Cabaret Setlist: “What About Today?” – Music and Lyrics by David Shire
Repertoire for the Once and Future American Songbook
Article #22 in this ongoing series.
This April 24 marks the 80th birthday of Barbra Streisand, a performer who has been an immense influence on and inspiration to those of us who work in and care about cabaret. There will always be some outliers—occasionally, vociferous ones—who don’t like Streisand at all. And there are others who’ll say they liked her until she left New York for Hollywood or until she began singing with Barry Gibb and Donna Summer, etc. But—correct me if I’m wrong—it seems that true Barbraphobes are few and far between in cabaret circles. She’s one of ours, after all. With all her alleged faults (a taste for bombast early in her career, an appetite for schmaltz later on), we love her still.
Her improbable rise to success has presented a template like none other for generations of ambitious club-singing beginners. As she touched down briefly onto steppingstone after steppingstone on her way to acclaim and fortune, she made it all look so effortless. A 1960 talent contest in a gay bar in the Village led to engagements in small nightclubs that, in turn, led to a 1962 Broadway show, guest shots on national television, and a recording contract with Columbia Records that has lasted nearly 60 years. In 1964 Streisand headlined on Broadway in the Fanny Brice bio-musical Funny Girl (the first revival of which will officially open on her milestone birthday). That theatrical triumph took her to the West End; to lavish, award-winning television specials; and then on to Movieland. She received an Academy Award for her very first film, the Funny Girl screen adaptation.
All of this was accomplished in less than a decade. And, more than a half century since that night when she cooed “Hello, Gorgeous” to her brand-new Oscar, she remains one of the most potent forces in entertainment. Although she has worked only intermittently in the past few decades, her occasional concerts in arenas and stadiums are still big news—as is the announcement of a new Streisand album.
And to a surprising degree, she has remained what is today called “relatable”—no easy task for someone with a jillion dollars in the bank and a shopping mall in her basement.
It’s a case of “once an underdog, always an underdog.” Back when she was “Barbara-not-Barbra,” her self-doubt, her ambivalence about fame, and, of course, her self-consciousness about her “off-beat” appearance received as much attention as her pristine voice and remarkable theatricality. In later years, we’ve continued rooting for her, applauding as she overcame obstacles yet in sight—particularly, her notorious susceptibility to stage fright, which seems to have lessened a bit.
“If someone takes a spill, it’s me and not you,” she sang in Funny Girl. While there may not have been a huge number of horrible tumbles along the way, there have certainly been some disappointments. In recent years Streisand has worked hard and spent precious time on film projects that have not come to fruition. Walls, a politically oriented album of songs that was her major artistic/social statement during the Trump years, failed to generate much excitement.
And yet, like Elizabeth Warren, she has persisted. Streisand has been marching her band out for a good long time now, and she’s not fully retreating even yet. She has long admitted to having a lazy streak, but could it be that she’s simply been pacing herself? Stamina. A large portion of her continued success can be attributed to old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness and stamina. A restless soul, she keeps striving as the years fly by. And that’s something everybody in the cabaret world can both relate to and admire.
Crawling out of the Fog
I wanted to feature a Streisand song in a Cabaret Setlist article this month, in honor of her big day. She has an enormous catalog full of songs to draw from, of course. But I quickly decided on a number that will be well known by some readers and unfamiliar to others. It’s David Shire’s title song from one of her least-successful albums: 1969’s What About Today? Though not one of her signature songs, it showcases some of the lovely and clever things that have made her one of our greatest vocalists for the last six decades. And it also demonstrates that spirit of restlessness that I just touched on. Listen here.
Contrary to the credits on the What About Today? album jacket, the song was not written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. Although the two were working as a team at the time the song was born, Shire wrote the lyric on this one as well as the music.
The piece was created sometime between 1961 and 1966. Shire was in his twenties then and living in his first NYC apartment. Of all the songs he’s created or co-created, it’s one of the few—perhaps the only one—not written specifically for a character and/or a theatrical scene. He considers it a deeply personal statement.
As Shire told me in a recent phone call, he was going through “writer’s block and a mini self-pitying period” at the time. Impatient about making career progress and weary of always dreaming about the future, he set to work on the song as a catalyst to bring himself out of his foggy funk. And it worked! “What About Today?” was the tangible result of what seems to have been a self-administered mental-health assignment.
Originally, he envisioned the song as a folk-rock number, a simple AABA tune with a much more modest sensibility than the one people know from the Streisand version. Shire was acquainted with Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, and so he brought “What About Today?” to the famous folk trio.
“They said, ‘Oh, no. That’s a theatre song,’” he recalls.
This was something that he and Maltby had grown accustomed to hearing. “We used to think, we’ve finally got a song that has pop appeal. We’d play it for some record producer or for some artist, and they’d say, ‘Well that’s a good song, but that’s really a theatre song.’… What we thought was pop music was not quite pop music.”
(Shire, who would become as well known for scoring feature films as for his theatre music, found his sole triumph as a pop-song writer with a tune he created for the soundtrack album of a 1979 feature film called Fast Break: “With You I’m Born Again” (lyric by Carol Connors). “I call it ‘the medley of my hit,’ he jokes.)
The Barbra Treatment
Eventually, young Shire wound up playing piano in the pit of the Winter Garden Theatre for Funny Girl. And he got to know the show’s young star. “On matinee days, I had access to her to go up and play a song, if I had one. And I think she picked that one out of a pile of songs I was playing for her.”
Streisand didn’t record the number right away. Its first public appearance seems to have been at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in June of 1968, at a fundraiser for Democratic presidential contender Eugene McCarthy. (Streisand is no Johnny-come-lately to progressive politics.) According to Matt Howe’s Barbra Streisand Archives website, Streisand next sang “What About Today?” as part of her Las Vegas act in 1969, at about the time of the release of the new album.
The Columbia Records disc was meant largely to disentangle Streisand from show tunes and standards and to bring her into the realm of contemporary pop music. The album included songs by such writers as Lennon & McCartney, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Jimmy Webb–incidentally, this year’s recipient of the Bistro Awards’ Lifetime Achievement honor. (Listen to Streisand’s version of Webb’s “Little Tin Soldier.” ) That “What About Today?” had been rejected as a pop song years earlier by Peter, Paul & Mary could have been a signal to Columbia Records that the label was taking a wrong turn in its “Modernize Barbra” mission. The album didn’t rock. It didn’t seem to cover much new ground at all. And it sold poorly. (On her next studio album, Stoney End, Ms. S. would have much better luck singing the work of younger, pop-oriented songwriters.)
Shire had had nothing to do with the recording or arrangement of “What About Today?” at Columbia. He was surprised by the direction Streisand and arranger Don Costa had taken with it…well, not exactly surprised. After all, Shire knew what Barbra had done with another song of his (and Maltby’s): “Starting Here, Starting Now.”
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s just a bossa nova I wrote for Robert Goulet.’ And she said, ‘Well, I like that.’ I said, ‘But it’s a man’s song.’ She said, ‘Oh, no.’ So…she kind of directed me into the arrangement and made kind of a huge Wagnerian thing out of it. And that was how [“Starting Here, Starting Now”] came about.’”
Shire won’t say that he found Costa’s “What About Today?” over-orchestrated, but there was more orchestra on it than he’d expected. “Barbra pretty much orchestrates her own music,” he adds. “Not note for note, but she knows how she wants to sing a song. She makes the orchestration come out the way she wants it to come out. She doesn’t just hand it to somebody.”
The track may not have been right for the career reboot, but it contains many splendid things. Costa’s arrangement extends the song a bit—repeating the bridge and the final A statement, giving the song an AABA/BA structure. The slack-sounding drumming in the first A section suggests a nearly empty strip club at closing time. But as the song builds, the percussion intensifies. Horns blare. An agitated counter-melodic embellishment played by violin adds to the excitement.
Streisand is famous for building from a murmur to a belt within the course of a track, but on this recording, she does this to some extent in each of the A sections. On the final A statement, she spits out the alliterative consonants in the phrase “toasts to tomorrow” as if they were ten-penny nails. She then holds the final note of the song in a manner that had become requisite for Streisand’s “excitement” songs during this era. At a mere, nine seconds, though, it pales in comparison with such efforts as “Before the Parade Passes By” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
The B section is part tongue-twister and part rampage. On the word “comes” in the first instance of the phrase “Till Nirvana comes…,” she produces a guttural “growl” effect (something she could execute flawlessly but used very sparingly throughout her early career). In the second iteration of the phrase “Till Messiah comes…” she gives us a strand of cantor-like melisma on the word “Messiah.”
The Curse of the Definitive Version
Shire acknowledges something that many cabaret and concert performers are fully aware of (and something that songwriter Richard Kates and singer Stephanie Lawrence explored in a song called “Streisand Got There First”):there are relatively few covers of the musical numbers that Barbra Streisand made famous. Once she sings a song, other vocalists face a challenge to find their own way into it.
One singer who did cover “What About Today?” early on is, arguably, the pop performer who can come closest to out-Streisand-ing Streisand in terms of theatrical flair (and hand-gesture flare): Shirley Bassey. In this performance from 1971, Bassey seems to be riding a roller coaster on a track made largely of pounding percussion. As her body erupts with jerks, twists, and flutters, she seems on the verge of inflicting whiplash on herself. It’s almost a parody of pop-diva flamboyance/indulgence. But it’s some fun!
In the 1976 musical revue Starting Here, Starting Now, featuring Maltby & Shire songs, Loni Ackerman performed “What About Today?” in a take that, Shire suggests, reverted in some respects to his earliest folk-rock idea about the song. This version induces a sense of impatience with the daily grind, expressed musically by a vamp that seems to mimic assembly-line monotony. Ackerman eventually belts angrily, at high volume, but she builds things at a slower and steadier pace than Streisand, whose emotional crescendo comes in those successive rolling waves. Hear it for yourselves.
Starting Here, Starting Now is still revived quite frequently, so vocalists (female vocalists, anyway) may have the chance to sing it in a theatrical setting if nowhere else. Shire notes that sheet music for the song is based on the SHSN cast album version.
In 2009, the late actor and singer Byron Nease gave us a rendition of the song with some rare masculine energy. Nease’s version takes the song at a faster clip than usual. The track is notable for its jazzy saxophone licks. Listen here.
In contrast with Nease, Dawn Harkins slows the song, refashioning it as a ballad. This 2010 experiment was worthy but doesn’t succeed fully. Without the usual pulsing rhythms, the song has something of a dirge about it. On the plus side, the customarily rapid-fire lyrics of the B section can be savored here as never before. Sample it.
“What About Today?” Today
Shire’s song has been heard here and there in NYC clubs in recent years. Celia Berk included it in her first cabaret show, 2014’s You Can’t Rush Spring, but, unfortunately, there is no video or audio recording available of her interpretation. The director of that show, Jeff Harnar, had proposed the song for her.
Berk wrote to me in an email that “What About Today?” was something of a challenge for her: “I hadn’t been belting, so I really needed to work on that. It took several passes to find the right key.”
And, yes, it was hard to get the Streisand version out of her head. Listening to the Ackerman version alleviated that problem to some extent, and musical director Alex Rybeck provided a new arrangement that, Berk says, was “fresh and specific to me.” (By the way, Streisand is one of several musical artists to whom Berk pays tribute in her current show, On My Way to You, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.)
Melissa Errico found the song several years ago when it was brought to her by someone from Streisand’s inner circle: Richard-Jay Alexander. He’d directed many of Streisand’s 21st-century concerts and was now working on a 2015 show with Errico (which she would record at 54 Below for a live album, also called What About Today?). Errico’s “rock-out” version of the song was arranged by Cliff Carter of James Taylor’s band. Here’s a later, live rendition, captured from a show at Joe’s Pub:
The song proved to be just the right vehicle for Errico at that particular moment.
“At that time, my kids were little, but I was young and strong,” she recalls. “I had so much pent up! [Alexander] was directing all my shows, and he wanted to bust me out of my Mommy persona…. He was hilarious and encouraged me to take on bold songs.”
In preparing the number, Errico meditated on fear. The lyrics drove her to “a passionate stance and the song “did the work on my spirit.”
The number was not without technical challenges.
“It’s tempting to bring too much of the lower belt up to the final note,” she says. “I think it’s good to keep the higher ring going as you come down and [to] not get too heavy. Strangely, while I’m not a hard belter regularly, that song was always easy. Maybe the conviction of the words made my body sort it out intuitively.”
Audiences responded positively to her effort:
“They love it. If I were in a hair band, I’d be throwing my wig all over. It’s great to see an ex-ingenue who often sings sultry French music or…neurotic, pained Sondheim just let go and have a bold personal nirvana, which it is, actually: a call to be awake here and now. The song is about reclaiming your worth in this moment. Living life, not winning it. Enter life!”
Does she have further advice for those who’d like to sing this song?
“Think about who is in your way. What is being blocked? Sing your way out of that bad feeling.”
I ask her, finally, what she’d like to say about the song that I hadn’t asked about.
“What about tomorrow?” she suggests. “Just kidding. Though, sometimes, you can go to bed and start over.”
NEWS/NOTES: Streisand and “What About Today?”
*Melissa Errico will celebrate the release of her latest recording, The Film Noir Project, on May 11 at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 7pm. Two songs from this collection have music by David Shire, who is now an important part of Errico’s professional life.
*Celia Berk will reprise On My Way to You on April 21 and 27 at 7pm at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.
*Barbra impersonator Steven Brinberg is set to appear at Feinstein’s/54 Below on April 24 at 9:30 pm, to mark the Streisand birthday with his show 80, Girls, 80, featuring Tovah Feldshuh and other special guests. (Feldshuh has portrayed onstage two characters that Streisand has played on film, Dolly Levi and Yentl.)
*Barbra Streisand‘s most recent album is Release Me 2, from Columbia Records.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.