Forty years ago, a force of nature struck unsuspecting TV screens across the country, very subtly at first - an off-camera, almost girlish voice softly singing a brief, angular melody that ended with four simple words: "My name is Barbra."
Although a certifiable star - she had already made the cover of Time and Life, garnered two Grammys and conquered Broadway in Funny Girl - Barbra Streisand stepped all the way into the brightest, widest limelight once anointed by network television with her own special. And not just any special.
The CBS broadcast of April 28, 1965, titled - what else? - My Name is Barbra didn't bother with guest stars or high-kicking dancers. Instead, in this three-act, one-woman show Streisand took off on flights of visual, as well as vocal, fancy. The results proved sensational, with five Emmys and a Peabody Award to prove it.
The same basic format fueled Color Me Barbra in 1967. A year later came The Belle of 14th Street, then A Happening in Central Park (1968) and Barbra Streisand ... and Other Musical Instruments (1973).
All five have just been released on an attractively packaged, well-documented DVD set from Rhino (list price $59.99). It marks the first time that Belle of 14th Street and Other Musical Instruments have been available in any video format since their original air dates.
Meanwhile, Great Performances, the PBS arts showcase, is reviving the first two Streisand specials. My Name is Barbra will be shown locally at 8 tonight on WMPT (repeating 4:30 p.m. Dec. 8, 1:30 p.m. Dec. 18) and 8 p.m. tomorrow on WETA. Color Me Barbra is scheduled to be aired in March.
`Actress who sings'
The renewed interest in these souvenirs from Streisand's astonishing early years couldn't come at a better time. Just a few weeks ago came a reminder of today's less consistently inspired Streisand. On her latest CD, Guilty Pleasures, she gleefully wastes her talent on instantly forgettable tunes by Barry Gibb, a vapid sequel to their aptly named Guilty collaboration in 1980.
With the DVD set, we're back in the thrall of the original Barbra Streisand, the self-styled "actress who sings." In those days, she matched her innate insights with advice from people who had great artistic taste and judgment, among them director Joe Layton, who largely created four of the TV shows.
By the time she made the last one, Other Musical Instruments, Streisand had started moving into a mainstream she once floated high above and had become fond of overproduction.
A segment that has her duetting with Ray Charles almost works, but when she ends up competing with electric appliances in an inanity called The World is a Concerto, you have to wonder, what was she thinking?
Such unconvincing moments are redeemed the moment Streisand gets into her true element, delivering the definitive version of "I Never Has Seen Snow" and a performance of "On a Clear Day" so full of wonder that she makes you feel as if you really can see forever.
With that curiously uneven show, the TV chapter of her career effectively ended. Subsequent appearances were mostly about promoting her movies.
To some extent, nothing Streisand has done on the silver screen surpasses what she achieved on the little one with her first two specials.
Sample just about any minute of My Name is Barbra and you'll get an ear- and eyeful of the Streisand magic. One minute she's whimsically reliving childhood; the next, singing "Where is the Wonder?", she's recalling it with a poignancy worthy of a Richard Strauss heroine.
In a nocturnal romp through Bergdorf Goodman, she dispenses as much comic flair as vocal brilliance. The concert portion of the show includes an affectingly intimate "Why Did I Choose You?" that surely melted picture tubes across the land.
On March 30, 1966 (I must have been very young at the time), I was switching TV channels when I discovered Color Me Barbra, my first exposure to the phenomenon with the unconventional talent and beauty. Not until I discovered Maria Callas and Judy Garland years later did I experience anything like the shiver Streisand's voice sent through me that night.
A work of art
In the fanciful opening, a Pictures at an Exhibition kind of segment filmed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Streisand has interactive experiences with various canvases, at one point turning into the woman in a haunting portrait by Modigliani - an ideal look for singing the wrenching "Non, C'est Rien."
Elegantly dressed and posed as Thomas Eakins' "The Concert Singer," she delivers a stunning version of "One Kiss." Stripped of its operetta dimensions, it's transformed into an art song that places the melodic line in an entirely fresh light and inspires exquisite nuance from Streisand. I'll always rank this among her most sublime performances.
The Belle of 14th Street, with Jason Robards Jr., and other guests, didn't quite reach the level of its predecessors. This affectionate salute to vaudeville tries so hard to please that it ends up looking a little desperate.