It was November when I asked a couple of friends which one of Barbra Streisand’s two comeback concerts they thought I should attend in Las Vegas. The debate boiled down to the drama of her first big show in 22 years on New Year’s Eve versus the presumably more polished second night. Then a genius spoke: ”As long as you’re going, go to both.” Which explains why I wrote a check for $4,020 (including a $5 handling fee for each ticket for my wife and myself) to MGM Grand, Inc., enclosing a note that read, ”Am I nuts? No, just crazy about that voice.” And which night was better? You decide. We’ll go together.
New Year’s Eve: People, people who need Barbra, included for the first show Coretta Scott King, Prince, and Laurie Kolb of Skokie, Ill. Kolb, 42, introduced herself at 11 a.m. as we walked off the same flight from Chicago. ”I spent part of my inheritance from my grandmother Ida on a $1,000 ticket,” she said. ”It was too expensive for my husband to come, and I’m catching the 6 a.m. flight home. It’s been my dream to see her since I was 9 and she was 18. My mother, before she died last year, reminded me that I wanted to have my nose fixed to look like Barbra’s.” Now that’s a fan. And when I caught up with Laurie at intermission she said she cried all through the first act. First-nighters also included former Streisand directors Sydney Pollack (The Way We Were) and Peter Bogdanovich (What’s Up Doc?). Like the hoi polloi, they had to walk through metal detectors and past vendors hawking $25 programs and $100 silver key chains, the latter selling out an hour before showtime. Dell Furano, president and CEO of Sony Signatures, the shows’ merchandising vendor, predicted per capita sales greater than those of any concert or Super Bowl, as we watched cardboard boxes fill up with cash at concessionaires’ feet. In fact, an 800 number was established to allow sales to continue long after the concerts were over. Is Streisand a partner in all of this? ”A particularly big partner,” Furano said. (There had been a lot of speculation about how much money Streisand would make from the concerts, merchandising, and any video or phonic record of the two-day affair. The biggest number thrown out has been $20 million. According to authoritative sources, though, that number is significantly low.) In the green room, celebrities sat out an hour delay with sliced fruit, vegetables, and corn chips. Dealmaker Michael Ovitz walked by the guacamole, his thumb heavily bandaged because of a skiing accident. Inside the new MGM Grand Garden arena, Larry Heider, 47, of Chicago, had perhaps the best view of all, working as the show’s close-up videocameraman with a 66:1 Fujinon. ”Her left side is her preferred side,” he said. Even closer to the stage than Heider was fan Robin Ruzan, married to Saturday Night Live’s Mike Myers. ”My mother’s sister’s husband went to school with Barbra’s booking agent’s father.” And I thought I was nuts. At 9 p.m., Marvin Hamlisch, fronting a 64-piece orchestra, began the overture behind a Monticello-inspired drawing-room set. Then stage left, on top of a Palladian staircase, Streisand appeared in a long black velvet dress with a cream satin inset, capped with a brooch of pearls and diamonds. After accepting waves of applause, she put her hands together and appeared to say, ”Thank you, God.” Her opening number, ”Everything’s As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, couldn’t have been more appropriate: ”I don’t $ know why I’m so frightened I’m trembling now. I’ve missed you…I’ve come home again.” Her left hand was indeed trembling as she gripped the staircase, moving toward center stage. And as her spotlight went out at the end of the first number to thunderous applause, in the darkness, through my binoculars, I saw her turn away from the crowd and exhale with great relief. ”I did one!” she exclaimed as the lights came back on. The source of Streisand’s notorious stage fright? ”It started in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli War,” she once told me, ”when I was doing my big concert in Central Park. There were 135,000 people there. My movie (Funny Girl) was going to be banned in Egypt. The government had said that (because Omar Sharif) was an Arab and I was a Jew, they weren’t going to play any of my movies. So I was afraid that somebody might take a shot at me during the concert. So I started walking around the stage fast. And I forgot my words, which is an actor’s nightmare. And it wasn’t the first time. It had happened to me before, during the last few months of Funny Girl on stage. My mind used to go blank. And that frightened me-that absolute lack of control.” She also told me that she actually had a swami backstage during a 1980 tribute to composer friends Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Fans yearning for vintage material didn’t have long to wait. After two autobiographical songs, Streisand belted out ”Don’t Rain on My Parade,” transporting us back to the tugboat scene of Funny Girl. Before a thrilling rendition of ”On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” she said it took her 2,700 hours and $360,000 worth of psychotherapy to achieve the serenity of Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics of self-acceptance. The first act was history. Music pros in the audience agreed that the sound system needed adjusting, that Streisand was nervous, and that she and Hamlisch were still feeling their way, factors that prompted an all-afternoon rehearsal the next day. Some said her patter, read from stage and ceiling TelePrompTers, seemed forced at spots. As for me, I didn’t care if she played the drums between songs. Act II opened with her behind drapery humming the introduction to ”The Way We Were.” Now dressed in a striking white floor-length suit and vest, trimmed with white bugle beads, she looked like the world’s most glamorous lion tamer. Her skirt, slit to the thigh, revealed legs that passed the ultimate test- white stockings. Sound adjustments had been made and she was clearly more at ease. ! Then Mike Myers walked on stage as Saturday Night Live’s Barbra-worshipping Linda Richman and cracked up the house for 10 minutes. He and Streisand traded speedball Yiddishisms, spurring me to consider the importance of Streisand as a stand-up Jew. As the film world properly celebrates Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Jewish coming-of-age with Schindler’s List, consider the 51-year-old Streisand’s career: It was built on a nose that would not be altered and was suffused with an ethnicity that was as fresh in its time as JFK’s youth. Her directing debut, a decade ago, with the underrated Yentl, couldn’t have been more Jewish. Her pride and Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch in the 1965 World Series on Yom Kippur-the same year she was starring in Funny Girl on Broadway- were towers of strength to young Jews everywhere. The concert closed with a rush of hits-her own ”Evergreen,” a thrilling ”Happy Days,” Fanny Brice’s signature ”My Man,” and, as an encore, ”For All We Know,” whose lyrics hinted at a future concert tour. ”I did it! I did it! I did it!” she crowed. ”Thanks to you I might have even enjoyed myself a little.” That self-knowing admission prompted me to walk over to Quincy Jones, who once told me that all-yes, he said, all-the great women singers he knew suffered from child abuse-related insecurities. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were two names he’d offered then. Streisand was another one, he said this night. Two rows behind us, as the arena emptied, one man alone in his row stared misty-eyed at the stage, talking to no one. As Linda Richman might say, Richard Simmons was ferklempt.