Barbra’s Farewell–A City Verklempt

It is High Holy Days weather in New York. And if you were to stand on the Upper West Side this evening, you might hear on the chilly breeze a great collective moan of sorrow. This is not the mass lamentation of a care-worn and inquiring people begging for forgiveness and inscription into the Book of Life for one more year. No, this is the full-throated wail, thousands strong, of those who have gathered at Madison Square Garden on 33rd Street–oh, do let’s call it “Toity-Toid” just for tonight–to see the first of the two final concerts ever given by Barbra Streisand, our one true Jewish saint. These are indeed the Days of Awe.

She performed two nights last week in Los Angeles, as practice. I went to the first. And even though the message to her fans on the inside cover of the souvenir program says, “It’s bittersweet to say farewell to live performing. But it feels right to say good-bye in the two cities I think of as home,” and while she has certainly lived in L.A. for decades, we all knew the truth. It was to New York that she would always return–the place that gave birth to her, the place with which her ineluctable identification started, setting her on the road to stardom and, it must be said, self-parody.

I am not by any stretch of the imagination a Barbra queen, truth be told. She has never had that rare ability to make me feel simultaneously horrible about myself and good about the world that clinches my utmost devotion. On the Barbra spectrum–ranging from pure antipathy, like my friend Julie, who can only refer to her as “such a bitch!”, to the girls with whom I went to high school, for whom Ms. Streisand was the Jewish Steven Biko–I’m somewhere south of the middle.

I am not unmindful of her very real talents. It’s just easy to forget, given the annoying, obfuscating tsunami of her current Donna-Karan-confidante, Lincoln-bedroom, Prince of Tides -making persona. Ergo, my Streisand Talking Points: She is possessed of a remarkable voice; did have what was once an extraordinary comic sensibility–her performance in What’s Up Doc? remains one of the great comic turns in American movies (and her rendition of “As Time Goes By” in same a contender for Platonic ideal of that song); and with her nose alone, she re-drew the parameters of physical beauty for millions of women–an achievement not to be underestimated.

There was lots of time to ruminate on such things during the 45 minutes we waited outside the Staples Center at Figueroa and 12th. Mostly, though, I spent my time being appalled at the ticket price. “Timeless” is not a benefit from what I can see, and at $375, my ticket was the second cheapest. For a paltry $150, one could secure a seat up in the stadium ether. At the other extreme, one could pony up $1,275, or truly go for broke and buy in at the super-elite, tippy-top level of $2,500–for which I would at least expect dinner. Actually, dinner and a speculum.

I make a list in my mind of just a few of the figures of equal cultural significance whom I have seen over the years for less money: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Vanessa Redgrave, Danny Kaye, Maggie Smith, Leonard Bernstein, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa and Golda Meir.

We passed through the metal detectors. The tickets had an explicit “No Cameras/No Recorders” printed on them. It seemed a bit harsh to deny the thousands of fans who have foregone a month of prescriptions to afford to be here the opportunity of at least a picture of themselves. Even a grainy image of the distant pin dot that would be La Streisand herself couldn’t possibly have posed a threat to any photo agencies here on this historic night. Frankly, I’m even skeptical that these are her last concerts, having some vague memory of a series of crypto-final engagements at Madison Square Garden about two years ago. It seems like she has come out of retirement to retire.

Judging by the lines at the souvenir kiosk, I was the only one feeling gouged and doubtful, as folks crowded dozens deep to purchase mementos of the precious memories they are sure to take away from the concert that had yet to begin. There were T-shirts abounding with that famous face, now of a certain age, serene and ingenuously nuzzling tea roses. Personally, I would have opted for the white cotton number with an archetypal His Master’s Voice silhouette of Barbra seated in a director’s cherry picker. the cinema auteuse at work: $30. Although the simple, scripted “B” in rhinestones on black for $40 was so very casually elegant, while the Barbra fleece pullover was functional and kicky at a cool $90.

“She’s always been my Sinatra,” said the man beside me. A friend of his, a blond Liz Smith type, said, “I first heard ‘People’ on the jukebox in a gay bar in Houston in 1964, and I said ‘Who is that?’ And it’s been Barbra ever since.” Barbra ever since, and Barbra ever after. Aside from myself and some dour-looking maintenance folk, everyone here–male, female, gay and straight–was a die-hard Barbra queen. I was seated among a nation indivisible under Barbra, anticipating the manifestation of her glorious presence.

That moment arrived at 8:30 sharp: The makeshift proscenium of enormous red velvet swags parted, revealing the huge Egyptian-themed set. The orchestra was seated on tiers made to look like the great sandstone blocks hewn by the Israelites, the backdrop an enormous pyramid against a starry sky. The overture started, a screen dropped down. Upon it, a dizzying assortment of dials and clock wheels, pendulums and a large watch face. (Timeless–get it?) A tap dancer in a billowing black velvet cape pushed the second hand counterclockwise, as time accordioned back to 1955. An actress playing a young Barbra (possibly, back then, still a young Barbara), accompanied by a hectoring Jewish stage mother straight out of Anti-Defamation League literature, entered a recording studio. Young B. was instructed to sing “You’ll Never Know” as written. She bent the note with the keening suppleness that would make her a star, and pandemonium ensued as recording conductor and mother wondered what on earth they would do with this headstrong girl. The tap dancer returned, only this time a solemn harbinger: We knew this because his cloak was now lined in silver sequins–cross-cultural shorthand for Promising, Glamorous Future. Singing a trance-like “Who Knows?” from West Side Story , young Barbra was enfolded into the disco garment. We already knew what was going to happen and still we loved it, spontaneously getting to our feet as the caped one turned, knowing that on “May come cannonballing down from the sky,” out would step Herself! And she did, in a sleeveless top and trousers with bronze sequins, a kind of Owl and the Pussycat – meets-Lufthansa stewardess evening look.

“Check the archives for her past concerts. I think this is the Vegas one,” said the woman beside me, referring to Barbra’s Millennium appearance last Dec. 31.

Recycled material or not, Barbra Streisand still has an amazing set of pipes–eerily so for 58 years old. She took us back in time to the Bon Soir, the little boîte where she got her start, singing a beautiful “Cry Me A River” and a heartbreakingly good “Sleeping Bee.” A medley of songs from her Funny Girl period also didn’t disappoint. Interestingly, the music was arranged so that she never actually said the phrase “I’m the greatest star” when singing that song. It’s an omission almost sweet in its humility, given the throngs who have consigned their children to certain renal failure by having bought tickets. To them, she is the greatest star, a fact about which she does not seem complacent; she was not phoning this in. Begrudgingly, it must be admitted, she remains one of the great American singers. Whatever vocal elisions she makes in concession to her age–and they are far fewer than one might imagine–they are intelligent and as musically impressive as the pyrotechnics of her younger self. In two hours of concert, there was not one moment of embarrassment where I was looking at my shoes praying for it to pass.

Let me qualify that: In two hours, there was not one moment of musical embarrassment. But there was that inevitable, cringe-making ick factor endemic to latter-day Barbra. There is something profoundly uncool about Barbra Streisand. No father ever ripped a Streisand LP off a hi-fi declaring, “Not under my roof.” She has never had counterculture cred; her aesthetic parentage is Broadway and Tin Pan Alley as opposed to Woodstock. This is not, in and of itself, an indictment. But now, watching her do the Fanny Brice thing 36 years later (“I’m a bagel in a plate of onion rolls!”) was a little creaky and calcified.

The time when Barbra Streisand was unconventional (shockingly brief, given the fact that she was a full-blown star by age 22)–when she was that little spitfire who, with the face straight out of steerage, went on Jack Paar in 1961 and blew America’s gasket of June Christy propriety with her staggering talent, unmediated New York yiddishkeit and hilarious shtick right off the dime–is long gone. Ms. Streisand’s brand of ethnicity has become not just normative, but a caricature inauthentically trotted out seemingly everywhere but New York. I don’t know a single Jew who says ” verklempt ,” although I have heard Connie Chung use it. Ms. Streisand’s been known to poke fun at her own eclipsing shadow with the sang froid of the cultural critic, fully aware of her metamorphosis into the poster child for a kind of middle-aged, middlebrow, suburban tackiness (making appearances with Linda Richman, Mike Myers’ Streisand-obsessed character)–but, like the super-hero who can no longer take off his mask and live among normal people, she seems unable to rid herself of an intrinsic schlockiness. Schmoozing with the audience (about many of whom my mother might say, “It’s a good thing they don’t have to kill animals to get sequins”), she told us about a floral arrangement she just received backstage from a dear friend. “One hundred and fifty roses–I counted–and in the center of each one? Is a pearl.” The audience fairly climaxed at this extra-classy Aaron Spelling image, and all I could think was, from what Summer’s Eve box was this idea lifted?

Things were not always thus. Where once she was among the most gifted interpreters of Harold Arlen and Jule Styne, she has over the years allied herself with the poorly controlled hysteria and emotional ipecac that is the songwork of Marilyn and Alan Bergman. She actually demonstrated the devolution of her good taste, a National Geographic timeline in reverse, in what only I think of as a risky move: a montage of clips of her duets. It started with the sublime moment in 1963 when she and Judy Garland sang “Happy Days Are Here Again/C’mon Get Happy”–a meeting of god and titan exponentially more genuine and torch-passing than that Bill Clinton-J.F.K. photograph. Sadly, things degenerated almost immediately to footage of mistake after mistake: that Gibb brother (Barry?); Céline Dion; and culminating with her high school chum Neil Diamond, the most annoying man in the world. As this unholy alliance late of Erasmus Hall launched into “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” up on the screen, the audience went what can only be described as ape shit. (” Well, it’s good for you, babe, an’ you’re feelin’ alright! “) It was always a terrible song, and history has not been kind to it, either, although you wouldn’t know it from the ecstatic awe over this coupling. We might as well have been watching footage of Buddha French-braiding Jesus’ hair.

The cheese continued. The capper to the proceedings, I thought, would now be for James Brolin to emerge. He did make an appearance of sorts. A picture of Ms. Streisand’s newish husband came up on the screen as she sang to it. I suppose if I had managed to nab a silver fox like James Brolin, I’d also probably rent out a stadium and sing about it. But the photos of him were so adoring, so poignant–the close-up tightening in ever nearer to the cerulean eyes and ax-head features in such loving tribute–that I found myself briefly wondering if he were dead.

Thoughts of mortality are not far off the mark. Retirement can be a tricky thing for artists as beloved as Barbra. Staying away from the spotlight must be an enormous challenge. The closest equivalent to these four last concerts are Sinatra’s “final” appearance at age 55 in Los Angeles. He might have left it at that, exiting as he did on the last bars of “Angel Eyes,” instead of coming back again and again to foist upon an unwitting public such sclerotic chestnuts as “L.A. Is My Lady.” In addition to Sinatra, there are other cautionary tales she can look to: Liza, for one, who is barely Mabel Mercer now even on her best days. Even Garbo had the good sense to quit early, although anyone who has seen Two-Faced Woman knows she retired one film too late.

I don’t see Barbra making the same mistake, if only for the fact that she doesn’t even particularly like giving concerts, she lets it be known. She doesn’t enjoy wearing high heels for 35 songs, she doesn’t enjoy having to lose weight for an engagement, and there has always been talk of near-crippling stage fright for as long as she has performed. And, she tells us reassuringly, she will continue to make records and, heaven help us, movies. Given the anecdotal evidence over the years of her monstrously narcissistic self-possession, it’s entirely conceivable that she would be sufficiently self-aware to know when to exit with dignity while her capacities are still intact.

And they are staggeringly, remarkably intact. By the time she reached her final song, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” even I recognized the privilege of seeing her one first and last time. It was poignant. So poignant, in fact, that it demanded the encore we knew and hoped it would. She ended her concert as she began it, with a song from West Side Story , this time “Somewhere.” The Man in the Cape appeared at the top of the Egyptian stairs, opening his garment; the Glittering Unknown winked at our Star as she ascended to meet her undetermined yet surely fabulous fate. Curtain. Crazed ovation.

And noch an encore, which was a series of jaw-dropping home runs: “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” a wonderful torch song from the stage version of Funny Girl that was cut from the movie in favor of Fanny Brice’s signature song, “My Man,” which Barbra now sang. It was her Mrs. Norman Maine moment in the movie, an unadorned show-stopper about the vicissitudes of stardom. Indeed, the scene was filmed and sung live in front of an audience much like this one. It was doubly resonant this evening as she sent herself off.

So let us now give thanks, for thanks are truly due, to Miss Yetta Tessye Marmelstein, the ugly duckling who, by sheer force of talent, became beautiful by song’s end. Bow your heads in the presence of that Voice, that shofar blast of perfect tone, as it makes its way up to the rafters of the Garden, and out into the night over the city that made her.