February 15, 2013

An Elegant Portrait of Barbra

by Jim Newsom

When Ann Hampton Callaway performed at the Ferguson Center for the Arts to open the 2005 Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival, she sang with the Christopher Newport University Big Band. When she returns on Sunday, February 24th, she’ll be fronting the Boston Pops. Last time around she stole the festival from some of jazz’s biggest names, wowing the crowd with her sassy humor, lively optimism and incredible vocal range. This time, she’ll focus her abundant talents on songs associated with Barbra Streisand.

“At first I didn’t want to do it,” she said in a recent telephone conversation. “The Boston Pops folks approached me about a year and a half ago because they thought it would be an interesting tribute show. And I really didn’t because I thought if I get compared to Barbra Streisand, it’s inviting disaster. But then I thought if I focus on the songbook and how the songs tell the story of the times we’ve been through, I could find a way of doing it that made sense and didn’t invite comparison.

“I premiered the show with the Boston Pops last May and it was a huge hit. Now we’re being booked all over the place.”

Streisand and her music have meant a lot to Ann Hampton Callaway since childhood:

“The first relationship I had with her was as a listener, growing up with her recordings and watching her films, and being very inspired by her, the singing actress. Then in 1987, I wrote a song for her called ‘At the Same Time.’ But I didn’t know her; I didn’t have any connections with her. Ten years to the date after I wrote that song, she recorded it. That’s because a dear friend of mine knew how much I wanted her to do the song and had a meeting with her producer about an inspirational album that Barbra was doing and said ‘you’ve got to hear my friend Ann Hampton Callaway’s song; I know that she wrote it for Barbra.’

“I met with him and he said, ‘this is great; are you willing to do rewrites?’ And I said ‘absolutely!’ About 150 rewrites later she recorded the song—ten years to the date after I wrote it! I didn’t know until I was researching this show that her album with this song on it, Higher Ground, sold eleven million records.

“She really liked my lyrics so she asked me to write lyrics to a Rolf Lovland melody that I turned into a wedding song (‘I’ve Dreamed of You.’) She recorded it and released it on four of her CDs: Timeless, A Love Like Ours, Ultimate Barbra and Essential Barbra. I’m honored that she feels that this is an important song in her repertoire.

“The final recording was a Christmas song that I wrote called ‘A Christmas Lullaby.’ It was actually written for my nephew who could never go to sleep on Christmas Eve. I thought about all the kids who can’t get to sleep and wrote this little lullaby that she recorded on her second Christmas album. And now I’m writing a duet for her upcoming male duet CD.

“Another fun part of my relationship with Barbra is that I had a chance to write patter for her Timeless concert on the eve of the millennium. I was on the phone with her for an hour and a half. It was an incredible conversation that I had late at night after I got home from the Broadway musical Swing. I was pinching myself—I’ve gotten friendly with many famous people, but she is such an iconic legend that it’s hard not to be intimidated by her.”

Ann Hampton Callaway need not be intimidated by anyone. She’s had a lengthy career highlighted by a Tony nomination for Swing and a slew of Manhattan Cabaret awards. She wrote and sang the TV theme song for The Nanny. And her rich discography showcases her eclectic tastes and vocal versatility. But this Streisand tribute is a labor of love that is perfectly suited to her style and range.

“It’s really kind of daunting to do a show with a living legend in mind,” she said, “but I thought it was great music and it’s interesting to look at her career. So I did my own arrangements—it’s more of a jazz show than some might expect out of a Streisand tribute, but it’s true to me and gives fresh takes on these songs. Opening night with the Boston Pops, I got nine standing ovations.”

And how did she decide what to include from Barbra Streisand’s extensive songbook?

“I have to sing songs that I love and believe in,” she explained. “I focus on songs that I have a strong emotional relationship with in terms of memories, and also different aspects of her personality. I didn’t initially want to sing ‘Evergreen’ but then I came up with a swing version that is fun to sing. ‘A Piece of Sky’ from Yentl has turned out to be one of the most thrilling songs I’ve ever sung, and to me it seems almost autobiographical in terms of Barbra looking at her life.

“I tried to shape an elegant portrait of her. I love the early Barbra—that was the first Barbra Streisand I fell in love with so I feature a lot of that in the show. Those early days when she was passionate and hungry, that’s what hooked me and had an emotional impact on me. I’ve always believed that if a singer does what they believe in and what they’re passionate about, then the audience will feel passionate too.”

“The Streisand Songbook”
The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra
featuring Ann Hampton Callaway
Sunday, February 24 @ 7:00 pm
Ferguson Center for the Arts
Tickets: $71.00 – 131.00
fergusoncenter.cnu.edu; (757) 594-8752

copyright © 2013 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


"Singin' Away the Blues"
PortFolio Weekly
August 29, 2006
A review of Ann's Telarc CD, Blues in the Night.

"Callaway's Return Engagement"
PortFolio Weekly
November 1, 2005
An interview with Ann prior to her Jazz for Hope concert in Norfolk.

"Callaway Captivates at CNU"
PortFolio Weekly
April 19, 2005
A review of her performance at the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival.

"A Passionate Nature"
PortFolio Weekly
April 5, 2005
An interview with Ann prior to her performance at the 2005 Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival.