There had been other entertainers like Barbra Streisand before, but not many. We Americans like our cultural figures perfect-looking and confectionary, and she wasn’t, with her crooked nose and her strong New Yawkisms and, let’s face it, her unabashed Judaism.
She broke out in the early ‘60s, and her voice and charisma were too huge for many Americans not to love her, but no one knew if she was a pop singer or a musical artist; she was too deep and ambitious for the former and not dangerous or revolutionary enough for the latter. So she decided to show the world just exactly who she was in a series of five television specials. This set collects all of them for the first time, and it is fascinating on a lot of levels.
Streisand had gotten some of her start on television (boffo performances on talk shows, mostly), but before she had her first special she was already an established recording artist and Broadway star. In the intro to My Name Is Barbra here, she recounts how she and the rest of the cast of Funny Girl were clustered around a little dressing room TV set, unsuccessfully trying to watch some of it during their intermission. This black and white special, which aired in 1965, is charming, refreshing, and at times disarmingly surreal. It features some wonderful straight-up performances—she kills “My Man” by hitting the notes perfectly, and is playful in her attack on “Lover Come Back to Me”.
But it is in the medley sections that things really come alive. The first “act” is a strange romp through 15 different moods; sometimes she’s camping it up sexily in “How Does the Wine Taste” while po-faced and tuxedoed musicians stand around and try to ignore her, and sometimes she’s speak-singing as a five-year-old. The sets are worthy of Salvador Dalí, the mood is reckless and experimental, and the music is incredibly sophisticated for what was supposed to be just a one-off special. In the second “act”, Streisand starts with a monologue about thrift-store clothes and ends up belting out Depression-era songs while trying on amazing frocks at Bergdorf-Goodman. You could write a whole thesis on this, and you’d get a summa if you even tried halfway, and you’d deserve it. But it’s also just fun viewing; her voice is ON throughout.
The second special, 1966’s Color Me Barbara, is more pretentious and less successful than the first, but is still filled with more amazing vocal performances than we get in a whole season of “American Idol”. Its first section is set at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Babs ends up “inside” many of the paintings’ moods and costumes, singing incongruous songs, but selling them all the way. She seems more natural and happy in the circus theme of the second part, interacting with penguins and monkeys and singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” to a pig. It all sounds a bit twee, but the ending, where all the animals have left and she is all alone singing “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair”, is quietly powerful. The concert segment at the end ties it all together, with a sexy version of “C’est Si Bon” (and oh, yes, she is hella sexy throughout all of these specials) and a show-stopping “Where Am I Going?”
The third special, The Belle of 14th Street, has not been seen since it first aired in 1967. In fact, when some of the other specials were reissued, this one was ignored completely. Why? Well, let’s count the reasons. First: because it is confusing as hell. The vaudeville theme was taken to its extreme in this one; not only is it set in an old-fashioned music hall, but the “audience” is made up of actors dressed in turn-of-the-century garb doing shtick. (At one point, when she is doing a hot little striptease-esque bit where her clothes come flying off “magically” (they make no attempt to hide the wires attached to the sleeves of her gown and the skirt), an outraged mother takes her too-curious young son out of the theater! Tell me this didn’t blow some minds.
Second: the bits are just too bizarre. We open with Jason Robards (yes, that Jason Robards, but younger), singing a song about apples, while six 250-pound flappers sing and dance around him. No, I’m not kidding. We also get Streisand ‘s diva character Madame Schnausen-Schmidt singing a duet with Barbara’s unnamed boy-wearing-a-green-suit-and-Egyptian-eyeliner character, Barbara’s other diva character introducing “What About Me?” as the work of an up-and-coming young songwriter named Irving Berlin, and a 12-minute two-person adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Third: there’s the spectacle of famed African American tapdancer John Bubbles doing an Al Jolson medley while wearing half a rooster costume. I wish I was making this up, you guys, I really do. So, yeah, it’s Brechtian performance art, it’s cabaret, it’s a loving homage, it’s a complete mess, it’s Barbara at her most unrestrained and puzzling and ambitious and wonderful. And weird.
Less weird is the fourth special, A Happening in Central Park. Here, it’s just Streisand and the audience, some 60,000 people, packed into the park on a summer night to hear her wail away on “Cry Me a River” and “The Nearness of You” and yet another version of “Second Hand Rose”. Her gowns are amazing, she acts out every song, she is in control of her adoring New York audience . . . and she’s clearly starting to get just a bit more taken with herself than is meet and just. A bit. Hey, diva’s prerogative, y’know? But it doesn’t stop her from busting out a couple of hilarious monologues (including one where she says that Santa Claus is dead and another lengthy one that explains a whole bunch of made-up old-fashioned words just to introduce a two-line made-up folk song), a semi-rockin’ version of “Marty the Martian”, and “People”, natch. Which she NAILS.
The fifth special, Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments, is a treat too, but an odd treat, like those Mexican candies that have hot peppers in them. It’s so meta it hurts. Many of the songs are focused on music, and the orchestra is packed with all kinds of unusual instruments, from the musical saw wielded in the first number to the British drum corps. The second segment is probably why this one hasn’t been released until now; it’s a brisk romp through American classic pop songs, but it makes its points about the universality of music by relying on a whole bunch of ethno-musical stereotypes. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Streisand sing Jobim’s “One Note Samba” backed by a sitar and tablas, or wished you could see her wearing a fake tiny-Afro wig while getting down with African drummers, well, here’s your chance.
The standout moment here comes when Streisand sits down at a huge “electronic music” console and punches in some kind of futuristic computer rhythm, then sings “Don’t Ever Leave Me” to a wild proto-drum-n-bass backing track. By the time she’s singing to her own lonely echo on “Come Back to Me”, we are getting the point: electronic music is cold and lifeless and all that. Then why does it sound so damn funky and acid-trippy . . . in 1973? And then suddenly we’re back to reality, if “reality” can be defined as “whoa, what the hell is Ray Charles doing here?” Babs and Ray get it for a great three-song set including a lovely “Cryin’ Time”. Yeah, this special is some kind of surrealistic pillow all right—so bad it’s good, so good it’s bad, so early ‘70s, so Streisand, so American.
Look, this isn’t for all tastes. But it should be required learning for anyone who wants to learn what life was like in this part of the world from 1965 to 1973. And, if you know someone who is obsesseski over Streisand and all her works - for me, my mom, who’s getting this for a Christmas present this year—or if you are that someone, this set is heaven on a silver platter.