What's New on the Rialto
On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide
by Ethan Mordden
Book Review by David Levy
Mordden has chosen a big subject, so naturally some elements receive closer scrutiny than others. His central thesis is that Streisand's goal has always been to be a movie star, and what's more, a "glamour star" (i.e., famous for her looks and personality, as opposed to a "talent star" noted primarily for her singing or an "acting star" recognized for her dramatic chops). As a result, he is more interested in her projects that establish the Barbra persona and tends to skip past (sometimes without so much as a mention) aspects of her output (particularly albums and later television specials) that don't fit his thesis. Sorry, fans of Higher Ground and One Night Only: Barbra Streisand and Quartet at The Village Vanguard.
Regardless, the book is a fun read that invites us to revisit performances familiar and rare with a focus on the details Mordden foregrounds, a rewarding exercise for casual fans and aficionados alike. Streisand's theater and television work are covered quickly, though not perfunctorily, with suitable thought given to her early Off-Broadway performance in Another Evening with Harry Stoones and notable talk show appearances. He does manage to skip past Barbra's HBO specials from the 1980s as though they never happened, which is particularly strange given that he found One Voice notable enough to include it in the career chronology that precedes the book's introduction.
Mordden's look at Streisand's album work involves dividing them into periods and looking at the formula she employed at constructing albums in each era. He makes a persuasive enough case that you'll want to listen along as you read. Thankfully, many of the rare tracks he mentions (such as singles that never found homes on albums) are easy enough to find online if you need to fill in the gaps in your collection. I don't necessarily agree with all of his conclusions; in particular, I think he's cheating by skipping over more than a few albums that don't fit his theories. His apparent lack of interest in much of her most recent work means not only that some albums are skipped without mention, but also that some genuinely new or different approaches (like Love is the Answer's release in both orchestral and jazz quartet versions) go unexamined.
Perhaps because Mordden believes that film has always been Barbra's greatest ambition, the section of the book dealing with her work in cinema feels the most complete. Highlights include an insightful exposition of why the conclusion of the film version of Funny Girl is more satisfying than it was on stage and an explanation of how a deleted scene from The Way We Were would have made the final act of the film make more emotional sense had it been retained.
In addition to his own opinions about Streisand's work and theories about her motivations, Mordden shares colorful anecdotes from the making of several of her projects gleaned from a number of secondary sources, which he even devotes a short appendix to, in case you wondered about his opinions of those sources. (He also shares a couple of choice anecdotes from an unnamed friend who was a Broadway chorus performer during Streisand's heyday, albeit with a noted caveat that gossip is not to be taken as history.)
If this book leaves you wanting moreand at a slender 160 pages (including a curiously incomplete index) it very well mightyou may find yourself looking for some of the books he cites. And by the time you reach this list, you should have formed your own ideas about Mordden's opinions, so you can take those into account when you decide whether to accept his recommendations or not.