In 1965, a fresh-faced, 23-year-old Barbra Streisand starred in her first TV special, My Name Is Barbra. Airing on CBS, it was a broadcasting first. Musical variety shows always had guest stars. Not Barbra. She didn’t need any. The special had her playing everything from a precocious child on a playground to a down-and-out shopper vamping her way through Bergdorf Goodman. She won both an Emmy and a Peabody for her tour-de-force performance.
This month, almost 50 years later, she’s starring in Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn, a filmed version of her two-hour, sold-out concert at Barclays Center last year. The special, billed as a return to her roots, airs on PBS this Friday at 9 p.m. (Check local listings.)
Streisand fans won’t want to miss this Babs-a-thon. The chance to see her perform her songs and not just hear them on recordings is rare. Since 1963, she has only done 84 concerts. Streisand attributes this to stage fright and other priorities, like being lazy. “I like to stay home, watch TV, eat ice cream,” she tells trumpeter Chris Botti, who accompanies her on four songs.
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A Voice You Couldn’t Ignore
I was a freshman in high school in 1963 when I heard Streisand’s voice for the first time. The radio was playing “Happy Days Are Here Again” and I had never heard anything like it. She didn’t sing it up-tempo as it was written. She turned this light, optimistic ditty into a bittersweet ballad of longing. As Streisand hit the last note, her voice broke, making a choking noise.
Unlike most pop singers of the era, she didn’t strive to always make mellifluous, ear-pleasing sounds. She didn’t go for cheap emotion, rarely using a vibrato. She held notes forever, even if they sounded raw and strident. I remember my mother turning off the car radio when “People” would come on. She preferred Patti Page.
Streisand’s first three albums served as my introduction to the Great American Songbook. Her voice was young, coy and and charged with energy. She resurrected songs from the past, forgotten gems like Rodgers and Hart’s “I’ll Tell the Man On the Street” and Harold Arlen’s “Right as the Rain.” She sang smart, anti-love songs, like “Down With Love” and “Gotta Move.” Every song was a complete, three-act drama.
Ethel Merman called her the last of the belters. But she was also the first of the female power balladeers, spawning Whitney, Celine and Mariah.
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From Wonder Bread to Bagels
Growing up in a Wonder Bread suburb of San Francisco, I had no idea what ethnic was. But thanks to Barbra Streisand, I learned. She brought Brooklyn, her hometown, to me. She didn’t speak like anyone I knew: “Ever” was “evah” and “birds” was “boids.”
Her entire style was mysterious to me. She wore vintage clothes from thrift shops. In interview, she said she loved coffee ice cream, lox and pastrami — foods I’d never tasted. She wasn’t gorgeous, so she made herself exotic, glamorous even. She went from Barbara to Barbra. She sent a message to the world, and me: Be different.
Young viewers, gather round. Know this as you’re watching members of the boomer-filled audience mouthing the words to her songs, wiping tears from their eyes and swaying their arms overhead: In her day, Streisand was cutting-edge. Like Lady Gaga or Madonna, she was her own creation.
A Half-Century Later
Times and people change, of course. At 71, Streisand has become the grand dame of pop vocalists. Thanks to boomers, her CDs continue to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Her voice isn’t what it once was, though in this concert it comes close at times. During a few songs, she seems to surprise herself when hitting some top notes.
As is true of many older singers, what she's lost in vocal ability, she's gained in interpretation. Streisand’s darker, huskier voice adds a more dramatic quality to her singing. Every contestant on American Idol should be required to watch her nuanced version of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” Trumpeter Botti joins her on that one. Their plaintive, bittersweet sounds pair beautifully, like wine and cheese.
My Son, the Singer
Unlike My Name Is Barbra, this special isn’t a one-woman show.
Besides Botti, Streisand is joined onstage for several numbers by Il Volo, the three-man Italian operatic group. Her son, Jason Gould (Elliott's his dad), now 46, shows up for a duet of “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Who knew he could sing so well? Even Streisand seems surprised.
She dedicates a segment of the show to her late friend, Marvin Hamlisch, who composed “The Way We Were.” She sings it to him.
Most of the songs she performs are from her greatest hits, like “Evergreen,” “Enough Is Enough” and that long-ago novelty, “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long.” She sings “People,” resurrecting the original Peter Matz arrangement from 1964 — the one my mother hated. As for new songs, she throws in “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy. Now that takes courage.
As she walks offstage at the end of the show to thunderous applause, the orchestra plays “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
That’s where I came in, 50 years ago.
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