How teenage Barbra Streisand became ‘Funny Girl’
By MIRIAM DI NUNZIO Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org
Cove image for the book "Hello Gorgeous --- Becoming Barbra Streisand" by William J. Mann. | COURTESY OF HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
BABS AT A GLANCE
Things you’ll learn about Barbra Streisand from “Hello Gorgeous”:
† Young Barbra and her longtime pal Bob Schulenberg created those signature Streisand “Egyptian eyes” by using two sets of eyelashes on each eye, applying white eyeliner along the rim of her eyelids and painting outward from her lids with eyeliner.
† In 1960, Streisand changed the spelling of her first name, Barbara, declaring that there were “millions of Barbaras out there, but by dropping one little vowel she would become ‘the only Barbra in the world.’ ”
† A young Dustin Hoffman (dating one of Streisand’s friends at the time) once said of his future “Meet the Fockers” co-star: “I’ve seen her act; she’s not that great.”
† Other actresses who were considered for the role of Fanny Brice included Anne Bancroft, Carol Burnett, Chita Rivera, Tammy Grimes, Judy Holliday and Suzanne Pleshette.
† Streisand was so unknown in Broadway circles that when casting began for “Funny Girl,” Jerome Robbins referred to her as “Barbara Streisman.”
† Stephen Sondheim, listening to Streisand sing at a nightclub in one of many unofficial “auditions” she did for the role of Fanny Brice, commented that Streisand’s voice was “too pinched and too nasal.”
† In 1964, Streisand signed a $1 million contract with CBS television (reportedly the biggest deal in TV at the time) for a one-hour special each year for 10 years.
† Streisand did not win the 1964 Tony Award for her critically acclaimed portrayal of Fanny Brice, but she would go on to win the Oscar for the film version in 1969.
† Streisand carried on a torrid affair with her Broadway “Funny Girl” co-star Sydney Chaplin, even though she was married to Elliot Gould at the time.
† Streisand was playing Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago in 1963 when she got word that the role of Fanny Brice was going to be hers.
Forget everything you think you know about Barbra Streisand’s meteoric rise from a gangly, determined, unknown and unproven teenage actress-wannabe from Brooklyn to the pinnacle of the theater world in the 1964 Broadway musical “Funny Girl.”
That’s what biographer William J. Mann hopes readers will do as he explores Streisand’s life from age 17 to 22 in his new book, “Hello Gorgeous — Becoming Barbra Streisand,” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, $30).
The author uncovers a fiercely driven young woman who freely criticized her established contemporaries (stars whom she coldly deems less talented than she) and a singer who longed most to be an actress, who looked down on a singing career despite possessing a voice that left listeners in awe and made her the top-selling female artist in the country in the early 1960s. He reveals a Streisand who was at times rude (she spoke her mind and cared little about hurting people’s feelings) and sometimes unprofessional — arriving late for rehearsals or television appearances and offering no apologies.
But he also reveals a performer who demanded perfection from herself and those around her, who dreamed of a career as a serious actress and would stop at nothing to make her dream a reality. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” became one of Streisand’s signature anthems for good reason: Its lyrics spoke volumes about the woman who brought them to life.
“[Director-choreographer] Jerome Robbins reveals they had [Streisand] in mind all along for the role of Fanny Brice,” Mann said during a recent conversation. “For a long time there was hesitation about casting Barbra because she was so young, and she would have to play Fanny into middle age. Barbra was an unusual-looking Jewish girl from Brooklyn, with a goofy personality that was created to get the part of [the similarly characterized] Fanny. Her team saw it two years ahead of [casting] time. I could see why [‘Funny Girl’ producer] Ray Stark thought she was absolutely perfect for the part. Mann writes about this carefully choreographed Streisand transformation based on the recollections of many of her earliest friends and co-workers, and countless hours spent poring over some heady documents.
“I got access to the papers of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse and got some people to talk to me who’d never spoken to any author about Barbra before,” Mann said.
“I got to look at Jerome Robbins’ original directions for ‘Funny Girl’. [He left the production, then came back.] He left his papers to the New York Public Library. The collection includes his production records, letters and notes he scratched on the back of writing pads, for example. Fosse left his papers to the Library of Congress. He was only involved with ‘Funny Girl’ for a very short amount of time, but I was surprised that no one ever checked out his papers before. I went in and got those.
“And [I talked to] people who opened up for the first time. A lot of people I spoke to were those who did not go on to great fame themselves. Often for these biographies, we interview people who are still in the business and who are a little more reluctant to share. But I got to the friends she had when she was still unknown, when they were all struggling actors or singers. I talked to her first boyfriend, her first manager, her first publicist.”
For Mann, the most interesting aspect of Streisand that he uncovered was “the whole phenomenon of her becoming Barbra,” he said. “We can’t take away her talent. At the same time, the most talented people have to resort to the publicity game. Understanding that whole [orchestrated] process by which Barbra was brought to the attention of important people in the theater and music worlds — that’s never really been documented before.”
One early (and perhaps the most cleverly calculated) aspect of Streisand’s early star vehicle was her persona as “the kook,” Mann writes, the Barbra who said whatever came to mind, carried her wardrobe in a shopping bag, stuck chewing gum to her nightclub microphone stands, bought her clothes at thrift stores or made them out of upholstery fabrics.
“If she and her managers and her agents hadn’t come up with this kooky persona, who knows if she would have gotten the attention she did,” Mann said. “The game from the start was to make her stand out. Truth is, a little part of her was exactly that kook. It was just exaggerated [for publicity]. It became this public persona that bode so well. The talk shows wanted her back [time after time] because she was just so funny. She [and her team] knew that when you’re in front of the camera, be as kooky as possible. Talk stream of consciousness. And she would be aggressive and eccentric and get producers’ attention.
“Once you see that Barbra made it [big], that persona disappears. Once she got Fanny Brice, she began trying for more serious parts, and she became more serious, thoughtful. Today she’s not kooky Barbra; she’s articulate and smart.”
Throughout the book, Mann writes of Streisand’s disdain for her plain-Jane looks, and he documents a litany of high-powered producers, directors, club owners and columnists who agreed with her assessment. What emerges in Mann’s narrative eventually is the transformation Streisand underwent emotionally — and physically, thanks to ingenious styling, makeup and hair.
“She changed the definition of what is beautiful and what is talented,” Mann said. “Barbra came out in a time when Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn were the glamorous book ends of Hollywood. [Barbra] didn’t look the part, but by the end of the 1960s, she was pretty glamorous. She was gorgeous.”
Was Streisand ultimately pleased with her portrayal of Brice?
“I think she was happy with how it turned out,” Mann said, but she was never 100 percent happy with anything. I do think she knew she had created an iconic portrayal. That’s why they talk about reviving it today [on Broadway.] That seems impossible to me because ‘Funny Girl’ was structured with Barbra in mind. To revive it today is almost pointless. It wasn’t a play that was meant to be performed forever. It was about launching the career of Streisand.”