Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2006
Adored by millions, jeered by hecklers and lambasted by those who tire of her political soliloquies, Barbra Streisand takes time out from a rare tour to give an even rarer interview to the Tribune
By Howard Reich Tribune arts critic
Barbra Streisand still can't believe it.
Not only did someone toss a drink at her while she was onstage, but she had paid for his ticket!
"That guy in Florida was a friend of guests that I had," says Streisand, phoning from a jet, as it whisked her away from Monday night's red-state confrontation in Ft. Lauderdale.
When she invited the crew of a friend's yacht to the concert, she explains, she thought she was being friendly. But one of the crew members got sick and gave the ticket to someone else, who decided to test his pitching arm after Streisand finished a skit satirizing President Bush (the heckler missed).
"No good deed goes unpunished," adds Streisand, with a laugh, insisting that the fellow wasn't taking a political potshot but, instead, had imbibed too much and was having a fight with his girlfriend.
Whatever the reason, the moment crystallized the passions that Streisand — at 64 — still ignites, in the midst of a rare concert tour that brings her to Chicago for performances Tuesday and Thursday nights at the United Center.
Yet Streisand — whose remarkable resume includes two Oscars, 10 Grammys, six Emmys and approximately 70 million records sold — seems to prefer it that way. Why else would she include in her current show a Bush impersonator who suggests erasing the national debt by "putting a proposal before Congress to sell Canada"?
The vignette has drawn fire from newspapers large and small: A "tepid segment" said The New York Times; "Please just sing, Barbra," begged the Omaha World-Herald.
But Streisand clings to her conviction that she has a duty to speak out.
"As Andre Gide said," quotes Streisand, referencing the French author and Nobel Prize laureate, "the artist's role is to disturb."
To the point, in show business and politics, timing is everything, which is why Streisand launched her first major tour in 12 years last month.
"This is an election year, as you know — that's why I chose to do what I'm doing," says Streisand, who has been offering political volleys of her own on her blog as the tour unfolds.
The politics do not appear to have hurt the box office. Though "good seats" are available, according to a spokesperson, for the second night of her Chicago engagement (ranging from $100 to $750), the first evening is virtually sold out. In addition, the tour has broken box-office records in Philadelphia ($5,265,000 from 16,510 paid attendance, according to billboard.com) and Washington (highest grossing event at the Verizon Center, according to The Washington Post). Hard-core, high-bracket Streisand devotees are paying $50,000 — yes, $50,000— to shake her hand backstage.
Much of the cash will pour into Streisand's foundation, which will distribute it to her pet causes.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to Ft. Knox. Streisand, so afraid of performing live that she quit touring for 27 years after suffering a memory lapse in 1967, decided the concert hall wasn't such a bad place after all.
"After the first night she performed in Philadelphia, she came off-stage, and she just went, `Wow, I really had a good time,'" says Jay Landers, her artist-and-repertory adviser for the past two decades.
Since that Oct. 4 opener of her tour — which is not being publicized as a farewell, unlike a brief spurt of shows in 2000 — Streisand has been basking in applause (mostly) and taking on hecklers (thrice).
"It actually has never felt better," says Streisand, preparing to savor a lunch of stone crabs at about 30,000 feet.
"I'm enjoying the audiences," she adds. "I'm enjoying the love that I feel, and the support that I feel.
"It's just kind of — I'm less frightened than I used to be. You know, less stage fright.
"So it's a fun experience — not fun, I wouldn't say. Work is never fun.
"It has joy in it — yeah."
And Streisand thinks she knows why.
Perspective comes with age
As she looks back on the arc of her career nearly half a century later, Streisand believes she better understands what happened. Her transformation from poor child to movie star-director-icon took her through a complex range of emotions, some not so pleasant.
"When I was young, there was a bit of self-hatred around," says Streisand, in describing the darker moments of her early success.
"And then you kind of don't like people who like you, you know?
"When you get older, and you appreciate yourself, you appreciate the people that feel that way about you.
"So that's a very good thing about getting older."
Streisand, in other words, may be getting a tad more comfortable in her own skin and, therefore, a bit more at ease onstage — a considerable feat, considering the stratospheric journey she has taken.
Born so poor in Brooklyn that she had to use a hot-water bottle as a self-made doll, she suffered the loss of her father when she was 15 months old and the emotional distance of her mother thereafter.
The arrival of an often hostile stepfather when Streisand was 7 did not help, so the diva-to-be lost herself in movies, books and, of course, music. She devoured recordings of Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey and Lee Wiley, she says, citing visionary song interpreters who produced some of the most distinctive vocal colors in American music.
No one can say precisely how much of Streisand's artistic development owed to her self-styled studies, her native gifts or her unfortunate family circumstances (she has said that she sang love songs so well as a teenager because she yearned so badly for the real thing).
Regardless, by age 13 she was singing at a high professional level, as is obvious from a homemade recording made in 1955 and included on her four-CD boxed set "Barbra Streisand: Just for the Record" (Columbia). Already, The Voice sounded big, brassy and nearly sensuous on Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's "You'll Never Know."
Just 5 1/2 years later, in 1961, the up-and-coming nightclub singer made her television debut on "The Jack Paar Show," performing Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's "A Sleepin' Bee" with the dramatic sweep and thrilling low-note to high-note swoops that would become her trademark.
With an instrument clearly built for the gigantic proportions of the Broadway stage, Streisand at 19 won a spot in the musical "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" -- even though "there was no part for her," remembers Arthur Laurents, who directed the show.
During the audition, "She just sang, and I kept her singing just for the sheer pleasure of hearing her sing," Laurents recalls.
"So the only part [available] was that of a 50-year-old spinster," and that's how Streisand made her unlikely Broadway bow.
But it wasn't just her voice that caught Laurent's off guard.
"She had total confidence that she was going to be a star, and not a stage star -- she meant a movie star," he says, still somewhat bewildered by that belief of hers.
"And she was hardly -- particularly at that time -- what everybody thought a movie star would look like.
"But it didn't matter. She decided she would be beautiful, and so she made millions of people think she was beautiful."
It didn't take long for her to woo the masses. "The Barbra Streisand Album" of 1963, her solo debut, won two Grammys, and her spectacular success in "Funny Girl" on Broadway earned her 23 curtain calls opening night in 1964. An Oscar followed, for her film debut in "Funny Girl" in 1968, with a string of top-selling albums rolling out in the '60s and '70s.
If her starring roles in movies such as "The Owl and the Pussycat" (1970), "The Way We Were" (1973) and "A Star Is Born" (1976) made her an international figure, her direction of "Yentl" (1983), "The Prince of Tides" (1991) and "The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996) affirmed her status as a party-crasher in the mostly male world of big-time film directing.
"I'm very proud if I did break any kind of crack in the glass ceiling," she says.
She points particularly to "Yentl," which she directed, produced and co-wrote. Based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story and set in Eastern Europe about a century ago, the tale features Streisand — opposite Mandy Patinkin — as a woman who must disguise herself as a man to get an education.
The message of the film, she says, was that "the woman could not only have a brain equal to a man, but she could also carry life around inside her body, and give birth to it."
In a way, "Yentl" may be her most saliently autobiographical statement, in that it encapsulates so much of the Streisand persona: feminism, Judaism and, of course, soaring, operatically scaled music.
Along the way she was married twice: to Elliot Gould from 1963 to '71 and to her current husband, James Brolin, in 1998.
Too much of a good thing?
Part of the trouble with attaining the kind of success Streisand achieved so early, however, is overexposure. The vocal feats that sounded so thrilling to audiences in the 1960s seemed overwrought and exaggerated to some later observers.
"For better or for worse, she is pure schmaltz — the show tunes, the big voice, the roses, the notoriously manicured hands and the whiff of perfectionism they give off," wrote Libby Copeland in her Washington Post review of last month's Streisand show in the capital.
But to those who admire Streisand's work — and particularly her distinctive, love-it-or-avoid-it singing — she's well worth embracing, artistic indulgences and all.
"Pound for pound, note for note, singing her type of music -- nobody has come close," says Linda Eder, arguably the next great singer in a tradition that dates back to Ethel Merman and includes Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli and, of course, Streisand.
"She's the reason I went away from classical music, which I always loved to do as a kid," Eder adds. "I discovered, from her, that you could hear a beautiful sounding voice in something other than opera."
For Streisand, after all the music she has sung and recorded (60-plus albums and a double-CD set of the current tour to be released in December), one composer looms largest: Harold Arlen. The son of a cantor, Arlen penned such blues-drenched songs as "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Stormy Weather," along the way helping to define the songwriting traditions of Tin Pan Alley and, later, Hollywood.
"Ever since I was 18, when I discovered Harold Arlen, it's like he's my guy," Streisand says.
"Stephen Sondheim — who I think is so brilliant — when he came to see me in New York, he said to me, `God, what is it about you and Harold Arlen that just fit together like a glove?'"
So what is it?
"Maybe our roots," Streisand answers. "Jewish, [and] identifying with the black soul, you know?"
But, of course, it takes something more than that to make as deep an impression as have Arlen and Streisand (who won her second Oscar co-writing the song "Evergreen" with Paul Williams for "A Star Is Born").
Like many of the world's most successful entertainers, she seems always to have envisioned a grander future for herself than others discerned.
"Arthur Laurents just came to see me in New York — it's funny, because he told me I'd never make it," says Streisand, who suddenly begins cursing when her plane hits turbulence.
"We just had some bumps— I don't like planes," laments Streisand. "I'm a Taurus — we like our feet on the ground."
"He told me I'd never make it, because I was so undisciplined, and I was always — my performances were different, and my line readings were different" from one show to the next, she says.
Even so, "I said then I wanted to do all those things [in show business]. And I think perception becomes reality," Streisand adds.
"It's like you have to dream, and then you can fulfill it, but you've got to have the dream."
Streisand sounds as if she could go on for hours, but then she interrupts herself.
"I gotta hang up now," she says, "because I think we're landing."
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