Barbra Streisand: Singing, Swinging Show-Stopper!

Seventeen Magazine
October 1963

Streisand: Singing, Swinging Show Stopper!

BARBRA Streisand stopped the show in her Broadway debut last year. When she stood up to sing Miss Marmelstein, a harassed secretary's lament, in her hoarse, husky, vibrant voice, sounding as if she had been coached by Al Jolson himself, she suddenly became the season's most exciting personality on the musical stage. Brooklyn born and bred, she can be as colorful offstage as on. "Everybody has a different opinion of me," Barbra declares. "When they reviewed me in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, I got pretty good notices but everybody said something else. Variety said that if I wanted to get into the movies, I'd have to do something about my nose. One critic called me an oaf, another referred to my classical Assyrian profile, another said I was rude, another that I had a strange, unusual beauty. It's all a lot of guff!

Don Hunstein photographs of Streisand recordings

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a movie star. My mother hated it when I went to the movies. I was always grouchy for a couple of days afterward. After looking at all those beautiful clothes, apartments, furniture, coming back to the place where we lived used to depress me. We were poor, not poor poor, but we didn't have anything. I never had any dolls or any toys. That's why it's all such a big kick now, to have things. We never had a phonograph.

"My father died when he was thirty-four. He had a cerebral hemorrhage. He had a Ph.D. in education; he's listed in a book of great educators. He was very smart. I was fifteen months old when he died; my mother supported us as a bookkeeper. I have a brother who's twenty-eight; he's an art director with an advertising agency. My mother married again when I was seven, and I have a half-sister who is ten. My stepfather was in real estate or used cars or something.

"The first play I ever saw was The Diary of Anne Frank, when I was fourteen. I was sitting way up high in the balcony. I was awfully disappointed, looking at the dreary setting. The only thing I knew was movies with all the glamour and everything.

"By the time I was fourteen, I wanted to get into summer stock. During my school vacation the next year, I went to a playhouse upstate with one hundred and fifty dollars my mother gave me. Later I found it was really money my grandfather had left me. At the last minute it was a question of using the money for summer stock or to fix my teeth. I had gone to the dentist, and he discovered that I still had my baby teeth on each side, bicuspids I think they're called, and the other ones had never come down. He pulled one on each side, then wanted to pull two more and give me braces, but I wouldn't let him. For the next year I went around with these holes on both sides of my mouth. Imagine an actress without her teeth!" Barbra sucks in her lips and smiles. "I used Aspergum—it was the closest color I could get to real teeth. I would press a piece in each side of my mouth, like false teeth. Sometimes it would drop out of one side or the other so I looked like a nut.

"I had a wonderful time at the playhouse. I played in Picnic and was the sexy girl in The Desk Set. Can't you just see me at fifteen coming on the stage, sitting down on a desk, swinging my leg and playing sexy? I went back the following season too.

"I graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1958 when I was sixteen. As soon as I did, I moved into Manhattan to live by myself. I was all set to be an actress. I got a job as a clerk in a business firm and I took dramatics lessons at night so I was often late to work. I used to hum and my boss would say, ‘Stop humming around here, what do you think you're in, a show?’ Now when I see him, he asks me if I remember when he used to bawl me out for humming.

"I went up to Rodgers and Hammerstein once to audition for the office manager. He got a big kick out of me. Whenever I'd come back they'd get someone at the piano, and I'd sing. I entered a talent contest about two or two and a half years ago that was sponsored by a club and someone who heard me took me over to the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village to audition for them. I sang there and then came The Blue Angel uptown, and Wholesale." (Early this year, Barbra was married to Elliott Gould, who played the lead in Wholesale.)

"I'm a great singer; I always knew I could sing. But I never sang around the house or anything like that," she laughs. "I just talk to myself. I think I'm a great actress. But both of these things, they're all part of the same thing. A great actress rides on emotion, she makes people feel the emotion behind the lines; a great singer does the same. You have to act to be a good singer. There's no trick in getting up in front of an audience and closing your eyes and singing. That's easy. But to get up there and keep your eyes open and look at your audience and make them feel what you want them to — that's hard. Standing up there without doing anything at all, that's the hardest. I can do that too!"

Once at The Blue Angel someone heckled Barbra from the audience, calling out, "Aren't you from Brooklyn?" Barbra, looking down from the stage with a Mona Lisa smile, calmly asked in turn, "Aren't we all from Brooklyn at some time or other?"

"The exciting thing about being a performer," she adds, "the really creative thing, is going onstage or stepping in front of a microphone in a nightclub and creating something just for the people who are there. You may be great or you may be lousy that night, but that's the exciting thing about creating it all over again each time. But when you go into a recording studio, you've got three hours. It costs a lot of money for musicians and everything- you don't have any choice but to do the best you can and try to make a definitive version of a song. That's not right. You can never do your best under those conditions. The way I'd like to record would be to have an indefinite closing time on the session.

"But I don't care whether I'm singing at a club or acting on a stage, there's really no difference. The emotional quality is the thing I'm riding on, reaching out to the audience with. The main thing I'm interested in is which is the better part: if the choice is between singing in a club and playing on the stage in Romeo and Juliet, I'll take the stage role, the one I consider more important. This season I'm set for a musical about Fanny Brice called Funny Girl. I hope it's a success. I love the period of the twenties and the thirties, when she was a big star. I used to see a lot of that period in old movies on TV, or in revivals at The New Yorker theater. I like Al Jolson too. I was first exposed to the music of those days on CBS-TV's The Garry Moore Show where I found Happy Days Are Here Again." This is among the ballads in Barbra's first Columbia LP, The Barbra Streisand Album. She can also be heard on Columbia's original cast album of I Can Get It for You Wholesale, another Harold Rome musical, Pins and Needles, and The Second Barbra Streisand Album.

Barbra, whose clothes frequently come from thrift shops, always wears an old-fashioned garter over her knee and carries a huge soft bag. "I love to buy old things. This ring I'm wearing," Barbra peers at a curious-looking ring on her forefinger, "is something I love. It has these little pearls and a lock of hair. I never saw a lock of hair braided before. I buy all my furniture secondhand. I love antiques."

In the first flush of success she would ask to be interviewed at lunch at a different expensive restaurant each time, places like the Colony and the Forum, to see what they were like.

"Some people look at me and say success has gone to my head, but that's not true. I've always been this way. I'm no good at dealing with people, at being tactful. I say whatever is on my mind. I go by instinct; I don't worry about experience. I mean, if there had been only one war, then you could listen to people who say they know all about things, but experience hasn't counted for very much, has it? People feel something and they argue, and sooner or later it builds up and pow! you hit somebody.

"When I went into Wholesale, I listened to what they wanted me to do, and I argued, and I almost got fired, but I did it the way I wanted to, finally. One of the stars, Lillian Roth, was very nice. She liked me, she wanted to help me. But I didn't want her to help me. I didn't want help, I want to do things on my own. After I got good notices, there was some resentment around and some people were sore." Barbra shrugs. "I want to do things the way I feel, and I don't care if other people disagree with me. But I didn't just get that way because I got a part in a Broadway show. I was like that when I was twelve years old. I've always said what I thought and acted the way I thought was right for me.

"Mostly I don't like actors; they're only concerned with what's going on inside of them all the time, preoccupied with their own emotions. I don't care for singers either, they're all bound up with the way they look, with what's going on outside of them." She laughs, "I guess I've got enough going on inside of me to keep me busy.

"Nobody really knows me, who I am. I don't even know myself. I hate talking about myself. I hear the words come out and I hate it. I've always been a mixture of self-confidence and insecurity. I want to be something and make something. I don't care what. Acting and singing aren't enough. You can't put your hands on them, they're too ephemeral. I want to make something I can touch. I bought a Singer sewing machine; I want to be able to do something with that."

Barbra looks up. "And I want to be famous. I don't care whether it's by singing or acting or what, I want everybody to know my name, even the cowboys!"


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