NEW YORK (AP) — Oscar-winning songwriting greats Alan and Marilyn Bergman rarely wrote a song with Barbra Streisand in mind.
In fact, Streisand was often the one who had to approach them when she found a Bergman song that she wanted to claim as her own.
"Normally, over the years, we have never played her songs; she just heard them elsewhere," recalls Marilyn Bergman. "Once she saw a song sitting on the piano, and saw the title, (and) she's says, 'What's that?'"
Yet Streisand turned out to be one of the greatest interpreters of their iconic songs. Over the decades, she put her stamp on such memorable tunes as "The Way We Were," ''You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" from her musical "Yentl."
"I just love their words, I love the sentiment, I love their exploration of love and relationships," Streisand said. "They understand the craft of songwriting, the art of songwriting."
On her new CD, "What Matters Most," Streisand pays tribute to the songwriting couple by recording an album full of their material, including some of their best known songs, such as "Nice 'n' Easy," made famous by Frank Sinatra, and "The Windmills of Your Mind," the esoteric theme from "The Thomas Crown Affair."
"It's interesting; I never understood the song until I heard Alan sing it," Streisand said of the Oscar-winning song, which Dusty Springfield made a classic. "Then I started relating to it in terms of my own jumbled mind, with so many crazy thoughts going through it."
With the release of the album, Streisand has recorded over 60 songs by the Bergmans.
"We love to hear her sing what we write. How lucky can you get?" Marilyn said.
But the relationship between Streisand and the Bergmans runs far deeper than that of songwriter and artist.
"They're like my parents in a way," explained Streisand, 69, during a phone interview from her home last week.
"They're certainly my role models as to how relationships ideally should be. They have an amazing marriage and they're so kind to one another, and so respectful. ... They adore each other. They've been so good to me as a friend."
Streisand noted one time when she wasn't feeling well. The Bergmans did more than check on her. "They came over in the middle of the night, and Marilyn slept on the couch in my bedroom, and Alan stayed downstairs."
"That's the kind of friends they are," she added. "We're family. You can't pick your family, but you can pick the family you'd like to have. Those are very strong relationships."
The trio likes to say they were fated to be friends; they are all from Brooklyn, from lower- middle-class families, and were born at the same hospital (though in different years). The Bergmans met Streisand when she was a burgeoning young singer in New York City. Streisand's performance brought Marilyn to tears, and they quickly became close friends.
"It is a unique relationship," Marilyn explained. "We met when she was very young; there's a kind of sister/daughter relationship. The age difference was probably more parent than now. At a certain point you become contemporaries."
Although the Bergmans sent Streisand a list of songs to consider for her new album, it was Streisand who decided what she would sing. She decided to choose material she'd never tackled before instead of reinterpreting old hits. "Why would I do that? ... The past is the past. I'm always looking to do something new, something I haven't done before."
The Bergmans were surprised at some of her choices, like "Nice 'n' Easy," which was a Sinatra special. "She approached it in an entirely different way, in a seductive way," Marilyn notes.
"She's a storyteller, and that comes from not only her inner soul, but her directing," says Alan.
Besides the new album, she's also starring in "My Mother's Curse" with Seth Rogen, a film she describes as a comedy with serious undertones; it will be released next year.
Streisand hopes to perform those new Bergman songs, as well as her many classics, with a new tour. Her last was in 2006, and that came after a 12-year absence from the road.
She also wants to direct a movie; would like to write a sequel to her home decorating book, "My Passion for Design," published last year; still has eyes on a remake of the film "Gypsy" ("I don't think the movie did the play justice. I think it could be done better," she sniffs); and still plans a duets album (names like Beyonce, Seal and Yo-Yo Ma have been thrown into the mix).
"It seems like there's not enough time in the day, there's not enough time in the year," she sighs.
Nekesa Mumbi Moody is the AP's music editor. Follow her at http://www.twitter.com/nekesamumbi
- Barbra Streisand