Barbra Streisand Is Funniest Girl: Sudden Stardom Was No Surprise

March 28, 1965

By Cecil Smith

No performer in the modern theater has gone so far, so fast as Barbra Streisand. From the time she was 19 and dropped the extra “A” in her first name (“who needs it?”) and told people she was born in Madagascar and raised in Rangoon (she was never outside Brooklyn till she was 14). Barbra in less than four years has become a star of such magnitude that she nightly packs the huge Winter Garden on Broadway in a decidedly second-rate show called "Funny Girl.”

How does she feel about this meteoric ascent?


She drips the word out in the dressing room, syllable by syllable in that cobwebby voice that is as Brooklyn as a bagel. She stares at you with those slightly crossed Siamese cat eyes. After an interminable pause she adds:

“I shouda stayed home and had babies.”

This you take with a small grain of Streisand. Along Broadway, she is known as a moaner. Nonetheless, she is so solid a professional that it made news a couple of weeks ago when she missed two performances of “Funny Girl" after playing some 350. Suffering from a virus infection, she still insisted on going on until she fainted backstage. Her understudy did the two performances while Sardi’s crawled with press agents. Back she bounced as full of music as ever. She’s booked to do the show through next December.

The show is exhausting because Barbra must carry it almost entirely on her frail shoulders. She‘s on stage 111 of its 132 minutes.

She has little support from the Isobel Lennart book — ostensibly the biography of Fanny Brice yet with none of the Brice material. No Baby Snooks, none of the routines that made the late comedienne great. The Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score has a couple of songs that Barbra has made hits, “People” and "Don’t Rain on My Parade" (but there is such genius in that singing voice that she made you want to weep singing “Happy Days are Here Again”).

Still there is no song to compare with the great litany of "My Man" that Fanny Brice broke the heart of Broadway with by singing it when the town knew she had parted from her husband, Nicky Arnstein. Even the character of Arnstein is bowdlerized to such an extent in the show that one reviewer described Sydney Chaplin in the role as looking like a rented escort at the wrong address. It’s possible this is because Ray Stark produced the show and his wife is the daughter of Arnstein and Fanny.

But it isn’t the show that disappoints Barbra, it’s the very fact and the demands of stardom it makes on her.

“It’s just that ... I mean . . .” groping for words, “when I was young and wanted to be famous and a star and people like me and like that. Well, here it is. Not that it’s one thing more than another. Like the Broadway opening. All the people clamoring around. It was so confusing and I just wanted to be left alone.

"They all wanted to grab me and take my picture. I wanted to think about it. I wanted to be alone. I wasn’t that happy with my performance opening night.

“And it gets worse. They’re always after you to do something. I’m decorating my apartment, kind of crazy. I'm studying Italian. I want to go to Italy so I want to talk Italian. I want to spend some time with Elliott (Gould, her husband). But they’re always after you . . .”

She glanced around irritably at one of her managers who was glowering at us for taking so much time. “See what I mean, always after you . . .”

Most stars swim in the glamor of stardom as if it were a pool of champagne. Lucille Ball once called it “the frosting on the cake” but the climb of most stars to stardom was an arduous thing, fraught with self-doubt. Not Barbra. She never doubted that she was destined to stand on a Broadway stage with the light bathing her and the applause welling up around her. For a slight, carelessly assembled Brooklyn girl with the face of Neretti and a similar of a nose, her supreme confidence is astonishing.

She saw her first play, “Diary of Anne Frank,” when she was 14—her first trip to Manhattan from Brooklyn. She decided she could do everything Susan Strasberg was doing on the stage.

“I started studying acting” she said, “and when I was like 16 I decided to make the rounds—like they all say, you gotta make the rounds, you know, knock on doors. I spent two days at it and it was so ridiculous. They all say: ‘What’ve you done?’ I say: ‘Nothing. You wanta hear me read?' And they say: ‘No, we got to see your work first.’


“It was all so stupid. I said: ‘Well, you’ll be sorry.’ I said to ’em: ‘You’ll come after me. I'm not going to come after you. I’m not going to hang on your door and say hire me. That’s your problem.’

“I mean it’s just the whole of the thing. I can’t force myself down somebody’s throat. I gave up the theater. I said I'm not going to beg for nobody!

The theater did come after her.


Related Links: Funny Girl, Broadway Show pages