In less than four years she went from complete obscurity to the top of the music and theater worlds, and she won an Oscar soon after that.
That's the story William J. Mann tells in “Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand,” a new biography that covers just those crucial start-up years of her career, from winter 1960 through spring 1964.
“Funny Girl” opened on Broadway on March 26, 1964, earning Streisand unanimous raves as legendary vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice. She would later win an Academy Award for the movie in 1968.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “Hello, Gorgeous” is being released Tuesday, just in time for Streisand's 50th anniversary with Columbia Records this month.
Stars don't come much bigger than Streisand. She's had a record 31 top-10 albums since 1962 and is the top-selling female artist ever, at 140 million albums sold. She's had No. 1 albums in five consecutive decades.
She's doing a concert tour to mark the Columbia anniversary (Chicago, Oct. 26, is the closest to Omaha) and to sell her new album, “Release Me.” She also has a new movie coming out at Christmas, “The Guilt Trip,” in which she plays Seth Rogen's mother.
Not bad for a woman who turned 70 in April.
In tracing Streisand's fast track to the top, Mann gives her talent more than its due. But he also chronicles the huge behind-the-scenes push by agents, publicists and Streisand herself to create a public persona and then sell it — a crucial element to her success.
Streisand is clearly a gifted singer-actress, but I'm not a drooling fan. Maybe all those stories about her ego and her diva qualities put me off. I'm also not a quick reader, so I surprised myself by ripping through the 500-page book in less than a week.
Mann did not get to talk to Streisand, but he had access to the papers of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, both of whom had a role in directing and choreographing “Funny Girl.” He interviewed many friends, fans and even a few lovers from those early years. The book's full of juicy details about both her personal and professional lives.
I didn't know she and first husband Elliott Gould got married months after the press had reported them hitched. They moved in together while both appearing in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” her first Broadway show. He was the show's lead, while she had a comedic song as a Jewish secretary, Miss Marmelstein, that turned into a Tony nomination.
Legendary producer David Merrick, by the way, didn't want to cast Barbra in that role because he thought she was “too ugly” and he preferred a “cute girl.”
This, Mann argues throughout the book, is part of the reason Streisand fought so hard to get to the top — to prove that a “different” girl from Brooklyn, with unconventional looks and no money, could become not just an actress but a leading lady. Narcissism and self-confidence, he says, masked a deep pool of insecurity that was not far beneath the surface.
Her father had died when she was a baby. Her mother, Diana Streisand Kind, was not supportive of Barbra's career ambitions and rarely gave her the compliments she craved. She was afraid her daughter would only be disappointed, as she had been. Diana had been invited to sing in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera as a girl, but Barbra's grandfather forbid.
At 17, Streisand had no ambitions as a singer. She wanted to be a great dramatic actress. She had never really sung for anybody. But with little to no professional training, she conquered New York City's nightclub scene as a vocalist. That's what got her foot in the door on Broadway.
She dismissed her vocal talent because it came to her without effort. But it brought a paycheck that ended her days living out of shopping bags and sleeping on the couches of Manhattan friends.
Streisand's manager and publicist carefully cultivated an image of her as a “kook” in the early days on TV talk shows, to get her noticed.
She had to work for everything she got. The head of Columbia Records refused three times to sign her to a record contract. It took months of wrangling to get the part in “Funny Girl,” which might have gone to Anne Bancroft or Carol Burnett if others — including Jerome Robbins — had gotten their way.
Whether you're a fan or not, “Hello, Gorgeous” is an entertaining and insightful story that might change how you see Streisand.
That's what it did for me.