This concert extravaganza has Judge Jonathan Weiss all verklempt.
Before Mariah, before Whitney and before Céline, there was the one and only Barbra.
Those who genuflect at the altar of Barbra have probably bought this 5 disc collection of her television specials already. They've memorized the accompanying booklet and have the box art framed and hanging over their mantel. For them, this puppy was the no-questions-asked, must-have, I'm salivating just thinking about it release of the decade. Now, if you hate her, not only do you not care that she even did 5 television specials, but you would probably pull an Elvis and shoot out your screen if one of them ever popped up on the tube. So if these two camps are so diametrically opposed no matter what I write, then who is this review for? Why, the casual fan of course. Will the casual fan want to bring home this somewhat pricey set and put it in a place of honour within his or her collection? Read on and find out.
Facts of the Case
Barbra Streisand: The Television Specials consists of 5 television specials that Barbra (she lets me call her Barbra) did for CBS between the years 1965 to 1973. It must be said that at the time of Barbra's first special, the groundbreaking My Name is Barbra, she was the youngest artist (a mere 23 years old) to receive complete creative control over the final product—and she used this control for all it was worth. The first two discs in the set, the aforementioned My Name is Barbra (1965) and the following Color Me Barbra (1966) were variety show firsts in that there were no special guest stars, no comedic skits, and absolutely no dialogue whatsoever for the first half of the program. Instead, they were a celebration of one special woman and her very special voice. The Belle of 14th Street (1967) is the set's oddity in that it's a period piece meant to represent the golden age of vaudeville; A Happening in Central Park (1967) was shot live and in concert with an audience of 135,000 (they only expected 25,000); and the last disc, Barbra Streisand…and Other Musical Instruments (1973), has Barbra exploring the boundaries of her voice through different genres and arrangements.
What can I say except people…people who love Barbra are the luckiest people in the world (please forgive me)—especially with this recently released 5 disc boxed set of her groundbreaking television specials, a couple of which have never been released to the public before. This is Barbra in her prime: at the height of her vocal prowess, her charms, and her ability to connect with her audience. You must remember that this is a woman who stopped performing live for nearly 3 decades soon after her last television special because of paralyzing stage fright. And if these shows are any indication (and of course they are) then we missed out on 30 glorious years of magic. But something else happened over the years: for many of us our perception of Barbra changed too.
She went from being a plucky, charismatic, unbelievably talented underdog to Ms. Streisand—writer, director, producer and political activist (as well as becoming Mrs. Barbra Brolin—I mean really, who saw that coming?). Stories circulating about her controlling nature, her Oscar snub, and her political opinions send a clear signal that strong, independently minded women are not to be encouraged in a society still very much dominated by the XY chromosome.
Okay, enough rhapsodizing. On with the review.
Here's a fact. Very few individuals, if any, can sing a song like Barbra Streisand. Here's another one; this lady really loves a medley!
The first two discs in the set are My Name is Barbra and Color Me Barbra. These are two timeless showpieces of a remarkable talent with nowhere to go but up. Shot in glorious black & white, My Name is Barbra is a masterwork of simplicity. The special opens on a photograph of a 6 or 7 year old Barbra that cross-fades into the current Barbra (who at the time was all of 23 years old). This is television as theatre—a program done in three acts. The first act has Barbra singing a medley that represents the different stages of growing up using the White Rabbit's "I'm Late" song from Disney's Alice in Wonderland as a way to bridge all the different songs. In the second act Barbra meets the audience—until then not one word of dialogue is spoken. She's warm, self-effacing, and funny as she talks about her thrift store outfit, which is the perfect segue into another medley of Depression era classics. This time, however, as she sings in the studio, the television audience witnesses Barbra on location at the very swanky Bergdorfs in New York City, where the sheer richness of the furs, clothing, and jewelry make for a comedic and ironic twist on songs like "I've Got Plenty of Nothing" and "The Best Things in Life are Free." The third act is a straightforward concert performance in front of a live audience whom she completely enthralls with a medley from her hit Broadway show Funny Girl. The show ends with the credits rolling as Barbra sings "Happy Days are Here Again"—which stopped the show when she sang it on the Judy Garland Show.
My Name is Barbra won 5 Emmy Awards.
Color Me Barbra, filmed the very next year was, of course, was shot in color (or colour for my Canadian contingent). From what I understand, while other networks had already dabbled in the new technology, CBS hadn't—so it goes to show just how important they felt this special would be. Again, this program would use the three act format. Since the Bergdorfs on-location shoot proved so successful, Barbra decided to shoot this one on location too—at the Philadelphia Museum. In the first act, Barbra roams the empty Museum stopping every so often to admire a painting—at which point the image blurs (or cross-fades) and Barbra is seen as part of the painting dressed in full period costume. Here she sings the incredibly tongue-twisty "Minute Waltz" dressed as Marie Antoinette just before heading off to the chopping block. In the Egyptian room she sings "Where Or When" dressed as Nefertiti—the resemblance is uncanny. In the second act, we are back in the studio, propped to look like a circus. Here Barbra interacts with live animals as she launches into a medley of songs. She sings "Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long" with a group (gaggle?) of penguins; "What's New Pussycat" is sung in a tiger's cage to a baby kitten, with a real (and hopefully doped up) tiger lounging in the background; she also sings to a monkey, a leopard, a pig, and a baby elephant. The third act, again, is a pure concert performance starting with "Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home." Needless to say it was another triumph for both CBS and Barbra.
The next and least successful show in the set is The Belle of 14th Street. It's staged like a classic vaudeville show—everything from the acts on the bill to the way the audience dresses in period costumes. This is the disc for anyone who has every wanted to hear Jason Robards sing (anyone? Hello? Beuller?) You'll also witness a scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest (played straight no less- oy vey!), as well as Barbra taking on numerous roles. She plays a modest striptease artist for the song "Alice Blue Gown" and the matriarch of an immigrant family for "We're Four Americans," and she sings a duet with herself while portraying duel roles of German opera singer Mme. Schmausen Schmidt and a young boy from the audience (Yentl, anyone?) for the number "Mother Machree."
Of the 5 DVDs, 4 are concept shows—the one exception is A Happening in Central Park, which is a straight up concert performance. Here the seeds of her legendary stage fright began. This was during the Arab-Israeli war, and she had just found out that the Arab States had banned Funny Girl because she was Jewish and her love interest (played by Omar Sharif) was an Arab, so she was worried someone was going to try to assassinate her during the concert. Her rendition of Down With Love" (is there any other?) gave me goose bumps. And when the audience joins in to sing "Second Hand Rose" late in the second act you just know you're a witness to something special. A Happening in Central Park was shot live in front of a crowd of 135,000 fans who showed their appreciation by giving Barbra a much-deserved standing ovation.
In Barbra Streisand…and Other Musical Instruments, the
'concept' this time is that a voice, her voice, is as much an instrument as a
violin or piano or what have you—and in her case it really is. Again, she
defies expectations by performing some of her classic repertoire using unusual
arrangements, like a medley consisting of "People" accompanied by
sitar and a Native American version of "Don't Rain on My Parade." She
also wraps her chords around country, gospel, and R&B with special guest Ray
Charles. Her voice is definitely up to the task, but I must admit that it did
make me a little uncomfortable watching her boogie in bellbottoms—kinda
like catching your mom trying out moves in the mirror as she relives her heyday.
The weirdest bit has Barbra performing "The World is a Concerto"
accompanied by household appliances (we're talking washing machines and toasters
here—and no, I'm not making this up). This show in particular has captured
the fancy of Barbra Streisand aficionados who for years have been sharing
bootleg copies with each other. So they should be floating on air now that
Barbra Streisand…and Other Musical Instruments has finally been
released to the home entertainment market.
Other than a lovely 58-page commemorative booklet that accompanies the set,
the extras, if you can call them that, are incredibly slim. The only inclusion
of any additional material is an opening introduction that Ms. Streisand
recorded for the 1987 video release of some of the DVDs. To say that these
intros are so unbelievably cornball in a very Hollywood "let's do
lunch" kind of way is a major understatement. How hard would it have been
to record new intros? How hard would it have been to include some alternative
edits? After all, 4 of the shows were shot in studio! I know Barbra's good, but
come on, no second takes? For something that is obviously supposed to be the
definitive collection, I was a little disappointed.
That fact is that I'm not exactly sure if there really is such a thing as a casual Barbra Streisand fan—but if there is, then, maybe they'd be pleasantly surprised to get Barbra Streisand: The Television Specials as a gift. But if they wanted to buy a little Barbra for their collection they'd probably be just as happy with a copy of The Judy Garland Show featuring Barbra (Volume 5—Shows 7 and 9). Talk about magic! But I digress. The thing about this boxed set is that I just don't see anyone who hasn't seen The Prince of Tides a hundred and fifty times (her nails were like buttah, buttah I tell you!) running out to buy this. It's not that this set isn't worth owning. It definitely is—as a record of television spreading its wings during the early days of the variety show format, as a record of an incredibly young talent at the peak of her abilities, and finally, as a record of timeless songs sung in a particularly masterfully manner. But let's face it—most folks are going to buy, or not buy this set, based on their complete adoration or utter repulsion for this first true diva of the modern age. And her name? Why Barbra of course.
For the casual fan, not guilty. For those who hate her, guilty as sin. For the Barbra fanatic—hello gorgeous.
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Scales of Justice
• 1987 Video Introductions by Barbra Streisand
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