Barbra Streisand’s Aug. 3 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden was significant not just because it was her first time on the arena’s stage in 13 years, but, as she told an enraptured crowd of many thousands, because she spent some of her most formative time blocks away. Yes, these were “misty water-colored memories,” she serenaded, in between slideshows of personal photos, such as the time, at 18, when she won a talent competition at the Lion, a downtown gay nightclub. “It turns out my first fans were the gay community,” Streisand said. “I’m still very grateful for their support.”
There was also a snapshot of an early Manhattan apartment she rented, where the bathtub was in the kitchen, and her dressing room at the Winter Garden Theatre during her star-making turn in Broadway’s “Funny Girl” in 1964. Everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Sophia Loren to Audrey Hepburn visited her backstage — we didn’t have to take her word for it, she had visual proof. Oh, and did we want to see her old car? “I was always late for the theater, because on Central Park West, you couldn’t get a cab,” Streisand said of the pre-Uber days. “I bought a second -hand Bentley. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Indeed it was, and so was her tour-de-force performance. Over two hours and almost two dozen songs, Streisand received a stunning 17 standing ovations — earning every single one — for an energetic show that included her biggest hits (“People” and “Evergreen”), some Broadway gems (from “Into the Woods” and “Funny Girl”) and even a little disco (the Donna Summer duet “Enough is Enough”), building to a powerful political crescendo.
Streisand soaked in all the love, and toasted the crowd, too with a voice-preserving cup of tea: “May we all be as wonderful as our dogs think we are; my three are in my dressing room,” she said of her beloved Miss Fanny, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett.
Streisand once explained to me why she gets stage fright: she’s scared of letting the public down. She doesn’t know if her voice can live up to the high expectations, the fantasy of what people imagine for it to be. But even in the cavernous Garden, a venue where talented artists can sound like they are crooning from the bottom of a well, Streisand conquered every note. At 77, she’s as pitch -perfect live as she is on one of her digitally remastered CDs.
And when she’s ad libbing, as she loves to do, Streisand is still a funny girl. “Thank you so much! Fight it out,” she said to the competing screams of “I love you.” In the first act, she wore an oversized black dress—which she described as “a klutzy thing, like a bath robe.” It kept her warm, until she was too hot. She kicked off her heels because they weren’t comfortable. “I have two pairs of flats, they look like crappy shoes, but they’re actually Chanel,” she cracked, stepping into her “800-dollar flip flops.”
There’s probably no hope that Streisand will ever return to Broadway, though she proved that she could with “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl.” Streisand said that she’d wanted to close her musical career with the role of Mama Rose in a big-screen adaptation of “Gypsy,” which fell apart a few years ago. “I could see the whole movie,” Streisand lamented. “I made an eight-minute film to prove my vision could work. Well, you can’t always get what you want, but I’m not a woman who gives up on a dream.”
She also isn’t someone who keeps quiet about her political beliefs. About 45 minutes into her show, Streisand paused to salute the high-profile Democrats in the house, including former New York Mayor David Dinkins, Al Sharpton, Congressman Jerry Nadler and Bill and Hillary Clinton, her longtime friends. Streisand praised the 42nd President for balancing the budget and rescuing the economy during his eight years in office. “But being a great President is about more than just dollars and cents,” Streisand noted. “A great President needs a sense of history, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and the compassion to not let children be separated from their parents.” It was her first dig at Trump, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Streisand then addressed Hillary: “Madam Secretary, you gave our allies confidence and our foes unambiguous clarity. You demonstrated that strength and kindness can exist in equal measure. And needless to say, three years ago, I was truly hoping to sing at your inauguration.”
Following an intermission, Streisand returned to the stage in a white Donna Karan dress, which she said had been made for her a few days earlier by the designer. She seemed more relaxed, hitting every note of the timeless bummer “Send in the Clowns.” Fittingly, she followed it up with a new version of the song, advising the (few) Republicans in attendance to cover their ears. While a picture of Trump as a clown was projected behind the stage, Streisand crooned:
He says he’s rich
Maybe he’s poor
‘Til he reveals his returns
Who can be sure
Who is this clown?
I don’t approve
Now that he’s running the free world
Where can we move?
Maybe a town!
Just who is this clown?
This is not a farce
It’s not just smoke
Is this his “Art of the Deal” or some awful joke?
You’ve got to admit
This fraudulent twit
Is so full of …
Next came another chilling number, “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods,” which took on new meaning in the current political environment, followed by “Walls,” her 2018 song inspired by the Trumps hateful rhetoric as it relates to borders and immigration. But Streisand wanted to end the night on a hopeful note. That led her to “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which she sang nodding to the Clintons, and a simple yet beautiful interpretation of the 1965 chestnut “What the World Needs is Now Love.” Truer words were never sung.