With all the hype and anticipation swirling around Barbra Streisand's 12-concert American tour, which begins Tuesday at the USAir Arena, it's easy to lose sight of why this tour has people so excited.
Obviously, some of the buzz has to do with the bucks involved. Not only did all 12 concerts sell out immediately, but the priciest tickets -- those going for a whopping $350 -- went first. If, as they say, money talks, the message here is that people who need Streisand are more than happy to pay for the privilege.
It helps, of course, that Streisand hasn't toured in decades. Apart from a few fund-raisers over the years, her recent New Year's shows in Las Vegas marked her first public concerts since 1966. That has left Streisand with millions of fans who have never heard her sing live and are extremely eager to do so.
But it isn't just the chance to hear that voice live that has her fans so excited, because if singing were the only thing she did, Barbra Streisand would hardly be the star she is today.
Granted, it was singing that made her famous in the first place, but those were much different times with much different music. Streisand came to prominence in an era when the Broadway show was still the font from which most great songs (and many hit movies) flowed.
In 1962, the year Streisand was playing Miss Marmelstein in the show "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," the soundtrack album from "West Side Story" went to the top of the LP charts, and stayed there for 54 weeks.
Moreover, similar success was enjoyed by original cast recordings from "Camelot," "Carnival" and "Hello, Dolly!" Rock and roll may have dominated the singles charts in those pre-Beatle days, but it didn't completely control pop music.
That was then, however. Although Streisand has dabbled in pop, rock and disco, it was never her strong suit. Indeed, her success as a singles artist was mainly in the late '70s and early '80s, and even then, she hardly sold records the way Donna Summer or Linda Ronstadt did.
Nor was her voice especially well-suited to rock-era pop. Streisand certainly has more vocal strength and control than most rock or disco singers, but in a perverse way that's been her undoing. Her tone is too pure to handle the sort of rough-edged material rock or soul requires, and her phrasing is too polished and knowing to convey the kind of unadorned emotionality dance pop and alternative rock demand. Try, for a moment, to imagine Streisand panting and chirping her way through "Like a Virgin" -- it's almost as hard as picturing Madonna sounding at home with "People."
So how is that Streisand can command such pop-star adoration?
People flock to Streisand for the same reason they flock to other mega-stars -- because they want to bask in the presence of something larger than themselves. But in Streisand's case, that larger something isn't just fame or talent or familiar songs; it's also the strength and self-determination her success represents.
Think, for a moment, about the scope of Streisand's career: She sings. She writes. She acts. She directs. And she does it all on her own terms.
That last, by the way, is probably the greatest of her achievements. Nobody "made" Barbra Streisand. There was no manager molding her image, no record company dictating what she would sing, no studio boss to tell her what roles to take. Streisand called her own shots, earning artistic autonomy at a time when few women in the entertainment world had any power at all.
Before Streisand, the female pop singers were either good-looking lightweights with almost no emotional investment in their music (think Doris Day), or tragic beauties who had control over their voice but little else (think Judy Garland). Strength, vision and self-determination weren't even possibilities.
Streisand not only changed all that, but somehow managed to make the change engaging. She never seemed shrill or shrewish to her audience, as the feminists of the early '60s were often perceived; nor did she seem to them to be as bossy or emasculating as subsequent stars (like Cher or Madonna) have.
Instead, Streisand has managed to make her drive and ambition seem almost endearing. She may be a power player in Hollywood, but her audience tends to see her less as an industry dominatrix than as a talented woman determined to follow her dreams.
In that sense, it's no wonder her fans embraced "A Star Is Born" with such ardor. Streisand's heroine wasn't just a rising star whose climb coincided with the decline of her man's career. Rather, she came across as a woman whose success was the by-product not of ambition but of self-discovery. That gave her performance a resonance that transcended the predictable melodrama of the plot.
It's tempting to give Streisand credit for putting show-biz power in the hands of women. After all, it would be hard to imagine Madonna or Roseanne Arnold having the clout they do if Streisand hadn't blazed the way. The truth is that Streisand was as much a product of the rock-era record business as Bob Dylan or the Beatles.
Broadway may have given her a start, but it was popular music that gave her an identity. The lead in "Funny Girl" may have been a great role for her, but that's all it was -- a role. It may have been Streisand's for a time, but it belonged to the play and would eventually be filled by others. It may be something she'll always be remembered for playing, but it will never be hers.
"People," on the other hand, will always belong to Streisand, as will her other great hits: "Stoney End," "Woman in Love," "The Way We Were," "Evergreen." Never mind that, apart from "Evergreen," they were all written by somebody else; what matters is that it's Streisand who recorded them, and Streisand who defined them.
Making records (and, eventually, movies) gave Streisand an ideal balance between creativity and control. In the studio, she could not only choose what she would sing, but also had a role in shaping how that song would be presented. Even better, she was in complete command of the situation, able to rework and rephrase until the performance was exactly as she intended.
Ironically, having such power over the process of music-making may have played a part in the stage fright that kept her from touring all those years.
Anything can happen on a stage, remember, and unlike the recording studio, you can't stop the tape and go back should you forget a lyric or flub a phrase. No doubt that can be terrifying when you're used to holding the reins as closely as Streisand does.
Of course, the mere fact that she's willing to risk such mistakes for her fans only endears her to them more. Because for them, the singing is almost secondary -- it's her being Barbra that matters most.