The Music Never Ends:
Michel Legrand Story (2003)
Barbra Streisand recorded an exclusive interview at her home for program 5 in BBC Radio 2's current series "The Michel Legrand Story" which aired May 2, 2003 at 10:00 pm GMT. Presented by veteran broadcaster David Jacobs, this six-part series was featured on the weekly half-hour program "The Music Never Ends."
In the May 2 program Yentl is the main subject, discussed at length by Barbra, Legrand, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, and recording engineer Keith Grant in separate interviews. It's interesting to note that each song's music was composed before the Bergmans wrote lyrics, except for "This Is One Of Those Moments" when lyrics preceded the very quickly written melody. Generous excerpts from several songs are played, "A Piece of Sky" concluding the show. Grant explains that 4 grand pianos and a 72-piece orchestra assembled for this momentous recording. A look back at the often overlooked Je m'appelle Barbra is included in the show, with album producer Ettore Stratta, Legrand, and Streisand remembering those days. We hear "Ma Première Chanson," which is rarely played on radio. Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, the unfinished early-'70s concept album, is also discussed and heard (title song and "Can You Tell The Moment"). Perhaps Michel Legrand will collaborate with Barbra again soon.
Listen to an excerpt below:
Transcribed by Matt Howe:
Michel Legrand: Bonjour, I’m Michel Legrand. Sometimes, you know, singers they want to get married to my music. Sometimes it help them, sometimes it destroy them. It’s a risk.
Announcer: The Music Never Ends: The Michel Legrand Story as told by David Jacobs.
David Jacobs: Hello there, in this series I’m telling the story of a remarkable man and his music: The multi Oscar-winning composer, pianist, performer and arranger Michel Legrand. Now aged 71 he has worked with Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Maurice Chevalier and Lena Horn. But tonight we focus on the most enduring collaboration of his career: Legrand and Barbra Streisand.
Michel Legrand: Sometimes she’s impossible, very demanding. But when she fights it’s always for the good. When she’s at home with people of her – not caliber or stature but attitude – she’s a little girl.
[music cue: “Once Upon A Summertime” from Je M’Appelle Barbra]
David Jacobs: Michel Legrand is one of the most successful screen composers of his generation and while living in Tinseltown he became close friends with lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman and the multitalented Barbra Streisand.
Barbra Streisand: We always got together and had meals, wonderful meals cooked by Marilyn. And always after dinner we sang around the piano. Hopefully their new songs together I was usually the first one to hear them and see if I wanted to sing them.
David Jacobs: In the late 1960’s the Bergmans were the hottest lyricists in Hollywood. Together with Legrand they had found great success with such songs as “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “Pieces of Dreams.”
Alan Bergman: We were working on a picture called The Happy Ending and he came and played us (for a particular spot) maybe five or six melodies. And we said they’re all beautiful but they’re not right. And he said ok. And one of us, we don’t know, [said] “What happens if the first line is ‘What are you doing the rest of your life?’” He said “oh”. He said “I like that.” He put the tape machine on, luckily, and however long it takes to sing that song, that’s how long it took him to write it.
Marilyn Bergman: He played the whole melody. And that’s a very complex piece of music. He played it from beginning to end with the bridge, everything, and he said “You mean something like that?” And we said “No. We don’t mean something like that, we mean exactly that.”
David Jacobs: And here is that song recorded at the home of the Bergmans by Streisand and Legrand in 1972.
[music cue: “What Are You Doing The Rest of My Life?” from Just For The Record]
David Jacobs: In the mid-80’s Barbra Streisand was planning her directorial debut with a film based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl. Set at the turn of the last century, the story told of a young Jewish girl in Eastern Europe who wanted to study the Torah at a time when women weren’t allowed to. Once her beloved father dies she sets her sights on entering a Jewish school for Rabbis disguised as a boy. Streisand would star in the film as well as produce and direct. For the music she turned to her friends Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
Marilyn Bergman: When it came time to discuss the composer for Yentl, Alan and I and Barbra, of course, who was the key person, knowing that we didn’t want a specific ethnic score, realized that the perfect kind of music would be kind of European romantic music. Well, the next step was fairly obvious.
David Jacobs: And for Michel Legrand the attraction was equally obvious.
Michel Legrand: I wanted to do Yentl because I loved Barbra. I admired Barbra very much. I wanted to do Yentl because I love the Bergmans; I love to work with them. And the story doesn’t count for me. That’s the contrary. Because the priority is who’s going to direct it, who’s going to sing it, who’s going to write it? It could have been any story because I knew that we would come up with something extraordinary, the quality of the extraordinary. That’s it.
Barbra Streisand: It was fun to work on Yentl for – God, we must have worked on it for years. It’s very easy to work with our little team Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Michel Legrand. And we always had so much fun and we brought that to the work experience, the creative experience of doing Yentl.
Marilyn Bergman: We started, I believe, not that differently from the way we had written before. This was, if anything, a little bit easier because it was in a dramatic context …
Alan Bergman: … and there was a script now. And he is, not only as a great melodist, but he’s also a dramatist. And we could explain to him the kind of song we would want sometimes in prose we would write. We never gave him titles. We talked about being lonely after leaving – her father’s dead – and after leaving the home and going into a forest. She was scared, frightened, and lonely and … we never said to him “Papa can you hear me,” ever, but that’s what he wrote.
[music cue: “Papa, Can You Hear Me” from Yentl]
Michel Legrand: You know when we did Yentl together, what a pleasure we had to work. And I think the lyrics are extraordinary!
Marilyn Bergman: We had many meetings with Barbra on script and on story and on character and on placement of songs and so forth. The four of us met very often.
Barbra Streisand: After all, you know, when it was going to be a musical I described as a director where I heard songs, what the songs would be about. And then with the team of Marilyn, Alan and Michel somehow, uh – I think he wrote the music first and then the Bergmans did the lyrics except for “This is One of Those Moments” where it was reversed. We needed a song right away, like the next day, and Marilyn and Alan wrote the lyric first and Michel put it to music which is not the way he usually works but he did a brilliant job.
Marilyn Bergman: He took this lyric, for the first time I think, and just set it perfectly …
Alan Bergman: … perfectly …
Marilyn Bergman: I don’t think we had to change anything.
Alan Bergman: No, we didn’t have to change anything.
Marilyn Bergman: He did it brilliantly and I must say that Barbra shot that lyric to a faretheewell.
Alan Bergman: Absolutely terrific, terrific …
Marilyn Bergman: I mean starting from the very first moment when she gets the word that she’s been accepted in the seminary and then there’s a thing with the students, and books, and there’s a section, as I remember, when she opens a book and the source of light comes out of the book – it’s extraordinary filmmaking.
Alan Bergman: Yeah.
[music cue: “This Is One of Those Moments” from Yentl]
David Jacobs: Author of Sound & Vision: 60 Years of Film Scores, John Burlingame.
John Burlingame: There’s no question that Yentl was a remarkable achievement. It is a real partnership between Legrand as the composer, the Bergmans as the lyricists, and Barbra Streisand as star/director. And what I love about Yentl, and there are many things to love about that score, which deservedly won the Academy Award, is the degree to which Legrand’s music is still Legrand but it is part of a greater whole. Yentl is as striking an achievement in its own way as many of the other Legrand gems that we love, yet maybe not quite as showy. And that’s to his credit.
David Jacobs: Yentl was released in 1983. Time Magazine called Legrand’s work “the most romantic, coherent, and sophisticated movie score since Gigi.” Praise, indeed.
Michel Legrand: I had been working in London, myself, for many, many American scores or French scores. And there was one sound engineer in London called Keith Grant – he’s the best in the whole world, the way he records the orchestra, the voice, the arrangement. I loved him so much. He had a lousy studio in London called Olympic – an old place, you know, with nothing organized. Keith himself looks like an ape and I love that man very much. So I said to Barbra I want, really, to do it in London with Keith.
David Jacobs: British recording engineer, Keith Grant.
Keith Grant: We recorded the music onto, as you like, track A and we recorded the voice onto track B. So they could go out on location and play track A and B and Barbra could either mime to it – in some cases she actually sings to it. There’s some bits in the film, if I’m right, I think she actually sings live in front of camera. And she, like Michel, knew exactly what she wanted. So we’ve now got, in the same room, we’ve got two people who know exactly what they want and fortunately most of the time they agreed. It was quite interesting when they didn’t, I must admit, it was really quite interesting when they didn’t.
[music cue: “The Way He Makes Me Feel” from Yentl]
Michel Legrand: When we work together, Barbra is a little girl, she’s 14 years old. I remember we were recording voice, not Yentl but something else in New York, and we do it once and the first take is extraordinary, extraordinary. So Barbra says, “Ok, let’s do it again!” Do it again? We did it 19 times. So in a corner I said to Barbra, “I’m sure you’re aware that the first take is the best?” She said, “Oh yes, I know.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Just for the pleasure of it.” And you know, this is how she is. And in Yentl she was exactly the same, she behaved like a little girl, I mean enjoying it.
Keith Grant: Standing next to Barbra when she’s singing in the flesh is unreal. Listening to the lyrics that Marilyn and Alan write is unreal. Listening to Michel’s music, it’s unreal. Stick the three together and you’ve got it.
David Jacobs: In 1984 Legrand’s score for Yentl won him his third Academy Award. For both composer and Streisand it was the crowning achievement of a collaboration that began back in the mid-60’s. That was a time when the 23-year-old Barbra was making a name for herself in Jule Styne’s Broadway smash Funny Girl. Record producer Ettore Stratta.
Ettore Stratta: I was producing recordings by American artists singing in foreign language for the foreign markets. And it came the idea that we would do an EP – four songs – with Barbra in French. And then the project developed to such a point that she was so pleased, and of course she had just met Michel and fell in love with him – with his music, with his arranging and everything – that we extended the project and we made a whole LP.
Michel Legrand: I met Barbra at night after a performance of Funny Girl. She had a little piano, you know, in her dressing room. Every night we worked after her performance, you know until four or five in the morning in her dressing room.
Barbra Streisand: The Je m’appelle Barbra album – oh, I love that because I had written my first song called “Ma Premiere Chanson” and since I was working with them for my French album Je m’appelle Barbra, Eddie Marnay, a dear, dear person – he was doing the lyrics – so I asked him to write a lyric to my melody.
Ettore Stratta: Michel was principally the arranger, the conductor, and occasionally on the record the pianist.
Barbra Streisand: And since it was my first song we called it “My First Song” in French.
[music cue: “Ma Premiere Chanson” from Je m’appelle Barbra]
David Jacobs: Streisand’s “Ma Premiere Chanson” from her 1966 album Je m’appelle Barbra, the beginning of a remarkable association. But just why has it endured?
Norman Jewison: It’s probably as special a relationship as there’s ever been between a composer and a performer.
David Jacobs: Film director Norman Jewison.
Norman Jewison: I don’t know whether she turns him on or whether he turns her on. I have no idea what comes first. All I know is that everything he’s written for her works. And there’s no one that sings his songs better than Barbra. But, of course, they’ve all been by the Bergmans!
Marilyn Bergman: I think Michel, first of all, writes very lyrical, vocal music. And he also understands Barbra’s voice very well so I think he writes the kind of melodies that really utilize the range and the strengths of her voice and stretches her and the interesting intervals she likes to sing. I think from that standpoint he knows how to write for that instrument that is Streisand very well.
David Jacobs: In 1969 Legrand began work on a project for Barbra Streisand that would never see the light of day.
Michel Legrand: One day when I started to work with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, one day I said – because, you know I’d been doing orchestrations for Barbra – I said, “Why don’t we write for Barbra a concept album? For instance, what about the idea of the life of someone, a woman? So she’ll be born, baby, young, teenager, first love, marriage, mother, grandmother, and dead.”
[music cue: “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow” from Just For the Record]
Michel Legrand: “So why don’t we write a cycle of twelve, fourteen songs?” So they loved that idea very much and we wrote it together. The first song is one note, one syllable. Then you wait a few seconds, another syllable. It’s like the heart starting to beat. Two syllables. Three. Four. First phrase. This is exactly the contrary phrase, shorter, shorter. Four syllables. The way people are born and die. At the end, three then two, one, nothing.
We played it for Barbra, she loved it very much but she said to us, “I can’t sing birth and death songs. It’s too deep, it’s too – I mean I can’t talk about death, I can’t talk about …” She says to me, “I will do the album if you cut out the birth and death songs.” I said no.
[music cue: “Can You Tell The Moment” from Just For The Record]
David Jacobs: Barbra and Michel have enjoyed many successful collaborations since then, however, which takes us back to the film she directed and the score he composed twenty years ago this year, Yentl. For the picture’s climax Legrand created a dazzling five minute tour de force for Streisand, as recording engineer Keith Grant recalls.
Keith Grant: Michel had written for four grand pianos and about a 72-piece orchestra and we had the studio crammed to the gills – four grand pianos takes enough room up. And we recorded a version of “A Piece of Sky” and Barbra didn’t like it.
Michel Legrand: And she comes to me and says “Michel, I would like to sing it a half tone lower.” So you know that for the musicians, for the players to transpose a half tone lower or higher is impossible.
Keith Grant: And there was complete consternation, as you could imagine.
Michel Legrand: And I didn’t know how to ask the musicians to transpose half a tone lower. So I said to Keith, “Ok, let’s do it one more time.” I said to the orchestra, “Fine. Ladies and gentlemen, play it the way you played before, it was beautiful it was great. Ok roll. So, rolling. Play it exactly the same way with just a tiny detail different: half a tone lower! Three, four …”
[music cue: “Piece of Sky” from Yentl]