Friday, November 16, 2012

"The Only Fan Letter I Ever Wrote"

I had seen her on television.  I had sat in the audience, watching her steal the show as a featured player in I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962).  I had consumed her first album.  And then, there was Funny Girl (1964), her first starring vehicle.

I was smitten, at seventeen, with Barbra Streisand (who at the time was around twenty.)  

And I sent her the only fan letter I have ever written in my life.

The letter was triggered by an imminent visit to New York City, where I would most certainly get tickets to Funny Girl.  As was usual, I had already purchased the original cast album, and had committed, not all, but all Barbra’s songs, to memory. 

Without question, or legitimate rival, Barbra Streisand was it.

I have always been an appreciator of excellence, and, Billie Holiday being a respectable second, I had never heard a more excellent voice.  A song Barbra sang from The Fantasticks begins with the line, “I’d like to swim in a clear blue stream…”  That’s how her voice sounded to me.  Like a clear, blue stream. 

A clear, blue stream that could act the bejeezus out of a song.

Barbra Streisand didn’t just sing with a crystal, pure voice, she immersed herself in the material, delivering her meticulously chosen selections “from the inside”, often, as with the slowed-down version of “Happy Days Are Here Again”, with fresh and unexpected meaning.

But it was more than an appreciation of her incomparable gifts that impelled me to put pen to paper and write her a fan letter.

I cannot say there was no moony-eyed “crush” component in the equation.  But it was not the predominant one.  What I was excited about was the triumph of talent over looks, conventionality, inexperience and youth.  

A “big nose” with prodigious abilities was making a noise, and I wrote the letter because I wanted her to know her team was out there rooting for her, her “team” being people with as yet undiscovered abilities who looked more like her than like (the icons of the era) Doris Day and Rock Hudson. 

Our team had a winner.  And it gave us comfort, reassurance, inspiration and hope.

My return letter was a typewritten “form letter”, delivered on a quarter of a sheet of paper.  And when I waited at the stage door after attending a matinee performance of Funny Girl, my hero did not come out, opting instead to remain in the theater till after the evening performance.  In both cases, I was disappointed, but hardly turned off.  I continued buying her records, and continued being a fan.

When Barbra got big, and I started doing stuff rather than just dreaming about doing stuff, my enthusiasm inevitably waned.  True, I grew disappointed with her “MOR” song choices – and her pairings with the likes of Neil Diamond and some Disco diva, but, more importantly, it is hard to root for an underdog when they’re not an underdog anymore.  And after a while, neither was I, leaving me less needy of external inspiration. 

Thank you, Barbra.

It was time to move on.


A friend inquired if we’d like to see Barbra Streisand concerting at the Hollywood Bowl.  (I had not seen her perform live since Funny Girl.)  Despite misgivings – Hollywood Bowl is an enormous pain to get to – I heard myself saying I’d like to go. 

Was my enthusiasm rekindled?  I can only say that on the way to the performance, I secretly fantasized myself standing on stage with Barbra, joining her in a duet.  I even imagined the song we would wow them with – "Beauty and the Beast"after which I would return to my seat, the audience cheering reverberating in my ears. 

Some habits die hard.  Wishful thinking is one of them.

I will not attempt a review of the concert.  I will say only this:

For starters, I found myself in the company of a far different woman than the struggling Ugly Duckling I had once rooted for.  Standing on that stage was arguably – with apologies to Oprah – the most successful woman in show business.  Check out her credits.  Barbra Streisand had racked more awards in more media – theater, movies, television, recording – and in more different categories – singer, actor, director, songwriter – than anyone ever.

Barbra’s voice is no longer the “clear blue stream” of old, but the degree of “drop-off” - Barbra beating the odds again - is astonishingly small.  You could hear it whispering through the sold-out crowd:  “She’s still got it.” The only competing observation being, “She’s had a lot of ‘work’ done.”

Still there was something missing.  Her repertoire, though commendably delivered, felt, to me, like “business as usual.”  Her performance lacked excitement, not because she was fifty years older, but because her song selections seemed generally “ho-hum”, and her persona, though outwardly humble, was detectably self-congratulatory.  

Though I was happy to be there, I was hardly transported.

And then…

For the finale leading to the Intermission, Barbra cut loose, jettisoning the comfortable, and tearing into a (composer) Jule Style medley, two snippets from Gypsy, crescendoing into the tail end of the galvanizing Anthem of my Youth from Funny Girl, “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” 

In that moment, Barbra Streisand caught fire.  Belting out that medley with passion and intensity, the old Barbra was suddenly back, all grit and defiance, spitting out those culminating lyrics that had once meant so much:

“Get ready for me, world, ‘cause I’m a comer

I’ve simply got to march, my heart’s a drummer


No, nobody

Is gonna rain on my…







Like an aging boxer who can still “bring it”, if not for the whole bout, for at least one round, as in (country singer) Toby Keith’s song, “I’m Not As Good Once As I Once Was, But I’m As Good Once As I Ever Was”, Barbra Streisand reached deep inside herself, and, obliterating fifty years of comfort and entitlement, reclaimed what it was that made her what she became, and simply blew the audience – including yours truly – into the stratosphere.

As they say in Camelot, for one brief shining moment,

I was, once again, fully and unreservedly,

Goose bumps and shamelessly tearfully,


1 comment:

Rob Bedford said...

Although I've never written a fan letter - unless these posts count? - I'm right there w/you RE: Barbra S. What a voice, such passion in every song. And I thought she was exceptionally fine looking. Truly unique. As I also thought about Ellen Barkin and a few others. I've always thought Barbra was/is the finest female voice I've ever heard (discounting opera singers who are in a whole different world). The female singing voice is not really a favorite of mine, and darn few male voices, for that matter. Barbra tops my list of faves, along with Julie London, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and today's best, Jackie Ryan & Pat Benetar. I'm sure there's others, I just don't of them. (I loved Karen Carpenter's voice, but not her genre.)

Since she went to school w/Neil Diamond, there probably wasn't any good way to say no.

As for her other attributes/talents, you covered them very well. Don't think I've ever seen a movie of hers all the way through, but I have seen parts of many of them. Just enough to get my visual fix of her. Antenna TV has been playing several of her films lately, but they're all showing in the middle of the night on the west coast, so I'm missing more parts than ever!

Admittedly, I don't think she's a babe anymore, but she's still a beauty.