Rob Marshall admits he had difficulty holding his emotions in check while directing the opening sequence of the Tony Bennett TV special.
There was Bennett on stage in the empty art deco Los Angeles Theater, singing Charlie Chaplin’s tender ballad “Smile,” when Barbra Streisand makes a dramatic entrance.
“Tony’s singing so beautifully, and then Barbra appears. That was a goosebump moment for me when I pinched myself,” said Marshall. “Two legendary singers, singing one of the most beautiful songs ever written, very simply on a bare stage.”
That historic encounter — the first time these two icons performed together on stage — comes even before the opening credits roll on “Target Presents Tony Bennett: An American Classic,” airing Tuesday night at 8 p.m. EST on NBC.
Bennett has a lot to be thankful for this holiday season as he culminates celebrations of his 80th birthday with the TV special. It features many of the stars who performed with him on his recent “Duets” CD, which has already become the best-selling album of his 50-plus-year recording career. A DVD of the TV show also is planned.
“I had seen Rob’s Oscar-winning films, ‘Chicago’ and ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ so I knew we had a home run in getting him to do this special, but he did better than that — it’s a grand slam,” said Bennett, responding by e-mail to questions.
“Barbra was incredible. And Stevie Wonder, boy, he really overwhelmed me not only with his vocal performance but his instrumental performance on the harmonica (on ‘For Once In Your Life’). This has been a truly incredible year for me so to have it all lead to this television special is like a huge payoff.”
A-listers jumped on board special
Marshall was finishing promotional work on “Geisha” last year when Bennett asked him to do the TV show because he wanted someone who would “think outside the box and not just do a run-of-the mill variety special.”
“For me it was a chance to try and reinvent the variety show for the 21st century,” said Marshall in a telephone interview. “I wanted to tell a story and at the same time entertain and approached it more as a film than as a television special.
“I saw that the venues of Tony’s life really told a story in themselves ... and how much fun it would be to do numbers in those different settings and get a sense of the arc of his career.”
Marshall was able to enlist A-listers Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Robert De Niro, all of whom worked for scale, to narrate the biographical musical thread linking the musical numbers.
Marshall and his choreography partner John DeLuca brought their Broadway and Hollywood experience to bear in creating a series of show-stopping numbers featuring Bennett and duet partners with a chorus line of dancers. Elton John coyly pops out from behind a screen of feather fans to romp through “Rags to Riches,” and Michael Buble exudes Sinatra-style Rat Pack swagger on “Just In Time” — two numbers recreating Bennett’s headlining appearances at the Sahara Hotel in the 1960s.
“It was extraordinary to watch these artists work with this 80-year-old man and they had to keep up,” said Marshall.
Marshall was able to call on his Oscar-winning creative team, including cinematographer Dion Beebe, who created some razzle dazzle by mixing black-and-white and color footage and archival material.
Costume designer Colleen Atwood worked her magic, creating a backless cream-colored satin gown that helped transform Christina Aguilera into a modern version of a 1930’s platinum-blond screen siren in the “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” number saluting Bennett’s 1994 “MTV Unplugged” album.
During seven weeks of filming this summer, production designer John Myhre transformed the stage of the fading Los Angeles movie palace into the venues that figured prominently in Bennett’s career: a 1940s after-hours New York jazz club (for “Sing, You Sinners” with John Legend), the 1950s Columbia Records studio where he recorded his first hit (“Because of You” with k.d. lang and trumpeter Chris Botti), a 1960s NBC television studio (duets with Diana Krall on “The Best Is Yet To Come” and Juanes on “The Shadow of Your Smile”), and Carnegie Hall, where Bennett’s historic 1962 concert marked a career turning point (“For Once In My Life,” which Bennett recorded a year before Wonder’s Motown hit).
“That kind of attention to detail, in the costumes, the lighting, the choreography — it just doesn’t happen on TV,” said Bennett. “I hope when the public sees this they will get chills as to how beautiful it is.”
Marshall chose to end the special with Bennett again in an empty hall, belting out his signature, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” accompanied by Bill Charlap on piano.
“After so many great artists, we have Tony alone on a bare stage with just a pianist. The magic is all about him ... just to hear him alone singing this touching, beautiful song as the epilogue is very, very moving.”
“I found myself brought to tears so many times, I couldn’t ever say cut,” Marshall said. “Tony is an emotional singer, he sings the truth from his heart.”