There are stars, and then there’s Barbra.
Barbra Streisand’s influence on American popular culture cannot be overstated. She has been a mainstay in the public consciousness for over a half-century, conquering nearly every form of entertainment. (She has yet to publish a book, although she’s reportedly working on it.) Ever since her Broadway debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, Streisand has defined show business on her own terms. It’s endeared her to millions all over the world, and garnered her plenty of criticism and envy along the way. While not the dominant force she once was, Streisand’s name and talent warrant the kind of awe that is reserved for a select few.
As expansive as her career is, Streisand is perhaps most beloved as a musician, with an astonishingly emotive voice trained for the theater rafters that dominated beyond it. A complete retrospective of her career would require an exorbitant amount of digital ink, so I’d like to offer a sampling of Streisand’s greatest pop music moments, all sublime, all unforgettable, and all compelling arguments for declaring her, as she sang in Funny Girl, the “greatest star.”
The song that started it all. Streisand was already on track to star status, but “People,” written for Funny Girl on Broadway, catapulted her to a level of fame she would maintain for the next half-century. The song’s simple melody and arrangement give Streisand the room to demonstrate her gifts, particularly her remarkable phrasing and her penchant for rich, soaring notes. If there is one definitive Streisand song, “People” is it.
“Get Happy / Happy Days are Here Again” with Judy Garland (on the Judy Garland Show in 1964)
In hindsight, there is something deeply poignant about the pairing of a young Barbra Streisand and a revitalized Judy Garland for this once-in-a-generation performance. Streisand was ascendant, knocking out television audiences left and right with her spirited voice. Garland, on the other hand, was on the verge of another career setback and would die before the decade was out. Within that context, this particular performance bears a “passing the torch” significance, with Garland reluctantly but warmly handing Streisand the mic that would captivate the world. Put that aside and you still have an inspired mash-up of their two songs, sung with tenderness that gives way to full-throated exuberance. Their careers were headed in opposing paths, but for one miraculous moment, two of America’s greatest talents met in the middle. We’re all the better for it.
“My Man” (from 1968’s Funny Girl)
Streisand always described herself as an actress first and singer second, and her final number in Funny Girl is a pitch-perfect example. “My Man” was already part of Streisand’s repertoire before it was added to the film adaptation of her Broadway debut. On film, she uncovers even greater emotional resonance, as she sings in both despair and triumph over the loss of Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). With tears rolling down her face, Streisand overcomes her heartbreak to deliver a show-stopper that serves as a template for movie musical finales to this very day. Streisand would win the Oscar for this performance – in a tie with Katharine Hepburn – and this is likely the reason why.
There’s some controversy surrounding Streisand’s casting in Hello, Dolly!, around whether she should’ve been casted in the first place. (The role was originated on Broadway by Carol Channing.) Whether or not Streisand was old enough to play the part of Dolly Levi is rendered irrelevant the second she walks down the stairs in that golden gown in the musical’s marquee musical number. She is marvelous in every frame. She glides across the entryway, daring Gene Kelly’s camera to catch up with her. She has wonderful chemistry with Louis Armstrong, whose husky jazz tone gels surprisingly well with her evocative Broadway style. The ending, with that soaring final note that is her trademark, is so spectacular that Armstrong insists on an encore. You can’t blame him.
“On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” from 1970’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever)
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever would be one of Streisand’s last traditional movie musicals (you can debate the status of A Star is Born and Yentl), and its title song serves as a satisfying bookend to that chapter of her career. The song is an emotional exponential curve, starting gentle and meek before blossoming into a declaration of sunny, clear-eyed optimism that, from anyone else, would feel hollow. Streisand doesn’t trade in hollow emotion. When she sings this song, she makes you believe anything is possible, that you, like her voice, can reach stratospheric heights if you just believe enough.
As wildly successful as Streisand was in the late ’60s, there was a sense that her sound was stale for mainstream pop. “Stoney End” and its parent album found Streisand taking a contemporary ’70s approach, slipping into the folk-soul sound with ease without loosing her distinctive singing style. Rather than a compromise, “Stoney End” confirmed Streisand was versatile enough to do whatever she wanted, and well. “Stoney End” would become her second Top 10 hit (after “People.”)
The Way We Were, Streisand’s romantic drama co-starring Robert Redford, has endured in the modern public consciousness thanks to Sex and the City, where Carrie muses how her relationship with Big mirrors the film, and the movie’s unforgettable theme. As powerful as “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell” is, you have to give the edge to the song. Marvin Hamlisch and Alan and Marilyn Bergman developed a masterpiece of wistful romantic regret, and Streisand brings it to life with her stirring vocal performance. The film and song are a potent pair, one of the best in pop culture history, and it’s all thanks to Streisand.
“With One More Look at You / Watch Closely Now” (from 1976’s A Star is Born)
“Evergreen” won Streisand the Oscar and became another signature song of hers, but it’s the finale to A Star is Born that burrows itself inside of you and refuses to leave. She pushed the final closing number element she perfected in Funny Girl even further, wringing out every drop of feeling as her character Esther Hoffman Howard both mourns her lost husband and finally realized her own talent. She isn’t just singing here. Even without the visual, you can hear how Streisand embodies the character, any trace of her persona consumed by agony, fury and resilience. It’s a staggeringly great performance, a challenger to Funny Girl as her best.
Yes, Barbra Streisand went disco for a period. What could’ve been a disastrous foray into the sound of the moment ended up being one of the era’s best songs. It certainly helped to collaborate with the undisputed queen of the genre, Donna Summer. Refusing to be overpowered, Summer meets Streisand beat for beat, adding soulful dimension to Streisand’s Broadway-style inflections. They sound phenomenal together as they take Giorgio Moroder’s fierce production for a spin against an unsatisfactory lover. If there’s one regret to have about this song, it’s that the two never performed it live together. Perhaps pop culture wouldn’t have survived, but exploding into a disco inferno is quite the way to go.
“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Neil Diamond (at the 1980 Grammy Awards)
“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” might be one of best accidents in pop music history. Long story short: a broken-hearted DJ spliced together Streisand and Neil Diamond’s versions together and produced a mash-up so popular that CBS rushed them into the studio to record an official duet. The version was a huge, chart-topping success. A year and a half later, the two took to the Grammys stage and performed the song for the first time. With their top-form vocals (particularly Streisand) and palpable chemistry (Streisand brushing a stray hair from Diamond’s face made the crowd go nuts), they created the first “Grammy moment,” as Alicia Keys once put it.
Streisand’s biggest pop hit worldwide would come twenty years into an already-stellar career. Streisand approached Barry Gibb to write and produce and album for her, and the resulting product was Guilty, her most successful contemporary effort. Gibb understood what made Streisand special – her embodiment of the characters behind her songs – and applied it to modern pop sensibilities. “Woman in Love” is top-level adult contemporary, with its yearning sensuousness and elegance. If that weren’t enough, the song also features Streisand’s longest-held note on record. Guilty was such a success that Streisand and Gibb reunited twenty-five years later for a sequel, Guilty Pleasures.
“Papa, Can You Hear Me?” is the Oscar-nominated song most people associate with her directorial debut Yentl, but “A Piece of Sky” is quintessential Streisand. Given how personal the film was for her, you can feel the passion behind Yentl’s desire to experience more than what life and circumstance allotted her. Her emotive abilities are even more impressive considering how difficult the song is to sing, a rollercoaster through the musical scale. It all comes down to that final note, though, and all of its jaw-dropping wonder. The song is Streisand and the peak of her performative powers.
When Streisand revealed plans to release an album of Broadway show tunes, her record label balked (as if Streisand didn’t make her name as a Broadway goddess). Of course, Streisand’s instincts were correct: The Broadway Album was a blockbuster success, reaching #1 in the U.S. and going quadruple platinum. The diamond of the album is its closer, “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Streisand treats it like a precious, priceless object, her immaculate phrasing and soaring voice making the song feel downright ornate in comparison to any other version.
“As If We Never Said Goodbye” (from 1994’s Barbra Streisand in Concert)
Before record-breaking tours were the norm, the hottest ticket on the planet was Barbra Streisand’s first concert in nearly 30 years. Streisand conquered her stage fright to perform two New Year’s shows at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and subsequent shows across the U.S. and in London. The tour sold out in one hour, back when you had to call box offices or stand in line to secure tickets. The joyous reception is evident from the second Streisand emerges from the curtains and steps onto the constructed balcony at the first MGM show. If she had any doubt that people loved her, the minute-long standing ovation and the bursts of applause throughout her opening number, “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” hopefully eradicated it. When she sings “I’ve come home at last” and the audience erupts, you can feel the special connection she creates from the first note, and understand why any price was worth getting to experience it firsthand.
“Tell Him” with Céline Dion (1997)
If one woman could carry on Streisand’s tradition (at least from a musical standpoint), it was Céline Dion. Streisand knew it too, which helped bring this spectacular duet to life. (Also critical were Dion’s husband René Angelil and mega-producer David Foster, who brainstormed a collaboration after Streisand famously went to the bathroom and missed Dion’s performance of her song “I Finally Found Someone” at the Oscars the year before.) Very few artists could give as much as Streisand does, but Dion – a superstar in her own right thanks to the just-released Falling Into You album – rose to the challenge. It’s a titanic diva face-off, reminiscent of Streisand and Garland some 30 years prior. (Although believe that Streisand was nowhere near done yet.)
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from the 2001 Emmy Awards)
In the aftermath of September 11th, pop culture audiences were still looking for a way to process the collective trauma. The Emmys, with the unenviable task of being the first event since the attacks, sought help from Streisand, a voice that had united audiences for decades. Singing the “Sound of Music” standard, she gave audiences watching across the country a shared language for their grief, and a beacon of hope to reach for. There was no better choice in that moment than Streisand.
“Fifty Percent” (2016)
It would be impossible for Streisand to sing every Broadway standard known to man, but God what a marvel it would be if she could. Case in point: Streisand’s version of “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom, made famous by Dorothy Loudon, from 2016’s Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway, her second duets album. Long past what many might consider her vocal prime, “Fifty Percent” is an incredible achievement. Streisand’s voice has changed, of course, but the pillars of her gift remain, including her considerate phrasing and soaring notes. The light rasp that comes through only adds color. Streisand’s ability to deliver at this level after so many years is astounding.
There are so many Streisand moments and songs I would’ve liked to include. If there’s one you love that I missed, leave a comment and even a link!