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Barbra: going, going, gone?


Don't you just hate show-biz goodbyes?

This week in New York, Barbra Streisand will say goodbye to live performance with two shows at Madison Square Garden. Even though tickets were priced as high as $2,500 a seat, all 25,000 were sold within two hours.

Besides the New York shows (which take place Wednesday and Thursday), there were two shows at the Staples Center in Los Angeles last week. And that's it. As her manager, Martin Erlichman, said in July, "Ms. Streisand has chosen to conclude her public performance career in the two cities most associated with her work."

(What? You mean Baltimore wasn't one of them?)

Streisand, 58, has not been much for concertizing in the latter half of her career. Her last concert tour, in 1993-1994, covered just seven cities (including Washington), and those were her first live shows in 27 years. Add in her "Millennium Concert" last New Year's Eve in Las Vegas, four shows this past February in Australia, and a three-song performance at a Democratic Party fund-raiser last month, and you've pretty much summed up three decades of Streisand shows.

Of course, those who missed the '93-'94 tour were able to experience the shows vicariously through "The Concert," a 1995 double album drawn from that tour. And while there are no plans at this point for a recording of her farewell (although the last New York concert is reportedly being videotaped for posterity, if not commercial release), there's always "Timeless" (Columbia 63778), a just-released double-CD chronicling the New Year's show and including most of the material she's doing in her final concerts.

Convenient that the album would come out now, isn't it?

Still, Streisand's farewell is likely more genuine than a lot of show-biz goodbyes. Frank Sinatra, for instance, announced his retirement from concert performances in 1971. Yet he wound up not only coming back, but staying on the road -- despite an embarrassing decline in his abilities -- until 1994.

Cher had been quoted as saying she was giving up music for the movies before her "Believe" tour last year. The Who have done two farewell tours in the last decade and will likely do more, while rocker Ozzy Osborne has not only "retired" twice, but has given at least three concerts that he has proclaimed would be his last ever with Black Sabbath.

Nor should we forget KISS, the reigning champions in pop music's long goodbye sweepstakes. The original line-up of the group just completed the fourth year of its farewell tour, making the group's curtain call almost as long as its time at the top.

A solution to stage fright

Streisand, by contrast, doesn't seem to want to drag things out. According to her publicist, Ken Sunshine, the singer declined requests from Madison Square Garden officials to add two dates to her New York run, saying that the singer "held to her pledge" that this would be goodbye. Granted, she also hinted in an interview last year that the New Year's show in Vegas might be her last, but that may well have been just millennial anxiety.

Why is Streisand quitting? The official off-the-record answer is that she just doesn't like live performances. When these final shows were announced, the New York Daily News quoted a Streisand "friend" as saying that singing before an audience "is not something that comes easily for her. In fact, she hates it."

The Daily News also suggested that Streisand wanted to put this stage of her career behind her while she was still in her prime. As the "friend" put it, "She doesn't want to end up like Sinatra."

For her own part, Streisand has long cited stage fright as the factor that has most contributed to keeping her off the stage.

"I don't really like performing," she said in a 1991 interview. "Only when I was 18, 19 years old did I like it. After that, I got real scared, shy ... I got a notion in my head that I would forget the words. And then I forgot the words."

In her Staples Center show, Streisand got around that fear by having the lyrics displayed on strategically placed video screens.

However much nerves may be a factor, it's also worth considering the extent to which music has played an increasingly small part in Streisand's professional life. Apart from the fact that she has taken in recent years to describing herself as an "actress-singer," of the five albums Streisand has released in the last decade, only one, 1993's "Back to Broadway," was focused on new material (the rest were live albums or compilations).

During that same period, however, she directed and starred in two feature films, "The Prince of Tides" and "The Mirror Has Two Faces." Clearly, her creative focus seems more cinematic than song-based these days.

Finding a comfort zone

Some of that may be because making movies gives Streisand a greater degree of control over how she comes across. In a concert, our perception of her performance depends not only on the condition of her voice that night, but how well the lighting works, how dependable the acoustics are, and where we happen to be sitting.

With a movie, on the other hand, Streisand can do endless retakes, make sure the sound and lighting are perfect, and edit the final product until it says and does exactly what she wants to convey.

But it's also worth noting that what Streisand does on "Timeless" is less a concert than a sort of one-woman show devoted to the life and career of Barbra Strei-sand. It isn't just a matter of Streisand's doing a little between-songs chat to set up each number; there are sketches, video cameos and other bits of stage business to make us think we're seeing a show, not just attending a concert.

Streisand, for her part, is well into the shtick, offering a performance so polished that even the patter seems largely devoid of ad-libs. Indeed, it could almost be said that Streisand is being played by two people: actress Lauren Frost as the young Streisand, and Barbra herself as the current model.

But the funny thing is, by "acting" the part of Barbra Streisand, the singer is able to offer a performance that's far more personal and affecting than her '93-'94 show. It's almost as if by distancing herself from her own story and making it a role, she can more comfortably reveal the passions and relationships that drive her.

Of course, writers, actors and directors do that all the time. But popular singers have always been expected to offer a song of themselves, and that seems to be something Streisand is not particularly comfortable with. Maybe that's the real reason she's leaving the concert stage -- to focus on one she feels more at home inhabiting.

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