by Kit van Cleave
You might remember it, too. It was the 2013 Academy Awards; the theme was music in the movies. Several iconic singers were introduced, such as Dame Shirley Bassey of Goldfinger fame. While her big voice didn’t quite have some of the fluidity Bassey has been known for, she certainly could rip off that memorable theme song (“GoldFINGAHHH”).
Then George Clooney introduced the “memorial” section of the show, in which actors and other cinema leaders who have died are remembered. The last photo was of Marvin Hamlisch, the prodigious pianist, composer (e.g., Chorus Line, Sophie’s Choice), and songwriter. Suddenly, with no introduction, Hamlisch’s friend and collaborator, Barbra Streisand, came onstage and began singing “The Way We Were.”
It was a stunning revelation. First of all, she didn’t need an introduction; everyone in “the business” knew who she was, and has known since she became a star on Broadway in Funny Girl five decades ago. Secondly, she looked fabulous—not for a woman of 72, just fabulous. Then came the real shock: that voice, as clear and pure as if Streisand had never aged a moment from the first time we all heard her. It was all there—the immaculate diction, tessitura, clarity of note, “slice” of tone (which needs no amplification in the theater), breath control, musicianship, passion, and engaged storytelling.
A Streisand renaissance is occurring, yet she’s been a star for so long that many people may have thought she’s not working any more. Who is this creature of such profound gifts, who can seemingly do it all—act, sing, direct, produce, write both words and music?
She’s a member of the EGOT club for winners of the big four awards—Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony—often given more than one of each. She is the epitome of the American self-made woman so far up in the success stratosphere she hardly seems human. She recently charmed Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, in her first appearance there in 50 years. (Alluding to the singer’s reputation for being difficult, Fallon asked her, “What have you done with Barbra Streisand?” noting she was being so cooperative and friendly.)
Her new album, Partners, is at the top of the music charts. Entertainment Weekly reports, “This is Streisand’s 10th time atop the Billboard 200 since ‘People’ was released in 1964…she holds the record for No. 1 albums by a woman…” and has sold more albums than Elvis.
But what is most remarkable about Streisand is how self-contained she was in her teens, and how concentrated she has always been on what Sondheim has called “The Art of Making Art.” She was 19 when she stood before The Abominable Showman David Merrick (whose Hello, Dolly! was playing Broadway at the time), choreographer Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Laurents (who wrote the books for Gypsy and West Side Story), and explained to them and Fanny Brice’s son-in-law Ray Stark how she was the only woman who could play Brice in a new musical for the New York stage. It probably made sense to Streisand; she had been working steadily in theater and supper-clubs since she was 16, after graduating early from high school.
William J. Mann’s Hello, Gorgeous details the self-creation of this much-loved yet controversial artist, from childhood through the end of Funny Girl’s Broadway run. Mann also outlines better than any other biography how gay men helped form Streisand’s early image, taught her the great American musical theater tunes, talked fashion, and supported her ambitions. She gained confidence, an image, and musical broadening from their friendship with her.
The first was Terry Leong, who helped her prepare an audition for The Insect Comedy. Leong had studied at the Fashion Institute and wanted to be a designer for the theater. As Streisand was broke and got no help from her family, he introduced her to thrift shops lining Third Avenue, from which she began to design her own style. Leong, fascinated with her, told her he was gay and began designing her “look.”
Barré Dennen (note the accent aigu), whom everyone called Barry, was, as Mann writes, “a rich kid—a ‘Beverly Hills brat,’” who lived in an “exquisite apartment” in Greenwich Village. Barré and Barbra were cast in The Insect Comedy together, and bonded.
When Streisand decided to audition for The Sound of Music, she met Peter Daniels, an English pianist accompanying the auditions. He would become her principal accompanist for years, including during Funny Girl and on subsequent tours (Peter Matz handled the honors on her early albums).
Dennen, meanwhile, was teaching Streisand about the great singers (Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, et al.) and composers (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter) of the early 20th century whose works are included in The Great American Songbook, a compilation of romantic songs. This music would shape Streisand’s early recordings, then extend throughout her film career.
What drew these new friends together? They were all dazzled by her singing, and determined to help shape her first ventures into show business. Dennen told her about a talent contest at The Lion, a gay bar down the block from his apartment. The team prepared her for her first singing gig, dressed by Leong in a feathered boudoir jacket and layered skirt in lavender. “The place was packed; the talent shows were popular with the gay crowd of regulars,” Mann recalls. The lovely, well-known local singer Dawn Hampton was also competing.
But when Streisand started singing, the room quieted down. “Maybe the gay men in attendance had been rooting for the homely girl over the pretty one, the underdog over the luminary…. The room had exploded into cheers for her, and she won the contest.” She would continue to win week after week, until the club owner moved on to another contest to break her hold on The Lion.
During this period, another friend of Dennen arrived from Los Angeles—Bob Schulenberg, who would complete Barbra’s fashion statement. Mann describes his design: “He painstakingly glued false eyelashes to Barbra’s lids, extending them around the sides of her face the way Claudette Colbert and Katharine Hepburn had popularized in the 1930s.” He also began to teach her the rules of etiquette she had never learned at home, and helped her prepare for an audition at the Bon Soir, “the closest the Village came to a posh supper club.” It was there that Streisand was first adopted by other artists in show business, many of whom talked her up to producers, directors, and other performers. She was on her way to heights even she would not have expected. (Or would she?)
When, in her early 20s, with a Time cover and a hit Broadway show behind her, she went to L.A. to film Funny Girl, Streisand was no longer the skinny kid with acne and a gangly punk presentation. Hollywood found, to its amazement, that Streisand was possessed of luminous skin the camera loved, a beautiful body (especially breasts), and she was sexy (see “Love with All the Trimmings” from her film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). She was also intellectually brilliant and determined to forge her own way, make her own art.
Though some of Streisand’s early friends later felt rebuffed by her, this is common when those who first see an artist’s potential find their friend moving up into circles they will not. In any case, that’s between Streisand and them. She grew up poor, with her father deceased and her mother dismissive of any effort. Clearly, she learned early on that the one person she could rely on to meet her goals was herself. Yet there is no doubt that without these four gay men, who contributed their creativity to her own, she would have had a less spectacular rise, and less fun along the way.
Note: If readers doubt Streisand is sexy, “Love with All The Trimmings” can be seen on youtube.com. William Mann also recommends both Streisand’s own website and barbraarchive.com for more information.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.