Watching the video of Barbra Streisand‘s 1986 special One Voice feels like flipping through an old People magazine at the hairdresser, a particularly old copy that should have been thrown away. As mid-1980s superstars make their way into Streisand’s Malibu compound, we hear the soundtrack of the opening act, the late, great Robin Williams, making the crowd laugh with very inside-Hollywood jokes. Williams welcomes the assorted stars by saying, “Welcome to Camp Barbra”. It’s an apt pun because One Voice isn’t just a live event or concert but also a political statement by its headlining star.
One Voice is a lot of things: a TV special, a live album, a return to live performing, a political fundraiser, a musical soapbox. The crowd – among them Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn, Whitney Houston, Henry Winkler, a typically effusive Sally Field – is the epitome of limousine liberalism. Pastel jackets time stamp the event, as do feathered hairdos and shoulder pads. We even see 1980s pop starlet Sheena Easton gush excitedly about making it to the show. In typical Streisandian fashion, the filmed One Voice includes testimonials from her famous pals who lay the laurels on thick. Field is thanking God for Streisand’s return as a performer, while Winkler opines that said comeback is “enormous” and no less than Barbara Jordan blesses the event. The showbiz puffery is overwhelming and slathered on with abandon.
Yet, when Streisand finally appears on stage, singing the first notes of the Bernstein/Sondheim ballad “Somewhere” from West Side Story, the plaudits seem insufficient, like it’s not enough – we need more words, more adjectives to describe the near-perfection of this voice. It’s Barbra Streisand at her vocal peak, with that buttery, gooey voice, powerful and caressing, singular. When she admits to the $5,000 ticket price, jokingly fretting at how to give her audience value for their money, one can almost believe that the eye-watering high price is a bargain.
But everyday Streisand fans don’t have $5,000 to sink on a concert ticket, even if the proceeds would go to worthy causes close to the diva’s heart. The show ends on a solemn promise that One Voice’s proceeds go to the Barbra Streisand Foundation, which funds a variety of charities. A pop lobbyist, Streisand decided to step out of her self-imposed concert hiatus to raise funds for the Democratic party and other critical environment and liberal causes. This isn’t just a Barbra Streisand concert. This is a Barbra Streisand campaign event, a “rally” attended by the likes of Jack Nicholson, Kurt Russell, and Penny Marshall.
But for the rest of Streisand’s fans – those who weren’t ferried up into the gorgeous Malibu hills in stretched limos, Streisand’s label did the next best thing: record the event for a live album, releasing it in April of 1987. It would be Streisand’s first concert record in 15 years. A famously reluctant live performer, Streisand has been far more comfortable recording studio albums, but politicking overruled her stage fright. One Voice is a fascinating listen, not just because it features a prime Streisand in fantastic voice but also because it’s a great testament to the intersection of pop superstardom and pop politics. Celebrities have always used their fame to push causes, but few stars have defined their public persona with politics like Barbra Streisand. The decade is also important when looking at One Voice.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Streisand was busy building her spectacular career. That’s not to say that she wasn’t aware during those two decades. Still, Streisand was far more prolific a performer, averaging a studio LP a year and a movie a year. Columbia Records did release her 1972 fundraising concert for George McGovern’s failed presidential campaign on vinyl. But by 1987, she was a bonafide legend and showbiz titan. Streisand was no longer simply a performer but a single-named entity. She wasn’t just a singer or actress; she was simply Barbra. Her output started to slow down in the 1980s to a celebrity superstar pace, starring in only three films in the decade and only putting out four studio albums. Her fame and celebrity carried her through the decade just as much as her work.
One Voice is a curious affair as a soundtrack to the much-ballyhooed event. As opposed to the grand, Broadway-style ambitions of her later live work, One Voice is intimate and lowkey because the audience was made up of a select group of folks who were invited (and who were willing to drop five grand to listen to her sing). Instead of a full orchestra, led by her longtime pal, Marvin Hamlisch, Streisand was backed by a small, tight ensemble, mostly armed by synthesizers.
Speaking of synthesizers, when Streisand finally appears on stage after Robin Williams’ comedy, she does so to the spooky, space-age, synth-heavy intro to “Somewhere” that David Foster cooked up for her on her Grammy-winning Broadway Album. Envisioning it as an intergalactic ballet, Streisand and Foster took Sondheim’s urgent plea for tolerance and peace and turned it into a New Age anthem.
Choosing “Somewhere” as the first song is an odd choice. It feels more like a closer. For her tours later in her career, she rectified this error and ended her shows with the tune. The song is a poignant and hopeful poem about a time and place with no war and hate. This is, after all, during the final years of the Cold War, and the news was rife with military conflicts in South America, Central and Eastern Europe, and the UK, not to mention the show was recorded five months after the Chernobyl disaster. It’s an appropriate song to include on One Voice which operates under the theme of social justice (through pop music). Though the synth-heavy instrumentation sounds off, Streisand doesn’t. It’s a tremendous performance in which she imbues the song with the appropriate drama and majesty.
Once Streisand is done introducing the concert, she starts in on her onstage patter. These heavily scripted moments in which she attempts to relate to her audience account for some of the more awkward moments of her show. With One Voice, the chat is devoted to Streisand’s ponderous musings on the planet, peace, love, and war. It’s curious that these passages weren’t edited for the album’s release because they don’t work on vinyl. It’s also odd to realize that Barbra Streisand is lecturing Chevy Chase and Jack Nicholson about the dangers of nuclear war.
Streisand returns to the social conscious West Side Story with the angular “Something’s Coming”, which like “Somewhere”, is slathered in 1980s gloss. It’s a fast-paced song that requires her to sing on the beat (a practice she reportedly doesn’t like, despite her occasional forays into dance music). The synthesizers in this tune are particularly blaring, tipping the song into Mannheim Steamroller territory, and if it weren’t for Streisand’s masterful singing, the song would be forgettable.
If we thought we were free from sermonizing, Streisand introduces “People” by cleverly crooning the opening line, “People, people who need people,” before asking rhetorically, “Aren’t we all the same?” She then launches into another speech reminding her audience of the shared experience of humanity. Again, an absurdity creeps into Streisand’s pontificating when listeners remember that she’s preaching to a yard full of Hollywood moguls, movie stars, and showbiz executives – not exactly the most aware or humble of crowds. But the absurdity melts away quickly when she continues to sing the song. “People” is probably one of the sappiest songs in pop music history, but Streisand proves she can spin even the silliest lyric into gold with her sterling voice. It’s an arresting moment in the show and transcends the simultaneously cynical and earnest tone of the pontificating.
Because The Broadway Album was a massive hit for Streisand, many of the tracks find themselves on One Voice, and with good reason. Although Streisand’s relationship with the Great White Way may have been criminally brief, she emerged as one of its best interpreters. Using her estimable skills as an actress and comedienne have made her Broadway recordings sublime. Returning to Sondheim, she wraps her luxurious voice around the moving, rueful ballad “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music. (In 2019, she sang a parody of the tune in tribute to then-President Donald Trump, with the lyrics asking, “Who is this clown?”) She can bring her particular genius to the song, and it’s a heart-stopping moment and a great reminder that Barbra Streisand is a sublime singer despite the trappings of the evening’s focus. She sings the song with a quiet, soulful intensity, and it’s the highlight of the show.
After the blinding magnetism of Bee Gee Barry Gibb, who shows up to sing a pair of duets from her 1980 Guilty Album, Streisand slows things down to yet again remind her audiences of the ills of the world. Conveniently, she also reminds her audiences of her directing debut in 1983’s Yentl. “Papa, Can You Hear Me” is a song about a child’s lifelong love and devotion to her father. It was written for Yentl, and though not a chart hit, it has become a standard in Streisand’s repertoire. Highlighting the theme of fatherhood, Streisand introduces the song by lighting a candle for slain world leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, John F. Kennedy, Anwar Sadat, Olof Palme, whom she refers to as father figures. The fervor that she brings to the song is somewhat undermined by the thin instrumentation, particularly the synthesizer. If Streisand had decided to sing it accompanied by just a piano, the effect would have been startling: but the synthesizer – though it tries – is a poor substitute for an orchestra. The televised special of the show has Streisand graciously introduce her band, noting that years ago, she would have fronted an orchestra.
To close out One Voice, Streisand performs the old chestnut “Happy Days Are Here Again”. Originally meant as an ironic response to the ruins of the Great Depression, she has reclaimed it as a tune of hope. When introducing the song, she notes that when she recorded it in 1960, she sang it “ironically, cynically”. But she assures her audience that for this evening, she would sing it “with hope”, saying that she hoped that the song would reflect how “we feel about our country” implying a need for a regime change in Washington. Songs like “Happy Days Are Here Again” feel strangely very familiar, almost overexposed. Even though this is only Streisand’s third live album at this point in her career, its ubiquity makes it feel like she’s been singing it forever. By 2022, after putting out nine live albums, eight of which contains the song, it has been forever.
The grand finale of One Voice is Streisand’s rendition of “America, the Beautiful”, a fitting end of a fundraising event. It’s beautifully performed (even when she leads the audience in a sing-a-long, a rarity for Streisand, who performs at her audience) but an odd way to finish a concert. Still, it’s a great way to remind conservatives that even Hollywood liberals can be patriotic and that Republicans don’t corner the market on flag-waving pride of American values.
Yet, as moving as the ending is, the sequencing of the songs on One Voice is odd. Streisand front-loaded the setlist with her greatest hits and the big, bombastic tunes that would feel right to end her show. She sprinkles the middle with some of her 1970s pop work, including her greatest hits “Evergreen” and “The Way We Were”, which were themes for two of her most prominent film triumphs, A Star Is Born and The Way We Were, respectively. Ending the show on a patriotic number, while appropriate and on-brand for the show doesn’t give it that oomph or dazzle generally associated with a pro like Streisand. The televised special shows Streisand taking her bows while the band plays her out, playing “Happy Days Are Here Again”, and then she does something extraordinary – but something she’d never be able to do on her tour. She hops off the stage and plunges into the audience, pressing hands, air-kissing cheeks, rubbing elbows with some of the Democratic politicians who will benefit from the show’s proceeds. Her shmoozing and mingling with her audience is practically Diana Ross-like and a startling moment, given just how guarded a live performer Streisand is.
We know that Streisand’s interest in politics would grow, and she would become an even more significant figure in liberal politics, especially during the Clinton years in the 1990s. She developed a warm relationship with President Bill Clinton (especially with his mother, Virginia) and performed at his inauguration, giving the audience a mini-concert. Streisand’s celebrity would be so entwined with liberal politics that she would become a target of conservative pundits who would regularly lambaste her for getting involved in politics. She even made it into 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, a silly tome aimed at supposedly elitist, anti-American ninnies. A regular scroll through any comment threads related to Barbra Streisand will find people who concede to her gargantuan talents whilst simultaneously trashing her politics. Listening to One Voice is to witness an early chapter of an integral part of Streisand’s celebrity persona; the record perfectly encapsulates how she would fold politics into her work.