Thomas Wolfe was so right when he said, “You can’t go home again.” I thought of this famous quote when I was watching Back to Brooklyn. There’s a key moment that illustrates the point. In the second half of the concert, she’s sitting on stage talking to her son Jason Gould, who is actually a pretty good singer in his own right. Her hair is perfectly coiffed, as always, and she wears a flowing orange gown. She turns to the audience, and with a regal, sweeping gesture of her hand, she says to Jason, “These are my people.” My thought was, “Yeah, right. Barbra Streisand is from Brooklyn like Queen Elizabeth is from England.”
When she was going to Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, Streisand’s boundless ambition was matched only by her boundless talent. Then she—and she alone in the history of American entertainment—went on to excel as an actor, a singer, a writer, a director, and a producer. She maintained her stratospheric standards for half a century and counting. Nobody else has ever done that. Nobody.
So she can’t go back to Brooklyn again—not really. She is an EGOT, a performer who has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. She has now passed through all the stages of celebrity that there are. She has gone from star to icon to legend to her current, permanent status as National Treasure. Quite simply, there is nothing left for her to achieve. Barbra Streisand now belongs to the world, and the world is incomparably richer for it.
It is therefore all the more remarkable—indeed, astonishing—that her voice has hardly changed at all. It sounds to me as though she has a range of about two octaves, and at 71 she hasn’t lost more than a note or two. Moreover, Barbra still has total control of her voice throughout its entire range, producing her trademark bell-like tones for her standards, “People” and “The Way We Were,” while dramatizing “What’ll I Do” with an appropriate catch in the throat. And she puts a grin in her voice for the charming, “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long.” The obvious contrast is with Sinatra, who retained his impeccable phrasing, even as his voice started to crack.
Speaking of Sinatra, he is the one hyphenate performer and National Treasure to whom she can compare herself. I think that’s why she’s started singing his songs. For example, in her 2009 concert at the Village Vanguard, which I reviewed earlier for The Morton Report, she gave a heart-wrenching version of one of Sinatra’s signature songs, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” In the Brooklyn concert she sings “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” the title song from an album that Sinatra released in 1960.
When you can sing one of Sinatra’s songs and make people forget—for a moment, anyhow—that Sinatra ever sang it, you have gone a long way toward defining your place in history. Streisand is now looking to define—perhaps “solidify” would be a better word—her achievement as someone who has changed American culture. Because of Streisand, we are definitely not the way we were. And the people in the audience are aware of that, too. Some of them cry, not because there’s anything sad but because they feel overwhelmed. They know that history is being made before their eyes.
Recorded over two nights in 2012 at the Barclays Center, the concert will air on Friday, November 29 on PBS as part of THIRTEEN's Great Performances series at 9pm (check your local listings). A CD and CD/DVD release is slated for November 25.
At one point in the show Streisand says that this is only her 84th live concert since 1963. There won’t be that many more of them, so treasure this one.