Culture: Liza Pulman puts on a show

Liza Sings
Liza Sings

Singer Liza Pulman tells us about the career path that led to her new show celebrating the magnificent Barbra Streisand and how she cheated death in the 7/7 bombings

Daughter of a famous screenwriter father, and steeped in the world of theatre by her actress mother, Liza Pulman was always going to have a strong creative streak.

Having spent her early career singing at Glyndebourne, appearing in the West End and starring for 13 years in the comedy music trio Fascinating Aida, she has been garnering five star reviews and entertaining audiences up and down the country with her new solo show Liza Pulman Sings Streisand. Joined on stage by musical director Joseph Atkins and her six-piece band, Liza’s new show celebrates the songs of the great Barbra Streisand and illustrates her prowess as not just as an extrordinarily gifted singer but as a comedienne and entertainer.

What prompted you to launch Liza Pulman Sings Streisand?

I’ve always adored doing solo work and have grown to love it more and more as I’ve grown older. A couple of years ago, one of my Fascinating Aida colleagues needed some time off to recover from an illness, and this break seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop my own show. I formed my amazing six-piece band and we hit the road together with our first show Songs Of Hollywood. One of the songs I sang in that was Evergreen from the film A Star Is Born, and so many people told me I sounded lke Barbra Stresiand that I started to look at how and why that might be. I realised that she has been such a huge influence on my singing and on my approach to music that I wanted to celebrate that somehow.

Is it a tribute show?

Well, I pay tribute to her but it’s by no means a tribute show. I don’t do an impersonation of her or put on a curly wig at any point! But, for me, it’s a chance to celebrate this extraordinary woman by singing just a handful of some of the songs that she’s made famous throughout her long and glorious career.

How did you pick the songs for your Streisand show?

That was a far harder task than I had originally thought. She has been performing and recording for nearly six decades and choosing the songs that would go into my show was a real Sophie’s choice. In a 90-minute show there just isn’t time to sing everything, but in the end I hope it’s a fine balance between the hits and a clutch of some of those fabulous songs from her back catalogue through which I am then able to weave a narrative. Frankly, I would be lynched if I didn’t sing the likes of Evergreen, The Way We Were and People.

Do you enjoy putting together the programme for your shows?

I absolutely love putting the show programmes together. I love creating new arrangements of songs that people know really well and also introducing the audience to songs they might not already know. Then taking all of these songs and shaping them into a great night. Light and shade. Fast and slow. Big and small. There’s a natural flow to these things and it’s a fabulous challenge to find it.

Is it daunting to perform alone?

Actually I love it! I miss the Fascinating Aida girls of course – theres’ a wonderful safety net with the three of us on stage together – but in my Streisand show I am backed by six amazing musicians and we are a proper famiy.

How would you describe your relationship with the audience?

I’ve done all sorts of performing throughout my career but it’s taken me to be nearly 50 (she coughs. . .!) to realise the thing I love most in the world is to stand on a stage and just sing, talk and be myself. I love people and I am at my most relaxed when I am up there. Obviously I write and script my shows and there is a shape and a structure to them but the best bits are always the improvised moments when something goes wrong or when someone in the audience says or does something unexpected.

Tell us about your path to becoming a singer

I always sang as a kid. My mum and my sister and I would sing close harmony on long car journeys and my sister and I sang together for years as The Pulman Sisters, singing music from the 20s, 30s and 40s. We started out just singing at our parents’ parties but ended up singing in the foyers of the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall. We were good. We made a great sound, like only siblings can. Then I went to The Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I studied singing for six long years, before joining Glyndebourne where I spent several years as a junior principal. It was a pretty amazing start.

You grew up in a very sociable and creative home, did you know then that your life would be on stage?

With my mother, the actress Barbara Young, (Coronation Street, Last of the Summer Wine) and my father, the screen-writer Jack Pulman (I Claudius, War & Peace), I was surrounded by writers, actors, directors from a very early age, in fact, I don’t really remember anything else. There was a brief period where I fancied being a vet (not long after my goldfish, Felicity Fruitcake, died from unnatural causes), but the performing gene was always going to get me in the end.

How do you wind down after a show?

I don’t like to have a meal after a show as its just too late and I’ve always eaten before, but picking at a few things like hummus and veggies while enjoying a good glass of wine is an invaluable part of the winding down process for me. The one thing I do have to be disciplined about these days is not eating cheese last at night when I have to sing the next day. It’s absolutely lethal for my chords (not to mention my hips!)

Where do you go to get away from it all?

I am incredibly lucky as I live in Cornwall and I look at the water every day of my life. I don’t really need to go anywhere other than my own front room to get away from stuff. I do love to walk and I will often put my walking shoes on and just go, either chatting with friends and family on the phone as I walk, working on my shows, or just listening to the birds in the trees and the waves hitting the shore. I do some of my best work like that.

In 2005 you found yourself caught up in the terrible tragedy of the 7/7 London bombings. People may have read the article you wrote about it for the Guardian or seen your mobile phone footage. How does it feel now when you look back on that part of your life?

It was a life-changing experience that’s for sure. I was on the Piccadilly line train in which 26 people lost their lives. It’s hard to fathom how you can have been so close to death and yet walk away relatively unharmed. We were down there for about 20 mins and as we were finally led to safety I took a few photos as I had a new phone and it was one of the first phones with a video camera on it. The tunnel was dark and filled with smoke and my photos weren’t coming out very well, so I thought I’d try the video instead. I’m only 5’2” so I just held it above my head and pointed.

It was incredibly difficult walking along the underground tracks so I had to stop after about 45 seconds and focus on my feet, but when I finally managed to get home I showed it to my husband and he sent it into Channel 4 news. In less than 10 minutes it was all over the world. It was an extraordinary moment.

Nowadays, people don’t think twice about using their phones to video what they’re seeing, but back then it was a completely new thing. I guess I was a kind of pioneer! In the days that followed, I wrote the article to explain how wonderful people had been, how kind and funny and caring they had been in the worst of all possible situations.

It was humanity at it’s best and it was humbling to be in the middle of it. Being on the Picaddilly line train that day changed everything for me and I realise now all these years later quite how long it has taken me to really deal with it. I still jump when I hear a bang, a bus horn or the pop of a champagne cork but I think that I probably hold onto life just a little more tightly these days.

Who has been the most important influence on your musical life?

I’m not sure there’s been only one musical influence on me. There’s a bag of them – Sinatra, Garland, Mabel Mercer, Al Jolson, Barbara Cook, Barbra Streisand. I love the old blues singers too – Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Sophie Tucker. I’d like to have been a blues singer in the 20s and 30s. All that suffering and song!

Who would you most like to duet with?

Living? That’s tricky for me. I only really like the dead ones! Actually not true. There are some amazing singers out there at the moment. In terms of the kind of music I love to sing, I think you still can’t beat a bit of Harry Connick Jr. He’s an amazing musician, produces great band arrangements, wonderful piano playing and a voice that kind of makes you swoon. He’s old school! I’m also completely in love with a German singer called Max Raabe and if he asked me to sing with him and his Palaast Orchestre I would jump at the chance.

What are your Desert Island Discs and your one luxury item?

I find the desert island question tough as there is so much wonderful music out there. My listening tastes are incredibly eclectic and I would probably have to include something by Sinatra, Elvis, Jolson, Billie Holiday, Streisand, Chet Baker, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, Fats Waller, The Beatles. . . the list is endless. As for a luxury item, I’m afraid that would have to be my cat, Mr Chips.

Liza Sings Streisand is at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds on Wednesday, March 21. Call 01284 758000 or visittheapex.co.uk for more information and tickets.