"I'm the Greatest Star" The Essential Barbra Streisand on Disc

By Ben Rimalower
January 25, 2014

Playbill.com correspondent Ben Rimalower offers a selection of the essential recordings by award-winning singer and actress Barbra Streisand.



*

After paying her dues and honing her craft on the nightclub circuit, Barbra Streisand burst onto Broadway in 1962's I Can Get It For You Wholesale, igniting a blaze of excitement. Chart-topping albums, concerts and television appearances quickly followed, culminating in Streisand's legendary performance in Funny Girl on Broadway, and subsequently on film, for which she won an Academy Award.

It's a fairy tale, the likes of which has never been seen again, and Streisand herself has yet to return to Broadway. Lucky for us, her output on record has been, to put it mildly, abundant. She has released more than 50 albums across a gamut of musical styles, always providing an actor's sensitivity and that iconic, preternatural voice. True fans — and there are millions upon millions of us — will require most of those 50-plus album in their personal collection, but I've selected just a handful of my very favorites for those with less shelf (or hard drive) space to spare.

1. "The Concert" (live album, 1994)

Even Barbra Streisand's stage fright is legendary! A consummate perfectionist, she famously declined live performing for decades, making only the rarest live appearances singing for a very few political or social causes. This spell was broken in 1993 when she returned to the concert stage in a record-breaking tour including an HBO special and this live album. Her voice was in astonishingly agile form and she rose elegantly and powerfully to the occasion of this monumental event. "The Concert" is my number one Barbra Streisand desert island disc because it offers a wide range of her repertoire, spanning her venerable career, as well as a real taste of the magnitude of her superstardom.

2. Funny Girl, Original Broadway Cast Album (1964)

It's been said a multitude of different ways by a sea of people: Barbra Streisand was the perfect star for Funny Girl and Funny Girl was ideal vehicle for Barbra Streisand. The original cast album offers an embarrassment of Streisand riches, even beyond the out-and-out hits, "People," "Don't Rain On My Parade" and "I'm The Greatest Star." Any one of the somewhat lesser known "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Who Are You Now?" and "Cornet Man" could have been the standalone showstopper in another show. Even in the duets and novelty numbers, Streisand is stellar — untouchable really — in the amount of voice and heart she brings, along with her distinctive and spot-on comedy. The 2002 Actors Fund benefit concert of Funny Girl (with an all-star cast of "Fanny Brices," each performing one scene/song) proved amply that it takes dozens of performers to approximate the contribution of one Barbra Streisand.

3. "The Second Barbra Streisand Album" (studio album, 1963)

A thrilling earful of what Barbra Streisand was doing so successfully in nightclubs and cabarets in the 1960s, "The Second Barbra Streisand Album" finds her in ridiculously full voice, blaring out clarion tones with abandon as she tears her way through Peter Matz's masterful arrangements of standards and the Great American Songbook. Some might object to some of these interpretations as over-the-top (the near-melodrama of "Like a Straw in the Wind," the overt sexuality of "Lover, Come Back To Me" or the camp of "Down With Love" and "Gotta Move"), but Streisand's dynamics are fully committed and brought to life in truthful character.

4. "The Barbra Streisand Album" (studio album, 1963)

Streisand's first album is in a similar vein to her second and gives an equally privileged peek at her early career in the clubs. Some might prefer this over the second as, comparatively, "The Barbra Streisand Album" has more integrity as a whole and feels a bit more like an actual concert set. There's a somewhat smokier, jazzier vibe that balances out Streisand's histrionics, perhaps making this disc more palatable to a wider audience. Still, she goes for the jugular on such classics as "Cry Me A River," "A Taste Of Honey" and "Much More," is a hoot-and-a-half in the funny bits of "My Honey's Lovin' Arms" and "Who's Afraid Of The Big, Bad Wolf?" and, all in all, is in rich, searing voice with apparently no limitations.

5. "Guilty" (studio album, with Barry Gibb, 1980)

"Guilty" was a total departure from the more "easy listening" style of adult contemporary pop Barbra Streisand recorded throughout the 1970s. It's also her best-selling album. Several songs from "Guilty" hit high on the Billboard charts and "Woman in Love" was Number One for three weeks. Streisand's unique ability to sing (and even wail) with a sort of piercing, metallic sound (and very little vibrato) in her upper register was perfectly employed in the soaring melodies of the space-age sonic environment Gibb created for her. "Guilty" represents a tremendous collaborative achievement by two major artists and should not be dismissed by younger generations as a mere novelty of its time.

 

6. "Stoney End" (studio album, 1971)

"Stoney End" was another success for Barbra Streisand, crossing over into then-current pop styles. This time, she inhabited the world of singer-songwriters, trying on a sort of hippie sensibility. Tackling great songs by such greats as Laura Nyro, Dusty Springfield, Gordon Lightfoot and Randy Newman, Streisand's approach was to emulate the style of the original version. If these tracks individually lack the authenticity of prior recordings, collectively they make for a cohesive listening experience that takes the listener on moving journey through the sounds and themes of the early 1970s. Of course, too, the Streisand voice is a welcome addition to this music.

7. "Je m'appelle Barbra" (studio album, 1966)

"Je m'appelle Barbra" is an album of songs either in French or partially in French, or written in French, but translated to English. Streisand looks glamorous and Parisian chic in the Richard Avedon cover photo and her voice flies through the stratosphere in Michel Legrand's lush arrangements. Listening to Streisand's gut-wrenching, passionate rendition of "Free Again," it seems only natural that she and Legrand would collaborate more in the years to come.

8. "The Broadway Album" (studio album, 1985)

After nearly 20 years singing almost exclusively pop music, Barbra Streisand returned to showtunes in a very big way with 1985's four-time Platinum "The Broadway Album." Streisand opens the disc confronting her long-awaited return to the music that made her famous, with "Putting It Together" from Sunday in the Park With George, a paean to the struggles of an artist, here reconfigured to specifically deal with Streisand's own trade, the music industry. The new material was scripted by no less than the song's creator, Stephen Sondheim, who also provided additional lyrics to "Send in the Clowns," another of the handful of his songs that make up a plurality on the album. If some of the ballads suffer from overproduction and lack of intimacy in Streisand's too-meticulous renditions, there is a plethora of winning, even definitive, tracks of such quintessential Broadway numbers as "Something's Coming," "Adelaide's Lament" and "Somewhere."

9. "Classical Barbra" (studio album, 1976)

Yet another foray into an entirely different genre (you can't accuse Barbra Streisand of sticking to safe ground!), "Classical Barbra" is an enormously appealing album. Singing songs by Debussy, Handel, Schumann and other European composers (in their original languages), Streisand eschews the pyrotechnics that have served her so well in the bulk of her recording career for a measured, ethereal tone that suits the material exquisitely. The result is an indispensable disc of quasi-lullabies, which transport the listener to a place of rare peace and tranquility.

10. "The Way We Were" (studio album, 1974)

Although "The Way We Were" contains only four recordings made specifically for the album (the "The Way We Were," "All In Love Is Fair," "Being At War With Each Other" and "Something So Right"), they are combined with previously unreleased stray tracks from other projects which suit the mood. Consequently, the album comes together as a fairly consistent assemblage of songs with Streisand luxuriating at the peak of her 1970s pop princess power.

11. "What About Today?" (studio album, 1969)

"What About Today?" (Barbra Streisands's first and less successful album of the pop music of the time, prior to "Stoney End") is given a bad rap, but it's fun to hear Streisand sing this kind of music still in her 1960s full-belt mode. Besides the barnstormers, "Ask Yourself Why," "Alfie," "The Little Tin Soldier" and the title song, she is frisky and fun on Simon and Garfunkel's "Punky's Dilemma" and the Beatles' "Honey Pie."

12. "Barbra Joan Streisand" (studio album, 1971)

Kind of like a follow-up to "Stoney End," "Barbra Joan Streisand" finds Streisand tackling more singer-songwriter hits of the day, including Carole King and John Lennon, along with some tracks which might be more at home on "The Way We Were," such as her stunning medley of Burt Bacharach's "One Less Bell to Answer" and "A House Is Not a Home." What the album lacks in unity of feeling, it makes up for with high belting on the Joe Cocker hit, "Space Captain."

13. "Yentl" Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1983)

Everything that makes "Yentl" a bizarre movie — namely the extensive, introspective Michel Legrand musical soliloquys belted to the heavens by Barbra Streisand while none of the other characters sing — is precisely what makes "Yentl" a dynamite Barbra Streisand album. As a matter of fact, the worst thing you can say about the "Yentl" album is that there aren't enough songs, with reprises and alternate releases padding what is essentially only nine songs. Still, Streisand is in top form on these recordings. My personal favorite is "This Is One Of Those Moments," where you feel like you're flying through history on the wings of Streisand's magical voice.

14. "Live Concert At The Forum" (1972)

A fundraiser for George McGovern's presidential campaign, this event produced the unique occurrence of a live Barbra Streisand concert in the 1970s. McGovern lost the election, but we win with an eclectic group of such rare live performances as "Starting Here, Starting Now," "Where You Lead," "Didn't We" and even "Stoney End." I delight particularly in Streisand's warm and hearty medley of "Sing" from "Sesame Street" and the Cass Elliott hit "Make Your Own Kind Of Music." Also, Streisand does a funny monologue about smoking pot, that is, well, a sign of the times.

(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)