For Barbra Streisand, this may be the best of times and the worst of times. At age 74, she’s just kicked off a new national tour with an acclaimed performance at L.A.’s Staples Center. The tour, modestly named “Barbra: The Music . . . the Mem’ries . . . The Magic!”, is designed to showcase a new duets album that goes on sale August 28. At the same time, the long-gestating new Barry Levinson film project, a reworking of the Broadway musical Gypsy, has once again lost its financing, and will not be starting production in fall as planned. Which means it’s more unlikely than ever that we’ll see Streisand play the iconic role of Mama Rose.
Gypsy, the 1959 Broadway hit that combined the talents of Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Jules Styne, and Stephen Sondheim, originally featured Ethel Merman as the indomitable mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s a role for a powerhouse singer as well as a great actress. The Hollywood “geniuses” behind the 1962 film version chose to cast Rosalind Russell, a Hollywood legend but not someone exactly known for her musical chops. (That’s one of many reasons the movie is barely remembered today.) In major stage and TV revivals, the part has gone to Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, and Bernadette Peters. From what I’ve learned from Neal Gabler’s respectful new biography, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, Mama Rose would be an ideal fit for Streisand. She certainly has the pipes for the job, as well as the combination of vulnerability and strength that the role demands.
According to Gabler, Streisand’s goal was always to be an actress. She diligently studied the craft (fellow acting student Dustin Hoffman remembered her as “a hungry baby bird”), but of course it was singing that provided her with a breakthrough moment. It came with Broadway’s Funny Girl, the musicalized story of Ziegfeld Follies entertainer Fanny Brice. I learned from Gabler that director Jerome Robbins lobbied for Anne Bancroft to play the leading role. Others in contention included Broadway stalwart Mary Martin and comedienne Carol Burnett. Gabler describes Funny Girl as “a Jewish story of an outsider trying to win acceptance in a world of beauty and glamour wrapped around the story of romance doomed by a driven Jewish woman’s success.” Which made it the perfect role for Streisand, who shared both Brice’s ethnicity and her profound discomfort with her less-than-All-American looks. Writes Gabler, “Certainly others could have played Brice. But only Streisand had lived Brice.”
The Broadway success of Funny Girl took Streisand to Hollywood, where she promptly became an Oscar winner. Thereafter she appeared in some not-entirely-suitable roles, like that of the middle-aged lead in Hello, Dolly! Gabler himself is most partial to The Way We Were, which he sees as revealing Streisand’s own personal strengths and weaknesses. The film’s failed romance with the character played by Robert Redford shows Streisand’s Katie paying a price “for her moralizing, for her perfectionism, for her gutsiness, for her ardency, for her stridency, for her lack of conformity—for all the things her fans had come to love about her and about her characters. She pays a price to be Barbra Streisand.”
Of course Streisand has played many other movie roles, and has been gutsy enough to defy the Hollywood system by directing herself in Yentl, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces. All have suffered critical slings and arrows, but the lady marches on. Who can forget the way she was? And we have high hopes for what she is yet to be.