My old friend, author (and former magazine colleague) Kevin Sessums, went to see Barbra Streisand‘s San Francisco concert the other night. He knows his subject a bit after interviewing her for Vanity Fair in 1991. He’s profiled scores of the rich, talented and famous, but none more notoriously difficult, temperamental or “profoundly talented” than La Streisand. Here’s his account of the road-ready Babs in concert.
She accidentally knocked over her microphone stand. She fumbled with her left shoe when her first-act pants leg got caught in it and the shoe fell off her foot while she was sitting regally atop her stool center stage.
“First the mic. Now my shoe,” she said, laughing at herself. She even laughed at forgetting a lyric of a song she had even told us she’d forgotten she’d ever sung in ‘Funny Lady‘ after Liza Minnelli had sung it for her in a tribute to her at Lincoln Center.
‘I loved the song,‘ she told us and Liza afterward.
‘But what did it have to do with me?’ I asked Liza afterward. ‘Barbra, You sang that song in Funny Lady.’ I had no memory of it,” she said, shrugging and yes, laughing at herself once more.
‘So you see – it has nothing to do with age, this gorgeous 74-year-old force of nature acknowledged.
‘I’ve always been like that.‘
And then she forgot those lyrics even though they were hanging above her on the giant teleprompter.
This was a looser – yes, more likable – Barbra Streisand than she has usually presented to her adoring public. It is the one that her friends and family and coworkers always tell you about. It is the one I met 25 years ago when I did a cover story on her for Vanity Fair when her film ‘Prince of Tides‘ was about to be released. (It was a thrill to see that Vanity Cover [cover] in the montage of images of her that opens the second act of her triumphant return to touring this year.)
The scripted badinage was batted about expertly as if she were thinking about it off the top of her head – which just reminded me of what a great actress she is and how, for all her flair for the dramatic, there is an underlying naturalism and truthfulness that has always buttressed the bounty of her talent, kept it from being too overwhelming both for her and for us. She joked about being accused of being a control freak and told us about examples in her professional life when she’d given up control – and laughed that off too. She bashed Trump repeatedly.
She looks amazing, as if the Streisand of our mem’ry – to use the spelling the tour uses in its title ‘The Music … The Mem’ries … The Magic!‘ – is set in amber. No other 74-year-old woman could get away with reminding us of what she looked like at 40 but this too proves that she is a creature set apart from the rest of us. I marveled at the stamina it would have indeed taken a 40 year old to get through the almost three-hour show she so generously performed for us last night that was co-directed with a keen eye and deft theatrical hand by Richard Jay-Alexander. (Streisand also gets a co-director credit and they co-wrote it together.) The voice can waver a bit from time to time when she perhaps momentarily tires but that is to be expected.
By the very next number, however, she and that voice rally and raise the roof or move the heart. Its tones are richer now, that voice. Huskier, some say. But I find the voice – and the woman – even more moving for owning those imperfections and folding them into her sound and her presence, each more soulful because of them. The voice was often so perfect in the past that it perched all alone there before us preening itself for both our devotion and diversion. Now a flock of emotions overtakes us as the preening has fallen away.
We fans of hers are still devoted but this is no longer a diversion for us. The talent was always profound but now what we are feeling, profoundly so, is spurred by a talent that is not waning exactly but becoming more meaningful to us as it has, at this stage of her career and life, become more welcoming and, yes, more vulnerable.
There were a couple of rough patches last night which was to be expected since it was only the second performance of the tour. The disco/rock-like medley with her back-up singers joining her down on the stage from their own perch stage left, still needs to find its legs – especially rhythmically with the orchestra-like band that sounded better in the slower songs that called for more lushness. Her Mama Rose-like performance of the Funny Girl/Funny Lady segment was also a bit rough in parts but the sheer rawness with which she built it kind of knocked the audience back on its heels even as she was knocked back on hers.
“That was almost awful but finally brilliant,” I told the friend sitting next to me.
Her finest moments to me were the quietest ones. The way she interpreted ‘Everything Must Change‘, ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers‘, and ‘Losing My Mind‘ turned them into rich one-act plays. Her rendition of ‘Being Alive‘ from Company brought the arena to its feet and I think the note I will remember most from the whole evening is not the one brilliantly blared at the end of ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade‘, the show’s finale, but the low, lovely one she reached when she sang “someone to hurt me too deep,” that “deep” so heart-rending I felt it resoundingly come to rest inside my chest where my own heart resides. It was the kind of emotion conjured by a true artist, one that can cause a physical reaction in that moment it is conjured.
And then after her two encores – a passable ‘People‘ and a rousing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again‘ – she came back out and surprised us with a third one. It was Rodgers and Hart‘s ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was‘ from the musical ‘Too Many Girls‘. It is on her new album. To me, this was the highlight of the whole show. The voice took on a timbre of intimacy and transported us not only back to a small night club on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village in New York City but also Streisand herself back to her younger self, yet one steeped in all the life she has lived since. It was in that moment that the woman onstage last night melded with the girl who longed long ago to be who she had, yes, become before our eyes during the last six decades. The genius of Streisand is that she is still longing and still evolving and still becoming newer versions of herself before our eyes. She sang,
“Once I was young, but never was naive. I thought I had a trick or two up my imaginary sleeve …”
Then left us with this last sung line,
“I’m wise, and I know what time it is now.“