Barbra Streisand Is, as Ever, Firmly in Control

Since her breakout in the 1960s, she’s been able to convince the world around her to listen — not by chasing trends but by remaining always and fully herself.

Article by James B Stewart

Barbra Streisand, photographed at her home in Malibu, California, in October 2020. Streisand wears her own clothing and accessories. Photography by Collier Schorr. Styled by Mel Ottenberg.

The day I arrive at Barbra Streisand’s property, she is on the phone with the Christie’s auction house in London. Outside, it’s a brilliantly sunny California afternoon in October, the skies clear of the ash cloud that recently blanketed Los Angeles.

Collecting is one of Streisand’s passions. On the walls of her sprawling Malibu home are early 19th-century American folk-art portraits, including several by the master of the genre, Ammi Phillips, a New England artist known for his spare, enigmatic, almost Modernist images. Streisand has been buying them since the late 1980s and is especially drawn to paintings of a mother with her child. She also owns two of George Washington, one done by Charles Peale Polk in 1795 while Washington was still alive, which Streisand has promised to Mount Vernon, the Virginia museum that was once the president’s home. (The other is by Gilbert Stuart.) We could be in Newport, R.I., or Colonial Williamsburg, except that Streisand’s husband of 22 years, the actor James Brolin, a fit-looking 80, is working beside the large pool just outside the living room windows, with the Pacific Ocean his backdrop.

An assistant leads me to an annex Streisand calls the barn, where she and her husband did most of their entertaining before the pandemic struck. This “barn” is a vast structure with a spiral staircase in a silo, a napping room, a frozen yogurt machine and more evidence of Streisand’s wide-ranging tastes: There are meticulously recreated rooms in the American colonial, Art Nouveau, Scottish Mackintosh and Arts and Crafts styles. Streisand has rotated through these movements and others, going through “periodic purges,” as she puts it, when her tastes in interior decorating (and, she adds, hairstyles) have changed. By the end of her Art Deco phase, circa 1974 to 1994, “I never wanted to look at Art Deco again,” she wrote in her 2010 coffee-table book, “My Passion for Design.” She put most of the pieces up for auction, an ordeal that inspired Jonathan Tolins’s 2013 Off Broadway play, “Buyer & Cellar.”

I’ve been settled in a cavernous screening room, filled with overstuffed sofas and chairs, when suddenly, Streisand appears. She’s wearing a black top of her own design and a pair of $20 pants she bought online from a company called Simplicitie, and has just had her shoulder-length hair highlighted — which I know because she said the dye job distracted her from that afternoon’s 600-point reversal in the Dow Jones industrial average. The stock market is another of Streisand’s passions. She wakes up most mornings at 6:30 a.m. to check the opening in New York. If she finds the action “interesting,” she trades. Then she goes back to bed.

Coming face-to-face with Streisand, who is 78, is a shock. Nearly her entire adult life has been chronicled in images — onscreen; in photographs — and she’s the subject of scores of unauthorized biographies, none of which she’s read. She’s won Oscars, a Tony, Emmys, even the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For six years, she’s been working on an autobiography that she says is nearing completion. She’s been a presence in my life since I was a teenager and saw her in 1968’s “Funny Girl,” a heartbreaking film about the devastated Broadway diva Fanny Brice that prompted my sister to lock herself in her room for a half-hour sob.

Streisand is still a little breathless as she settles into a chair at a safe distance. I ask if she won the auction. “Yes!” she exclaims. “It was nerve-racking.” She extends her phone to show me an image of “Peasant Woman With Child on her Lap,” an 1885 Vincent van Gogh painting rendered in somber grays, blues and browns. (I later see on the Christie’s website that the work sold for $4.47 million, well above its high estimate of $3.8 million. She’s loaning it to a museum.)

Streisand has always collected: In 1964, when she was starring in “Funny Girl” on Broadway, she saved enough from her $2,500-a-week salary to buy a small Matisse, her first major purchase. Art satisfies her urge both to collect and invest — a Klimt she bought in 1969 for $17,000 sold years later for $650,000. And, she says, “I love things that are beautiful. I think I have a good eye — in some ways my entire life has been a quest for beauty.”

But her love of things also fills a void. “Sometimes I think it’s all connected to the loss of a parent,” Streisand writes in her design book. Her father, Emanuel, a high school English teacher, died in 1943 at age 35, when Streisand was 15 months old. “Because you’d do anything to get that mother or father back. But you can’t. … Yet with objects, there’s a possibility.”

Streisand wears a Valentino coat, and Hanro sweater, Photography by Collier Schorr. Styled by Mel Ottenberg.

Streisand seems happier talking about art than music, but any story about her life must begin with her singing voice: “one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource,” as Glenn Gould, the celebrated classical pianist, once put it. Only the great 20th-century soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf brought him comparable listening pleasure.

In the weeks before we meet, I revisited many of Streisand’s recordings, going back to her 1965 album “My Name Is Barbra.” Even now, her voice is instantly recognisable; she is able to fuse musicality and drama to a degree few singers — with the exception of Maria Callas — can. Equally impressive is her sense of restraint; some of her most memorable songs begin quietly, even haltingly. On the title track that opens “My Name Is Barbra,” she starts off unaccompanied, relying solely on her voice, as if to say, “Listen closely, you’ve never heard anything like this.” She often employs a penetrating, somewhat nasal sound, a remnant of her childhood in Brooklyn, but as she adds volume, her tone broadens and her voice soars into its upper range. Finally, just when you think she has nowhere else to go, she unleashes her full vibrato, holding the climactic note seemingly forever — or, to be precise, a remarkable 18 seconds, as with the ending of “A Piece of Sky,” one of the hits from her 1983 film, “Yentl.”

Streisand famously has had no serious musical education, yet I tell her that I find it hard to believe that her formidable vocal technique — her distinct phrasing, enormous range, expressive vibrato and skill at sustaining dynamics from pianissimos to double fortes — hasn’t been the result of countless hours of practice and training. “What’s a double forte?” she asks.

She says her ability to hold a note can be largely attributed to one quality: willpower. “Streisand was a prodigy,” says Michael Kosarin, the music director, arranger and conductor. “About the only thing I can compare it to is Luciano Pavarotti,” the operatic tenor, who, like Streisand, didn’t read music. “Singers can be overtrained. The technique can get in the way of the acting.” He pointed to her rendition of the song “My Man” from “Funny Girl”— “In the first half she’s barely singing. Some notes are a little off-pitch. She’s overcome by emotion. It’s perfect for telling the story, not perfect in and of itself.”

Streisand says her vocal stylings came to her naturally. She sings like she speaks, and when she does, she often inhabits a character. She’s playing a part, and acting is what she always wanted to do. Her legendary voice, it seems, has mainly been a means to other ends: She’ll only do a concert these days, she says, so she can “buy a painting or give the money away to charity.” But singing has paid for her cliffside Malibu compound and the objects within. It has financed the causes and political candidates she believes in. It has fueled her investing. “She sees herself as much bigger than a singer or actor,” says the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, 90, who has known Streisand since she was 19; they played card games together during rehearsals for Streisand’s run in her Broadway debut, 1962’s “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” directed by Sondheim’s friend Arthur Laurents. “She’s a political figure who affects things that go well beyond entertainment.”

Perhaps Streisand is so nonchalant about her vocal talent because it came to her so easily. By the age of 5, she says, she was known in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood as the “girl with no father and a good voice.” (Her father obviously still looms large: She proudly mentions that he taught the classics to prison inmates in Elmira, N.Y.) Her mother, Diana, had a natural operatic voice but never sang professionally: She supported Barbra and Barbra’s older brother, Sheldon, by working as a school secretary and a bookkeeper. She warned her daughter not to pursue a career in show business, because, as Streisand recalls, “I didn’t look like the movie stars I read about in magazines.” She now believes her mother was jealous of her talent. “I didn’t really like my life as a child,” she says. “I thought, ‘This can’t be it.’” Her mother remarried and, at 16, Streisand graduated high school early and moved to Manhattan. (Streisand has a half sister, Roslyn Kind, but rarely mentions her or Sheldon, a Long Island real estate investor.)

At 18, Streisand heard about a talent contest at the Lion, a club in Greenwich Village. She had recently been fired from her job as a clerk and phone operator for a printing company and was being repeatedly rejected for acting gigs. The prize was $50 and a free dinner of London broil, and she needed both. Along with auditioning and interviewing, she also was reinventing herself: She said she was from Smyrna, Turkey, using the ancient Greek name for the city (“I pronounced it with an accent and a rolled ‘R’ — ‘Smeerrna’!”), a vaguely plausible claim given her features. “I didn’t want to be labeled as some girl from Brooklyn,” she says. After she sang Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s 1954 song “A Sleepin’ Bee,” there was a stunned silence — and then, thunderous applause. She followed with the 1952 jazz hit “Lullaby of Birdland,” walking through the small, packed room with her microphone. She won.

She didn’t realise until she arrived that the Lion was a gay bar, but it seems fitting that she got her start there. As William J. Mann, author of the 2012 book “Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” has written, many of her early friends and influences turned out to be gay men, and “gay audiences instinctively recognised something very familiar about her, a shared sensibility.” Streisand is routinely ranked as a gay icon alongside Judy Garland, Bette Midler and Lady Gaga, who, to varying degrees, embody a combination of glamour and suffering that can only be redeemed by love, requited or (more often) not. “The Man That Got Away,” the 1954 torch song originated by Garland that later became a hit for Streisand, has been a queer anthem for decades.

The artist in a lace shift dress from Church Boutique in Los Angeles. Photography by Collier Schorr. Styled by Mel Ottenberg.

Theatre mavens and celebrities began making their way to the Lion for Streisand’s weekly performances, and after a month or so, she moved on to the more upscale Bon Soir nearby. One memorable night there, she met her future lifelong manager, Martin Erlichman; on another, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the lyricists who would later write many of her most enduring songs, including 1973’s “The Way We Were” (written with Marvin Hamlisch) and, a decade later, the “Yentl” soundtrack (with Michel Legrand). In 1962, Laurents hired her for “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.” In that play, the 19-year-old Streisand stopped the show with her solo “Miss Marmelstein,” a comic vocal masterpiece in which she complains that more attractive girls get called by their first names. Overnight, she became a Broadway star. (In 1963, she married her “Wholesale” co-star, Elliott Gould, whom she divorced eight years later; they have a son, Jason.) Her next theatrical break came in 1964, with “Funny Girl.” Though the musical — about an early 20th-century Ziegfeld star who won and then lost her man — seems written for Streisand, the producers only settled on her after Anne Bancroft and Carol Burnett turned down the role.

Streisand’s mother was right that she wasn’t conventionally pretty, at least not in the aristocratic, Grace Kelly mold. She repeatedly rebuffed advice to have her nose cosmetically altered, and instead made it one of her signature features; she learned to deploy her Brooklyn accent for comic effect. Audiences couldn’t take their eyes off her. While doing seven Broadway performances a week, Streisand also taped her “My Name Is Barbra” TV special for CBS, a vocal tour de force that extended her fame nationwide. At 21, she landed on the cover of Time magazine: “She touches the heart with her awkwardness, her lunging humor and a bravery that is all the more winning because she seems so vulnerable,” the magazine’s reporter wrote.

Streisand’s performances in “Funny Girl,” and her televised rendition of its hit song “People,” were so indelible that the show has proved largely impervious to revival. “I’d never touch it,” says Sierra Boggess, who has starred in “The Phantom of the Opera” and “School of Rock” on Broadway. Streisand “is so ruthlessly herself and so unique. I wouldn’t know how to make it my own.” It’s hard to imagine anyone today replicating Streisand’s astonishing rise to stardom — discovered in an obscure gay nightclub and anointed by an elite group of powerful cultural gatekeepers. Yet, even as social media has spawned a new generation of pop stars, Streisand’s appeal endures, unaffected by shifting tastes. Her relevancy comes not from following musical trends but from refusing to do so.

Today, Streisand calls herself an actor first. Though she never had music lessons, she studied with the renowned acting teacher Allan Miller while she was still a teenager and absorbed the Method approach taught at New York’s Actors Studio (she was deemed too young to enroll but was later made an honorary life member). One of her unfulfilled dreams is to have performed in the classics, particularly in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Acting is also what drew her to Sondheim’s songs. “He gives you so much to work with,” she says. “I love singing his songs because they’re written for characters in a play where there’s a beginning, a middle and an end — and then I try to relate that to parts of myself.” Both Streisand and Sondheim recall that while working on his song “Send in the Clowns” from the 1973 musical “A Little Night Music” for her 1985 album of Broadway show tunes, she struggled with what she considered an “emotional gap” between the last stanzas. The climactic line — “Quick, send in the clowns. / Don’t bother, they’re here.” — comes before the last stanza in the Broadway original, but Streisand called Sondheim and asked if she could move that line to the end. It’s hard to imagine any other performer who’d dare edit Sondheim’s work, but two hours later he called her back to say that “she was right and astute,” Sondheim recalls. In the stage version of the song, the last stanzas are separated by dialogue that makes explicit the predicament the former lovers face: that the aging actress Desiree is still in love with the man she once rejected, who is now married to a younger woman. So Sondheim wrote a musical bridge and additional lyrics for Streisand that became the version she sang on the album.

But Sondheim and Streisand quarreled some years ago over a new movie version of the musical “Gypsy,” in which Streisand would play Mama Rose, the role immortalised on Broadway by Ethel Merman in 1959. (Rosalind Russell starred in the 1962 movie version.) Although the musical is loosely based on the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, the American burlesque star, the show is dominated by Gypsy’s mother, a frustrated performer who pours her ambitions into her daughter — an archetypal stage mom. Streisand’s fans have long clamored to see her in the part, which seems tailored to her voice.

As the lyricist for the Broadway original, Sondheim controls the rights along with the estates of Laurents, who wrote the book, and Jule Styne, the composer. They were amenable to the project, but Streisand wanted to direct and star in the film, which Sondheim and Laurents resisted. Then she started tinkering with the book. (Streisand says she was only restoring the earlier movie version to the original book.) And now, a Barbra Streisand “Gypsy” — a possibility as recently as four years ago — is no longer on the table.

Still, attempting to rewrite one of the most celebrated books in Broadway history is entirely in character for Streisand, who tells me several times that artistic control has been far more important to her than money or critical acclaim. This has been true from the outset: She insisted upon — and won — contractual control over her first record album, even down to the cover design, which features a photograph of her performing at the Bon Soir.

A version of this article appears in print in our launch edition, Page 128 of T Australia with the headline:
Always in Control
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