Melbourne Symphony Orchestra tribute to Barbra Streisand at 80
“I remember saying to my mother when I was young, ‘Mom, am I pretty?’ and she said, ‘You’re unusual. There is no one like you.’ At the time, I was really in pain. But as I got older, I thought, ‘It’s good to be different. It’s good to be unique.
“Different” was always the vibe. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Streisand often recalled that the two things that set her apart were that she had no father — he died when she was a baby — and that she could sing. It’s evident on his amazingly accomplished debut recording, You’ll never knowmade on vacation with his mom in the Catskills at the age of 13.
But as stunning as his instrument was, Streisand’s personality was bigger. At 18, she opened for Phyllis Diller at the Bon Soir nightclub in New York. By the time Lucille Ball flattered her on her CBS radio show in 1964, she was a 22-year-old talk show star with a Broadway hit and three albums behind her. Johnny Carson was a huge fan. Groucho Marx too.
MSO creative director Cameron Menzies wasn’t born for another 10 years, but he was also destined to fall in love. His first memory of Babs is being woken up on Sunday mornings by his mother playing the Guilty album. The collaboration with Barry Gibb marked the height of his pop years, but as the young Australian performing artist pursued his own dreams, Menzies came to see the breadth of his work as his most inspiring asset.
“I guess with anyone who has this gift of God in any field, when it’s easy, you want to explore other avenues. If you’re that kind of person…you like a challenge. When she talks about her singing, she says she just wanted to be the greatest actress who ever lived. Singing was an extension of her acting.
What Streisand chose to sing, often against the advice of costumes attempting to guide his career, was equally inspiring. When she signed her first contract with Columbia Records, she fought for an unprecedented degree of creative control for a 21-year-old. Twenty years later, having conquered the pop charts of the 80s, his bold return to show tunes was another fight. For young performers like Cameron Menzies, it was a landmark event.
1960: His first professional gig at New York’s Bon Soir nightclub pays $125 a week.
1962: Office secretary Tessie Marmelstein, a supporting role in the Broadway musical I can get it for you wholesaleput it on the map.
1969: Oscar for best actress for her film debut in funny girl.
1970: As Star of the Decade at the annual Tony Awards, she joins the exclusive club EGOT: to date, only 21 artists have won Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tony Awards.
1976: Becomes the first woman to win an Oscar as a composer (with co-writer Paul Williams) for Evergreen.
1980: Guiltywritten and produced by Barry Gibb, became his most successful album.
1983: With Yentlbecomes the first woman to write, produce, direct and star in a major studio film.
1991: Just for information The box set reveals over 70 previously unreleased tracks from its archives: a pioneering concept embraced by Bob Dylan and others.
1992: Campaigns for presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, as part of continued public support for the US Democratic Party.
1994: Return tour after 27 years off stage makes her the highest paid concert performer to date.
2003: Her lawsuit opposing topographical photos of her Malibu home coined the term “Streisand Effect”: when an attempt to censor news brought her unprecedented attention.
2006: Streisand: The Tour breaks box office records again.
2014: With The partnersan album of duets with artists like Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Andrea Bocelli and Elvis Presley, becomes the only artist to have number one albums in six consecutive decades.
2015: Awarded America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, alongside Stephen Sondheim, Steven Spielberg, Gloria Estefan.
2016: Encore: Film Partners Sing Broadway is her 11th number one album: a permanent record for a female artist.
“On this opening track of The Broadway Scrapbookshe uses people like David Geffen and Sydney Pollack who say things like “I thought she was original” and “Well, nobody’s going to buy her…”
“It was always ‘No you can’t’, and she was always like ‘Well, how do you know? I’m not going to do it this way, I’m going to do it this way. Even the Sondheim stuff on her Broadway album, she made him change the lyrics; make different orchestrations.
Caroline O’Connor, too, fell in love with Babs again as Gibb and Summer gave way to Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Oh my God, that was just the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard,” she said. “She was doing all these numbers from some of the most amazing, magical, extraordinary musicals on one album. The orchestra, its magnificence. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Some people think musical theater is a bit corny,” she says. “Sometimes we have a bit of a bad reputation.” With this album, “Barbra took it back and put it in a class of its own.”
Despite dire warnings from industry experts, The Broadway Scrapbook reached number one in America, sold millions in a dozen countries, put Sondheim and Bernstein back on the singles charts, and won Streisand her ninth Grammy – ironically, in the same category she owned. every few years since 1964: Best Pop Vocal.
The voice. It all comes down to that. It’s all still there, she assured me last year, even though she hasn’t filmed for six years; has not sung in the studio since his politically motivated and coldly received Walls disc of 2018.
“His sense of pitch, his sense of time, the nuances of his instrument; she’s really awfully good,” says Katie Noonan. The Brisbane singer came late to Babs, she acknowledges, being steeped in classical and jazz training and more biased towards singer-songwriter fare when she came of age in the 90s.
“But about 15 years ago I was asked to sing one of her songs and…I was overwhelmed by her artistry as a singer. What I like about this generation is that they all existed before [ubiquitous pitch correction software] Auto-Tune… So you can say she’s a legitimately wonderful singer.
“She’s able to embody the song in a way that actors can. She usually always sings someone else’s story, but she manages to do it in a way that makes it feel like her own story, which I think is an amazing thing.
At 80, her own story eclipses any song in her epic repertoire. Barbra’s cult is huge and incredibly detailed. “You have to talk with your fingers,” says famous impersonator Steven Brinberg. Watch how she moves her lips as she sings the word “so,” British singer Claire Williams advises in her stop-motion video tutorials. You’ll need the NARS Orgasm blush range to get this funny girl look, says a YouTube beauty consultant. “It’s more fishing.”
His social and political influence, meanwhile, adds a whole other dimension to Streisand’s relentlessly progressive and persuasive agenda. Her daily tweets are much more likely to focus on political corruption, women’s health, climate inaction, LGBTQI+ rights, gun control and global affairs (her paternal grandparents emigrated from Ukraine) than to spread his incredible legacy as an artist who has thrived long enough to duet with Judy Garland and Celine Dion.
“When you look at this body of work, surely nobody can reach that,” says Caroline O’Connor, who has performed both Garland and Edith Piaf (both parting at 47) on stage. “She continues to perform and record. I don’t know how long this will last. But in that regard, I don’t think there will be anyone who will top that legacy.
The MSO presents To Barbra, with love at Hamer Hall from April 21-23. mso.com.au
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