “like miniature three-act plays…they have a poetic grace that’s completely unique”.

The couple, who have been married for 52 years and working together for 54, in turn see the singer as their greatest inspiration. “She is our muse, she is sometimes a daughter,” says Marilyn. “She is sometimes a sister but always beloved friend. In truth she is a tough person to encapsulate because she has so many facets to her.”

Barbra Streisand has recorded 10 of the Bergmans’ songs for a new album

The Bergmans who write for the stage, film and television are responsible for some of the most memorable lyrics of recent times and have worked with some of the great composers, including Michel Legrand and John Williams.

They put words into the mouth of Frank Sinatra with Nice ’n’ Easy and wrote the classic lines in The Windmills Of Your Mind and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. Then there was The Way We Were from the eponymous film.

They also wrote lyrics for the film Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman and the score for the Oscar-winning Yentl in which Streisand both starred and made her directorial debut. Alongside that Oscar are a clutch of Emmys and Golden Globes.

Streisand says in the sleeve notes for What Matters Most that the Bergmans’ lyrics work so well because the couple are “truly in love”.

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

The Bergmans who are in their 80s, live in Beverly Hills and by a quirk of fate were both born in the same Brooklyn hospital as 69-year-old Streisand.

Alan starts every day with a spot of tennis and then he brings Marilyn breakfast in bed, a system she jokes which is the secret to a happy marriage. Then they pop off to their room in the back of their house to write. “It’s like a tree house and we do that every day. We prefer to get the melody first and then the writing process is like pitching and catching.”

Alan says: “One is the creator and the other is an editor and these roles can be reversed.”

So who do the couple rate as lyricists today? “We really liked Amy Winehouse,” says Marilyn. Alan adds: “Yes she was at the beginnings of being a very important artist and writer.”

There are lots of artists they would like to write for although they will not reveal them. “We don’t want to look like we’re touting for work,” they joke.

Working with Streisand at the studio she calls Grandma’s House (it is a property on her home in Malibu, California, on the shores of the Pacific and gets its name, says Marilyn, because it looks like a granny lives there) continues to be a special experience for the Bergmans.

“She is such a perfectionist and that can be used in a pejorative sense but with her it is such a pleasure,” says Marilyn. “She works so hard to get it right and she does get it right.

“Her voice just seems to get better and better yet she is more critical of her performance than anyone else. She has ears that hear everything.”

Alan and Marilyn are now working on a musical and a film, Broadway Chicken, about a chicken who becomes a Broadway star.

They are a couple in harmony anticipating what the other is about to say. Such an unspoken communication is something they share with Streisand too.

“It is a very curious thing,” says Alan. “Yes,” adds Marilyn, “I think: How does she know that? How does she do that? We really are like a family. It is a very special relationship and we treasure it.”

When they heard the album, What Matters Most, from beginning to end for the first time they admitted it was a “deeply moving experience”.

“It was like listening to a life’s work,” says Marilyn. “Once again there were tears just like that very first gig all those years ago.”

Barbra Streisand’s new album What Matters Most is released on August 22 on Sony Music.