With sixty albums recorded over the course of her singing career, seventy-one million copies sold in the United States and 140 million worldwide, the inimitable Barbra Streisand (b. Brooklyn, New York, April 24, 1942) has won accolades also as a film and theatre actress, a songwriter, a film director and a producer. Among her eighteen feature films are Funny Girl (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), The Way We Were (1973), A Star Is Born (1976), Yentl (1983) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). Two of these won her Academy Awards® (Best Actress in Funny Girl, the song “Evergreen” in A Star Is Born); in addition Streisand has won a Tony Award®, ten Grammys®, five Emmys®, eight Golden Globes®, three People’s Choice Awards, dozens of lesser awards, and countless nominations.
Barbara Joan Streisand’s father, a high school teacher whose parents were from Vienna, died when she was only fifteen months old. She had an older brother Sheldon and, after her mother remarried, a half-sister Roslyn Kind (who also became a singer). As a child Barbara attended the Beis Yakov Jewish School and Erasmus Hall High School, where she sang in the school choir with good friend Neil Diamond. She graduated third in her class in 1959.
In spite of her mother’s efforts to discourage her from a theatrical career, Streisand began to sing in nightclubs and gay bars in her teens. She acted in summer stock and off-off-Broadway in Driftwood (1959), playing for six weeks with the as-yet-unknown Joan Rivers.
From the very start, Barbra Streisand’s onstage delivery was revolutionary, as were her looks: black pharaonic liner over strabismic eyes, unapologetically Semitic nose, and kooky accoutrements from the thrift shop. In 1961 a nightclub engagement in Manitoba was cut short due to the audience’s bewilderment, but Orson Bean caught her act in a New York bar and booked her for Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, her first television appearance. Thereafter, Mike Wallace hosted her several times on his variety show P.M. East P.M. West, and she returned often to Tonight and The Mike Douglas Show.
Her first role on Broadway was Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962). With her show-stopping specialty number “Miss Marmelstein,” she earned a Tony® nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. In 1963 she sang with Judy Garland and Ethel Merman on The Judy Garland Show, and by the time she opened in 1964 as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Streisand was already the top female LP artist in the country. Funny Girl garnered her another Tony® nomination and established “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as her signature songs. Her face was blazoned on the covers of Time and Life magazines, and her “weirdo” persona, as reported in related articles, was causing America’s jaw to drop.
The Barbra Streisand Album – her first – won two Grammy Awards® in 1963, and she followed with rapid-fire releases of theatre and cabaret standards, every album hitting the Gold or Platinum mark: The Second Barbra Streisand Album (1963), The Third Album (1964), My Name Is Barbra (1965), Color Me Barbra (1966), Simply Streisand (1967), and others. Her 1969 venture into rock-‘n’-roll, What About Today?, was a flop, but Streisand was soon back on the Platinum track with Stoney End (1971), the title cut by Laura Nyro. Top Ten singles of the ’70s included The Way We Were (1974), Evergreen (1977), You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (with old high-school friend Neil Diamond 1978), and No More Tears (with Donna Summer 1979),
By the end of the 1970s, Barbra Streisand was topped only by Elvis Presley and The Beatles in U.S. sales, but she beat even her own record with Guilty (“Woman In Love,” “What Kind of Fool”) in 1980. The Broadway Album (1985), harking back to Streisand’s musical-theatre roots, did nearly as well, winning her eighth Grammy Award®.
Contemporaneous with her meteoric recording career in these decades was a somewhat more deliberate, but no less successful, career in film acting. Her first film was the transfer of her Broadway triumph, Funny Girl, to the silver screen in 1968. Streisand tied with Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) to win the Academy Award® for Best Actress that year. Her next two movies, Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! (1969) and Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), were also musicals. The Owl and the Pussycat (with George Segal 1970) was the first in a series of non-musical films ranging from offbeat psychological drama (Up the Sandbox 1972, produced by Streisand’s own First Artists Production Company) to screwball comedy (What’s Up, Doc?, with Ryan O’Neal) to sentimental romance (The Way We Were, with Robert Redford).
Streisand began her directorial career with Yentl in 1983, in which she played a young woman disguised as a boy in order to study the Talmud. An unlikely prospect, the picture won her a Golden Globe Award® for Best Director, and the musical score won an Oscar®. She has directed, produced, written, and starred in two more movies subsequently, The Prince of Tides (1991) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). After an eight-year hiatus, Streisand returned to comedy acting in 2004 in Meet the Fockers.
In the ’90s she also became more active politically, giving live concerts (despite her well-known tendency to stage fright) to raise funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. In 1993, after a long absence, she returned to the recording studio with Back to Broadway, which was Number One on the charts its first week. The 1997 album Higher Ground (with Celine Dion) had a parallel success. The summer of 1994 brought a national concert tour, hailed by Time as “the music event of the century”: Barbra Streisand: The Concert grossed higher than any other event that year, won five Emmy Awards® and the Peabody Award, and became the highest rated broadcast concert special in HBO’s thirty years.
On the eve of the millennium, Barbra Streisand was in Las Vegas, giving the highest grossing single concert (Timeless) there to date. She was still the top female singer in the country, having scored at least two Number One albums in every decade since the ’60s. Another twenty-concert tour, with the purpose of raising money and awareness for several charities, was launched in 2006, setting box-office records in many venues and grossing over ninety-two million dollars. The following summer, Streisand sang in Europe for the first time, touring to Zürich, Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and London. In December 2008 she received Kennedy Center Honors, making a ceremonial visit to the White House on the side.
Streisand’s projects continue to develop: her sixty-third album is in the works; a film based on Mendel’s Dwarf is planned for 2011; about other directorial and acting prospects, rumors are flying.
“I had to go right to the top or nowhere at all,” said Barbra Streisand in 1964. “I could never be in the chorus, know what I mean? I had to be a star because my mouth is too big. I’m too whatever-I-am to end up in the middle.”