Barbra Streisand. Arguably one of the most popular and influential entertainers of our time, and most definitely one of the most well-known Jewish artists.
Her route to stardom was quite a humble one, starting out playing in a tiny club in Greenwich Village called Ben Soir. Over two years, she cultivated such a following and became so popular that in a bid to sign her, Columbia Records consented to a contract stipulation that Streisand would retain total artistic control over her songs, something that was unheard of at the time.
Next year will mark 60 years since her debut album – The Barbra Streisand Album – was released, for which Streisand won two Grammys including for Album of the Year. Since then, Streisand has become of the few performers to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony for her work.
Sales of her records have exceeded 150 million records worldwide and she is one of the best-selling recording artists of all time.
While she has never shied away from her Judaism and indeed, has always shown the utmost pride in her religion, she has openly admitted that her distinctively Jewish appearance led to bullying, with many saying she would never make it in Hollywood unless she had a nose job.
But as The Times of Israel pointed out a few years ago, Streisand “skilfully turned the stigma of her awkward looks and ‘Jewish’ appearance into a powerful message of acceptance, making her a voice for the marginalised that defined her career”.
And it’s this career that so many productions have celebrated. Earlier this year, To Barbra, With Love was performed in Melbourne, to celebrate Streisand’s 80th birthday. The production was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike.
To Barbra, With Love is now travelling around the country, with performances to come in Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, alongside the local symphony orchestras. For director Cameron Mitchell, it’s the perfect celebration of an iconic woman.
“The production itself, it’s really an homage to her entire career, [and it is] also 60 years next year since her first album,” Mitchell explained. “It’s songs from all of her career right across all the genres, all the different eras. There’s something for everybody … It’s very hard to imagine trying to choose from a 60-year career and someone so well known. Trying to pick the songs to keep everybody happy was the hardest part of all.”
The team was tasked with figuring out which songs to include and which ones to regrettably leave out, while trying to ensure variety with Streisand’s music.
“You can’t have all the ballads. You have to do some up tempos, and there’s got to be some theatre songs in there because of course, The Broadway Album is one of her most famous, and a lot of her early work was from the Broadway catalogue,” Mitchell said.
The result is absolutely spectacular, with four beautiful voices – Elise McCann, Ryan Gonzalez, musical theatre royalty Caroline O’Connor and genre-hopping vocalist Katie Noonan – singing alongside the symphony orchestras of each city, under the baton of Vanessa Scammell, which Mitchell says takes the songs to a whole new dimension. The orchestra playing elevates the music so much, Mitchell says, that audiences can truly hear how brilliantly written Streisand’s songs are.
Sharing his love and appreciation of Streisand, particularly her Broadway songs, Mitchell describes the production as almost like a “love letter to my mum”, explaining that she was the one who introduced the beautiful voice to him when he was young.
“I grew up with my mother playing Barbra Streisand daily. So I, as a child, Barbara was something that would wake me up on cleaning day; so it’d be a Sunday and it would be blasting Barbra Streisand,” he recalled before going on to explain that his appreciation didn’t really form until he was almost a teenager. “I started performing in musicals. I started working quite young, and then realised, this voice is something special. And then, when The Broadway Album came out I was about 13, and I was just, of course, enamoured, because that was where my life was heading,” he said.
Mitchell was walking down the street when his agent called with the idea for the production. He described that moment as a “dream come true, not only for me but also for my mother”.
“I’ve been preparing my whole life for this. I think I have such an affiliation, and an eye and a love for her because I just love the fighter that she was as well. You know, everything that she’s done, and being the first woman to do so many things and break the glass ceiling. And I think that was my draw to her; you can do anything. You don’t have to be pigeonholed into one thing,” he mused.
Ultimately, what the whole production team is aiming for is to spark a bit of joy and appreciation for Streisand and her life.
“Also,” Mitchell said, “the realisation that she really is the soundtrack to so many lives.”
To Barbra, With Love will play at Sydney’s State Theatre, January 13-14 before travelling to Brisbane and Canberra. Tickets: livenation.com.au