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Rhino has come out with an exhaustive (and exhausting, if you try to watch them all at once) collection of all five of Barbra Streisand's phenomenally successful television specials with CBS. The series won multiple awards and helped establish Streisand as a superstar singer. Hailed almost instantly as a bona fide original, she'd go on to become the most popular female vocalist ever, a title she still holds.
Ms. Streisand fought for and won creative control over these specials, something unheard of in the middle 1960s. Practically anything different from the dull norm of television variety shows would have garnered praise. A Frank Sinatra special would start out with a solo song, followed by some patter. A series of guest stars would come to sing their own material, pausing perhaps to do a duet with Frank. Then an up-and-coming comedian or fresh ingenue would be introduced -- Streisand had done this herself on The Garry Moore Show. Some glitzy dancers could be counted on for a big number, and for the finale all the talent would cram on stage in some kind of medley, more often than not interrupted by an on-camera plug for the sponsor's product. The format worked for twenty years.
Streisand broke that pattern to suit her personality and the image she wished to project. Her goal was not to join the ranks of variety-show regulars or to be seen pretending to be chummy with big celebrities. Her style was too delicate for the standard crooning pattern of covering a song and moving on. She was convinced she'd have no trouble interpreting material for a one-hour solo show. Network objections to this philosophy were slowly overcome as Streisand and her loyal manager exercised the creative control they'd won contracturally. Her first specials were entirely one-woman affairs kept aloft by themed premises. The focus was maintained on what the audience came to see - Streisand's singing and performing talent.
Detractors that recoil at the "me, me, me" aspect of Barbra's performing personality need to face up to the fact that show business is almost always centered on the ambition of a single dominant performer. The determining question is, does the performer's talent merit the billing and the venue? In Barbra's case, the voice more than justified the attitude. 2The Five Specials:
My Name is Barbra was produced before color television was standard, at least at CBS. It's possibly the most elegant of the bunch, with Streisand's songs (16 tunes, 2 medleys) portioned out in a curious 'plotline' half-inspired by Alice in Wonderland. The childhood theme is replaced in the second act by a 'poverty' theme stressing Streisand's modest background, before blending into a finale of songs from her current hit Broadway play Funny Girl.
Color Me Barbra is a thematic continuation of the first show, adding color and using it creatively - very creatively compared to the standards of 1966 broadcast Television. Large sections were shot in a Philadelphia museum -- none of these shows were taped at a studio in a conventional manner. The thematic premise he is that Barbra melds with paintings and artwork (including an Egyptian sculpture) to cue the changes of mood introducing each new song, and it works surprisingly well. The musical choices have a wider variety, including light comedy numbers (The Minute Waltz), and an extended circus-themed middle section. Barbra interacts with a number of zoo animals including a real tiger and an anteater with a snout that Barbra compares with her own.
The Belle of 14th Street is the oddest show in the bunch, a loving tribute to Vaudeville consisting mostly of authentic songs from 1900 to 1920 or so - some standards but few obvious crowd-pleasers. The attempt to capture the original millieu extends to assembling a bevy of fat chorines that were dubbed "The Beef Trust Chorus" -- guaranteeing that no shapely costar would attract attention away from La Barbra. Jason Robards Jr. and John Bubbles contribute believably stylized performances introduced by an emcee; Bubbles sings a song in a bizarre rooster costume that's apparently true to Vaudeville history. It's all very elaborate and detailed, almost like William Friedkin's later film The Night They Raided Minsky's, which also used Jason Robards Jr.
A Happening in Central Park was taped at a huge concert given in the summer of 1967, on a humid night when rain was expected. Barbra filled Sheep's meadow with 150,000 polite viewers and gave the first giant live performance of her career. It's all her at the mike, singing, telling jokes and dealing with little problems that came up; many Streisand fans prefer their diva this way, without all the technical studio trimmings. Some say she looked visibly concerned, and the expected rain indeed began to fall 45 minutes after she finished. Although she sang a lot more, the edited version shown almost a year later (to coincide with the debut of the film Funny Girl) has sixteen solid song entries.
At the tail end of the string of specials is 1973's Barbra Streisand ... and Other Musical Instruments, which returns Barbra to her original format framework using fantasy and whimsy as a buffer between musical performances. A lot has happened in six years and she shares the stage with an elaborate (frankly, overproduced) concept of a fantastic orchestra. A camel walks on-stage with the musicians, for instance. She sings her first selection accompanied by a man playing a saw we've just seen used to cut off the leg of a chair. Later on, video switcher special effects, audio tricks and image manipulation get to be more than a little distracting. Barbra still chooses an interesting lineup of ballads and other out of the ordinary tunes ... the only obvious 'career' selection being the title song from her film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
Barbra Streisand - The Television Specials presents the specials in order, with video and audio restored and remastered from original CBS tape masters and audio elements. TV technology advanced radically between 1964 and 1973, and the restorations overcome the kinds of flaws associated with programming mastered on 2" videotape from this period. 1
All of the specials were originally mixed in monaural sound. The disc offers the original tracks plus two remixes in 2.0 and 5.1. The guideline was to retain the feel of the original mixes, which by and large still hold up. The audio restoration consisted of the repair of pops and crackle and the reduction of distortion. Of the five specials, the production audio on the live Central Park show is the weakest due to the one-shot recording conditions. For the other shows it is often difficult to determine whether the audio is live or done to playback; Ms. Streisand claims to be a very bad lip-synch performer but it's difficult to catch her making a mistake.
Great pains were taken to revive the best possible video images from the original tapes, all recorded on now-antiquated 2" video machines. The quality is particularly good on Color Me Barbra considering the state of broadcast color in 1966. The last special,...and Other Musical Instruments was produced in England and recorded in the PAL format, which thanks to modern video conversion now yields an exceptionally good image. We're informed that of the five shows, the tape elements for 14th Street had the most damage. Because of the outdoor lighting the 1967 Central Park special always looked sickly green, a flaw that has been largely corrected with new digital tools.
Savant is sometimes disappointed by DVD sets that come in elaborate card cases that self-destruct when one tries to get the discs out. Rhino's deluxe set of Barbra Streisand - The Television Specials comes in a ritzy crimson box that opens as if it held a bottle of expensive perfume. The five 1-hour shows are separately mastered, one to a disc. If this were a Universal disc, all five might possibly be crammed onto two sides of one disc but we'd like to be optimistic and think that the extra elbow room in the available data space was used to maximize quality. Two or three of the shows come with intros recorded by Streisand in either 1987 or 1990 (conflicting dates are given). The fat booklet is written in an all-worshipping style -- everything about Barbra is lathered in superlative qualifiers -- and repeatedly flatters the show's producers. Streisand's manager's every contribution and guest cameo appearance gets special mention. Just the same, the booklet is an informative read that provides needed historical context for the Belle of 14th Street show. The text covers the genesis and content of each special in exacting detail, and provides a quick road map when one gets lost in the five discs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Barbra Streisand - The Television Specials rates:
1. Savant was once in a duplication facility where engineers were trying to get an old-model reel-to-reel video deck to play back episodes of The Smothers Brothers Show to copy for resyndication. Either the 1969 format had changed or something was wrong because they had a tough time: The machine would reproduce a noise-free image or marginally decent color, but not both at the same time. And the shows were only eleven years or so old. A good reminder to do something soon about old VHS and Hi-8 home video!
2. Savant could probably have listed himself as a mild detractor before spending more time with these shows -- as a teenager I remember going over to more than one girl's house, only to find that her idea of a good time was to listen to Streisand records. Was there ever a better way for a girl to communicate her priorities? Streisand is still not my personal preferred taste but the talent she represents is undeniable. There's so little real singing talent in pop music these days that one has to appreciate Streisand's contribution to the culture.