Barbra Streisand’s year of singing dangerously
by David Patrick Stearns
AUGUST 16, 2016
For the first time in decades, Barbra Streisand is singing dangerously. Often.
Not because her voice has suddenly regained what it has gradually lost over the years. When Streisand, 74, opened the East Coast leg of her tour Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, her voice had a thinning tone, raspy edges, and an occasional frog in the throat. Sorry, the world has not yet invented cosmetic surgery for vocal cords.
The difference – which will doubtless be evident Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center – is that she isn’t wasting her energy avoiding or masking what her voice can no longer do. Thus, she’s free to explore avenues of expression that could perhaps have come only from a woman of her age and experience.
When she knocked out a truncated, obligatory “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on her 2012 tour, you assumed that was the best we were going get from here on. Now, she sings the entire song – well enough, but also risking comparisons with her younger self by showing clips of Funny Girl from 48 years ago.
Her career montage – including the 1966 Color Me Barbra TV special shot in fraught, round-the-clock production circumstances at the Philadelphia Museum of Art amid multiple camera failures – reminds you of the many personas she has explored. Yet she doesn’t look back complacently. Streisand sang longer than the forecast two-hour-and-40-minute run time, and she relied less on supporting acts such as Il Divo to buy her vocal rest (though there’s a relatively brief, engaging interlude with comedian/mentalist Lior Suchard).
The politics that have caused consternation in past Philadelphia visits – for her 2006 tour, she had Steve Bridges, a comic George W. Bush impersonator – are still there with her Hillary Clinton infomercials and Donald Trump wisecracks. Some fans booed her Thursday. I can’t imagine she cared.
And, having sat near a teleprompter, I can report that Streisand – the control freak of old – frequently goes off script. Such things suggest Streisand is getting back to the way she was – with rich reference to where she has been.
Streisand never slotted seamlessly into the early 1960s, when lyrical female singers dominated and Broadway was a primary generator of pop music. The dismissive disdain she projected in “Cry Me a River” and the contrarily sad subtext of “Happy Days Are Here Again” established her as a revisionist figure with Marlon Brando-esque explosiveness. The cover photos on her hit 1964 album People showed her from the back, looking out into the sunrise, hands firmly planted on hips, implying as much exasperation as affection for her fellow human beings.
Although Streisand, Bette Midler, and Liza Minnelli promised to renew what is now called the Great American Songbook, Streisand arrived in Hollywood only to have the movie musical crumble beneath her feet. Funny Girl was a much-lauded hit in 1968, Hello Dolly lost millions in 1969, and the 1970 On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is barely remembered. A few other traditional film musicals, such as Cabaret, sneaked in under the wire, but many old-guard artists didn’t make the transition into the rhythm-driven 1970s.
An odd time, indeed. Bing Crosby recorded “Hey Jude” (badly), Nancy Sinatra attempted psychedelia in “Lightning’s Girl,” Mae West sang Bob Dylan, and Bobby Darin sang “If I Were a Carpenter” with only a fraction of his usual voice. Midler eventually reinvented herself with screwball comedies and inspirational ballads. Minnelli collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys, becoming a dance-club diva. Streisand’s successful sea change came with her 1970 Stoney End album – though it was followed by her now-embarrassing version of John Lennon’s “Mother” and a lot of disposable lightweight movies. In effect, Streisand, like Minnelli and Midler, had to take her talent underground until what she did best could be appreciated anew.
Cut to Streisand’s new duets album, Encore. Her vocal quirks emerge, undisguised by electronic trickery, in the very first cut, “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, and are particularly noticeable alongside fresher-voiced colleagues Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley. Obviously, age is not to be denied but embraced.
Meanwhile, she is more inclined to let her duet colleagues carry a song, starting with scene-setting dialogue before each track. In “At the Ballet,” she, Hathaway, and Ridley portray chorus-line hopefuls in an audition. In “Loving You” from Stephen Sondheim‘s Passion, she unleashes Patrick Wilson to take off with the kind of vocal flourishes she can no longer manage, allowing him to walk off with the song. Streisand isn’t serving Streisand here – at least not the way divas so often do. She’s serving the song in every way possible – even if that means delegating.
The best change of all is how warmly present Streisand is. She has never seemed more vibrant. When she returned to concert tours in 1994, she seemed almost like some corporate CEO who was rediscovering what it really meant to connect to a live audience. Any reserve, though, was far gone in her elegiac 2013 Marvin Hamlisch tribute at the Academy Awards.
That’s the kind of singing she delivered in the second half of the Brooklyn concert (after a more comfortable first half of midtempo ballads). Vocal quirks barely mattered. In many ways, the voice is just the most obvious manifestation in the larger emotional sphere of the song. Her visual appearance bordered on bland – so as not to distract from the music at hand. It all feels less packaged.
Singers often become more interesting as their diminishing resources force them to say more with fewer vocal options. Doing so fearlessly puts Streisand back in the danger zone, which has long been her friend. So it was from the beginning, when we were still figuring out what was the deal with her eccentric eye makeup, and so it is now, in a world that’s so used to her that you wrongly assume there are no new doors for her to open. Oh, but there are.