At the 70th Annual Tony Awards, host James Corden had the enviable task of introducing the presenter for the Best Musical award: Barbra Streisand. As the comedian announced Streisand, he jokingly reassured the audience members that “there are medical staff standing by for the many of that on hearing her name, may collapse”.
Corden then whipped out an asthma inhaler, took a hit, and admitted, “Gonna be honest, probably do it myself.” When he finally called out Streisand’s name, the audience rose to its collective feet and gave the diva a standing ovation.
The devotion that Corden humorously alludes to in his speech is the kind of devotion that has defined Streisand’s fandom for the past 60 years. In part, her celebrity came attached with the type of adoration that would make people swoon upon hearing her name. Any episode of the 1990s sitcom, The Nanny, would illustrate this woman’s hold on her public. There are repeated gags in which Fran Drescher’s Fran Fine would express her reverence for the legendary singer. Upon hearing her sister Roslyn Kind sing, Fran, mistaking Kind’s buttery tones for those of her more famous sister, genuflects at Kind’s pumps, squawking, “close enough! Same DNA!” On Saturday Night Live, Mike Meyers immortalized Streisand Worship with his Linda Richman character (reportedly based on his mother-in-law), who would devote many of her fictional “Coffee Talk” segments to Streisand (even insisting that she deserved to win Oscars in years in which she didn’t release a film).
Barbra Streisand inspires very emotional responses more than any other living celebrity. People either loathe her (usually because of her outspoken politics) or idolize her. There’s very little in between. Her following among gay men, for example, is legendary. Because she’s been around for so long, it becomes too difficult to pinpoint the source or genesis of that kind of popularity. For so long, Streisand was the epitome of the Hollywood Superstar; therefore, it’s hard to remember when she wasn’t famous or beloved.
Popular culture is constantly shifting and changing. One-hit wonders kludge up the pop charts; flash-in-the-pan starlets pay their dues on late-night talk shows only to be forgotten; TV shows air for single seasons before being pulled, never to be heard from again. In the last two decades, we’ve seen a new kind of celebrity: the reality TV star, that particular intersection of overexposure and mediocrity. For a performer to resist these shifts and thrive despite them (even if she tried in a diffident way to ride some trends through that six-decade career), it seems incredible that there was a time when Streisand wasn’t famous or loved.
But Streisand’s meteoritic rise to fame happened quickly, and she became very famous early on. When she started to perform as a professional performer in the early 1960s, she made an early legend for herself, singing in nightclubs throughout Manhattan, including legendary venues like the Lion as well as the Bon Soir, where Streisand earned a name for herself as a world-class singer, being compared to Entertainment Superwoman, Judy Garland. Broadway beckoned, and she made a splash, stealing the show in the Harold Rome musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, earning herself a Tony nomination at the 16th Annual Tony Awards in 1962.
Quickly establishing herself as a radical and exciting interpreter of the Great American Songbook, she followed up her early successes in television and the stage with her first album, 1963’s The Barbra Streisand Album. The album is still one of the most exciting and auspicious debuts of the 20th century. One of the remarkable things about The Barbra Streisand Album is that Streisand’s pop persona is fully formed and established. There are no feelings of awkward growing pains that often mar freshman records. Instead, there’s a shocking confidence heard on that album.
And why not? Streisand’s voice is a marvel. It’s simultaneously idiosyncratic and unique yet also seemingly perfect and flawless. It’s not enough that she has a stunning lung capacity or the ability to hit some impressive notes. She can, but so can any good singer. It’s that she’s a world-class interpreter of song lyrics. That gift in song can be attributed to Streisand’s early love: acting.
Because Barbra Streisand’s early ambition wasn’t to be the biggest pop star on the planet. When honored by the American Film Institute in 2001 with its Life Achievement Award, Streisand pointed out that her dream “was to be a classical actress. I wanted to play all the great parts,” she said, listing intimidating roles like Hedda Gabbler and Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. However, she never did any of that. “I got sidetracked, I guess. I couldn’t get a job as a dramatic actress, so I started to sing.”
That desire to act explains Streisand’s gifts as a peerless song stylist and interpreter. The range of material on her first record shows many sides of her thespian talents. The choices that went into The Barbra Streisand Album are also fascinating because Streisand avoided overly-familiar material, instead opting for some more obscure numbers and niche pieces. Great American Songbook giants like Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen are there. Still, she could have done what was easy and expected and stuffed the record with recognizable tunes from famous composers like Gershwin, Berlin, or Kern.
Even when singing the work of a ubiquitous talent like Cole Porter, she takes a calculated risk by choosing a comedy number from a TV version of Aladdin. The most arguably famous song on the album is the Arthur Hamilton standard, “Cry Me a River”, which ably casts Streisand as a jazz singer. Her interpretation of the Milton Anger/Jack Yellen song “Happy Days Are Here Again” became omnipresent through her laconic, ironic performance.
It’s telling that Columbia Records wanted to introduce Barbra Streisand, Recording Artist, with a soundtrack to one of her live nightclub shows. The label sent out a small crew to record her at the Bon Soir, hoping to capture the magic she conjured there on vinyl. The material would be shelved and released over 60 years later in 2022 as Live at the Bon Soir. But the tracklist of The Barbra Streisand Album is an apt summary of the kind of show Streisand would put on in the nightclub. It’s funny to think about it now, given how fearful and reticent Streisand is about live performing, but in 1963, Streisand had made a significant name for herself as a stage performer. So, her debut album would be a chronicle of the material that made her famous in the first place.
So, though Streisand entered a rather crowded marketplace, ostensibly moving in on Rosemary Clooney’s or Judy Garland’s turf, a thorough listen to A Barbra Streisand Album shows that her artistry at that point, early in her career was far more innovative and revelatory than her peers. The other subversive thing about The Barbra Streisand Album is that it eschews rock ‘n’ roll. Though a child of the counterculture and a generational peer of artists such as the Beatles, Elvis, and Bob Dylan, Streisand followed her musical muse, reflecting her sartorial image at the time: a delirious cacophonous harmony of thrift shop aesthetic.
But she was still tough to define because she wasn’t a lounge or torch singer. Though she made a splash on Broadway, she wasn’t a Broadway show-tunes star. Just as her stubborn individuality made her a strange fit for showbiz, her particular sound made it difficult to categorize her. In an anecdote she told at one of her concerts, she recounted a particularly hostile audience member dragged to one of her shows, apparently against her will, as she tersely referred to Streisand as “some verkakte folk singer”.
Streisand is not a folk singer, but we can forgive the audience member for grasping at straws when trying to describe her. When The Barbra Streisand Album opens with a particularly jazzy interpretation of “Cry Me a River”,” we are led to believe that maybe Barbra Streisand is a jazz singer. The song was most famously recorded by the sultry Julie London, a singer who made a name for herself as a languid torch diva. Though London wasn’t the vocalist Streisand is, her interpretation of the Arthur Hamilton composition is simmering and sexy. Streisand doesn’t improve on the original (London’s version is the definitive take on the tune), but she recasts the song as a rueful complaint.
Streisand sues Hamilton’s lyrics as a mini-drama, building on the lyrics’ growing discontent, eventually allowing for a throb in her voice as she tears through the song, fairly scolding the errant lover. The piece is a sarcastic rebuke (the phrase “cry me a river” has got to be one of the most dismissive taunts ever), and Streisand’s choice to eschew the knowing arch of London in favor of a more dramatic interpretation allows for listeners to get a listen of the Streisand’s acting abilities. Her showboaty shouting at the tune’s climax and conclusion isn’t merely showy window dressing, a diva’s way to show off just how good her voice is. Instead, the way Streisand sings the song is far more interesting: like London, she starts off the song in its spirit, but Streisand quickly loses her cool (London never does), and instead, she falls apart, thereby subverting Hamilton’s lyrics, adding a dark pathos.
Streisand takes a similar approach to “Happy Days Are Here Again”. The 1930 Charles Reisner musical, Chasing Rainbows, introduced the song to broad audiences. The original popular interpretation of the song is far punchier, with a scooting tempo reflecting optimism and bubbly cheerfulness. Punchy horns skip throughout the song, prompting listeners to sway and bob in obedient joy. With Streisand, the track becomes ironic and sad. The arrangement by the legendary Peter Matz slows down it considerably, allowing Streisand to stretch out the simple-minded lyrics into pessimistic parody. As with her take on “Cry Me a River”, Streisand allows for an intensity to build until it erupts when she belts out, “from now on!” at the song’s peak, betraying desperation and anguish. Streisand’s angst is at odds with Jack Yellen’s lyrics, especially the part of the song in which Streisand shouts, “Happy times / Happy nights / Happy days are again.” She stretches the note on the final “again” for a long time, losing control and slipping off pitch, conveying frazzled chaos, before the song comes to a grateful, gasped close.
When Streisand name-checked the dream roles she never got to play, it’s noticeable that they were tragic and dramatic. This thwarted dream is at odds with Streisand’s eventual screen persona, as she would become a popular screen comedienne. Her sense of comedy and play would translate very well on vinyl – no, she wasn’t a novelty or comedy singer like a Mrs. Miller. But her early triumph, “Miss Marmelstein” from I Can Get It for Your Wholesale, was a comedy song. The Great American Songbook, musical theatre, and the Hollywood musical have a history of including comedy songs.
On The Barbra Streisand Album, Streisand tackles Cole Porter, one of the funniest and wittiest songwriters of the pre-rock pop era. His tune, “Come to the Supermarket (In Old Peking)”, is a fascinating mid-century relic; its lyrics badly date. Porter’s tune is a list song in which Streisand nimbly warbles all of the wares available in the titular supermarket in Peking. Porter’s lyrics play with American mid-century ideals of globalism and internationalism, fostered by xenophobia, colonialism, and racism. So Porter’s laundry list includes such items as “a slave that’s awfully African…gizzard cakes, lizard cakes…pickled snakes…poodle soup.” Porter, a master of satire and comedy, plays with the kind of stereotypical imagery popular in Loony Toons or Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Speaking of cartoons, Streisand also includes a silly tune from the 1933 cartoon Three Little Pigs. This moment in the record is when the singer closely approaches novelty but manages to avoid that with her committed performance, which is very funny. The operatic trills that she employs throughout the song mock the goofy lyrics. Though the song was known for its light-hearted origin in the Disney cartoon, it was also notable in a funny, if biting, way because of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which told the story of a middle-aged couple who emotionally eviscerate each other in front of guests at a disastrous gathering. Throughout the play, the two warring protagonists, George and Martha, sing the song as a distraction from their drunken brawling. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a definitive entry in American theatre, and its specter looms larger, even over Streisand’s amusing take on the original song. (The 1966 Mike Nichols film adaptation overshadows the play and song).
It’s a shrewd inclusion on The Barbra Streisand Album (one from her live show) as it speaks to both contemporary theatre and the past. In her live performance at the Bon Soir, she cheekily introduced the song as a “standard”, which is a great way to describe Streisand’s place in show business in 1963. She had one foot firmly in the past and the other in the present. The other important feature of the song is Streisand’s vocal technique and theatricality when singing. Unlike many singers or performers who grew up in New York, Streisand initially held on to her regional accent. It was part of her charm. There was a defiant New York Jewish American hue to her singing and phrasing, which flew in the face of the smoothed out, rounded vowels of WASP-y singers who set the standards of ‘proper’ phrasing. Unlike many performers who sported ethnic, regional dialects, Streisand didn’t work to blanch her distinct speech, just as she refused to change her features to emulate the beauty standards of the day, which were personified by ingenue pretties like Sandra Dee or Audrey Hepburn.
The boldness of Streisand’s fully-formed persona makes The Barbra Streisand Album such an integral part of 1960s pop culture. On the surface, it sounds like a throwback, but it’s quite a revolutionary album and owes much to the counterculture, particularly the one that came out of Greenwich Village, Streisand’s early musical home. Streisand would make a significant mark on pop music with her debut album by being so thoroughly and distinctly peculiar. It would be a theme throughout most of her career, as she continued to make music, and when she branched out to acting and filmmaking.