From childhood, Barbra Streisand and Steven Brinberg were on a collision course. Being able to belt out some of La Streisand’s biggest hits at a young age was a remarkable feat, and Brinberg took this skill to the stages of famed New York City haunts like Don’t Tell Mama, slowly morphing into the premier Streisand impersonator. His skills are so remarkable that he has toured with the famed composer (& frequent Streisand collaborator) Marvin Hamlisch and performed at designer Donna Karan’s birthday party as Barbra herself! As the 50th anniversary of the film Hello Dolly! commences, Brinberg sat down with me to talk about how his childhood love of one of our premier idols launched a career, some of his best experiences as Barbra, and why Streisand is, and continues to be, the absolute standard.
Michael Cook: When did you know that Barbra Streisand was someone that you could completely inhabit and do it so remarkably?
Steven Brinberg: Well it was funny when I was growing up, I listened to music by all of the ladies; Barbra and Bette and Judy and Liza and I loved all of them. I just naturally would sing along to the music like them and as them, it didn’t even occur to me that it was like, a strange thing. I didn’t discover my own singing voice until I got to college actually. When I made a tape of myself singing like Barbra Stereisand and my dad found it, it said on the label “Steven Singing”. He listened to it and said “I found his tape and the label says it’s you but it’s not, it’s Barbra Streisand”. I said “no..it’s me” (laughs). I was in high school and I played it for a friend and her mother and her mother asked me “why are you wasting your time in school, this is good, you could really do this”. It did not enter my mind to really do it until college when I started taking singing, before that I had thought it was a fun hobby.
MC: You started at the famed Don’t Tell Mama and that was the first place you actually did Barbra. Standing up on that stage, could you have ever dreamed that all of these years later, it would be come what it has become for you?
SB: Yes, I ran there every Saturday for three years, and we would do shows at eleven o’clock at night sometimes. I played all of those clubs in New York really. You know, the funny thing is, I was doing shows before that, cabaret shows as myself when I would try to do a small part in the show where I would try to do Barbra. Someone suggested I do a whole show about Barbra, and we ended up scheduling only four shows. Right before I started my shows, Barbra decided to come back after twenty five years and do concerts again; spooky timing! She just kept feeding the show; it was The Comeback Tour, The Singer Has Two Faces, The Wedding Tour, and still to this day, whatever is going on in her life is in the show. I mean, this show might be about Hello Dolly!, but I still have songs from her latest album as well as old hits. Its constantly changing so people can come back and see something new every time.
MC: It’s the 50th Anniversary of the movie Hello Dolly!. How are you commemorating that within your own show?
SB: Well, I am talking all about the movie and how when Barbra made the movie, many people said that she was too young. Many of the stories in my show are true, and others are exaggerations; it’s up to the audience to figure out which is which. For example, she & Kris Kristofferson actually visited Lady Gaga on the set of A Star Is Born. What is not true is when I say the line “they invited us as a part of a senior outreach program” (laughs). Her conductor and producer actually said that sounds like something that she would actually say, such as the way she talks to the pianist and things like that. I will be talking about the making of the movie, how the girl who played Irene Molloy had her voice dubbed, things like that. I also will sing songs that Barbra didn’t sing in the film like It Only Takes A Moment and Ribbons Down My Back. At the time, people felt Barbra was too young for the role, they were upset that it wasn’t Carol Channing, and it made a great deal of money, but cost a great deal to make. The film has this image of not being successful, but in the end I think it did make money and now it’s actually considered a classic, as it was the last MGM musical even thought it’s a 20th Century Fox production. It’s just this beautiful movie to look at today and I think it’s gaining its appreciation fifty years later.
MC: You have had experiences that almost no one other than Barbra herself has gotten to experience, including touring with the famed composer Marvin Hamlisch. Does it feel different getting acclaim and reverence from people that are so connected to Barbra herself?
SB: Oh yes! I am thrilled when anyone loves the show and talks to me afterward. When it is someone really close to her that knows her so well, that is really gratifying. Working with Marvin was just amazing. He had a million stories about her and he was just a great guy, the most normal famous person that you ever met. We took the Amtrak to to a show in DC once and at the hotel he was so normal and I just kept thinking “this guy is an EGOT, but not an ego”! I am actually doing a tribute show to him in June with a whole bunch of other performers singing his stuff, which will be great.
MC: So you have never performed directly for Barbra herself right?
SB: No I don’t think she has ever seen me, which is really strange. I think she would lose her mind and love it (laughs).I have met some of my heroes though. One of my heroes that I love as much as Barbra is Liza Minnelli and she came to see me and she could not have been nicer. She was so lovely and so sweet, it was amazing. I am sure Barbra has watched me on video, especially when I had to sing for Donna Karan. It was her birthday and Barbra herself could not be there, so they sent me. Barbra actually told me what to say through someone else. What I thought was interesting through her direction, through someone else, was when I usually sing at a party I do a few songs and end with Happy Birthday. Donna’s direction was to come out, sing Happy Birthday first, then to sing the other songs. I though that was fascinating but hey, don’t argue with the director right?
MC: This will most likely be like asking someone to choose their favorite child, but here goes; what is your favorite Barbra Streisand era ever?
SB: I would say that it is the sixties. Those first ten years of her career, before I was really aware of her. Show business was so great then, and to me the golden age of show business is the sixties. That was the age of the variety shows on television; The Hollywood Palace, Carol Burnett, and all of that stuff. On Broadway, it was all the huge fabulous shows like Mame and Sweet Charity. Barbra came along just in the nick of time; if she had come a long a little later, I don’t think she would have had the same kind of success. I am sure that even if she had not done Funny Girl, she still would have been big singer, but still doing that kind of music that she does that was on its way out in a way and replaced by other kinds of music. Especially those orchestrations in the sixties done by Peter Matz who I also got to know; what a genius and what a great guy. Those arrangements are phenomenal and the television specials, it’s just the best and you can’t go wrong looking at anything from that period; they’re absolutely incredible.
MC: Everyone loves their divas, but Barbra Streisand has remained the absolute standard. What do you attribute her staying power to?
SB: Look at her longevity alone. She started in 1960 and I think next year in 2020 if she gets one more number one album, it will be eight decades where she had a number one album. Who knows maybe she will do a duets album with Adele or Lady Gaga. The duets she has done recently are all mostly with men, so I think she needs to do one with her peers, like Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Cher, all of those ladies. It would be incredible.
I really just think that many times, the common denominator will all of these divas is the great talent. We don’t usually like people who aren’t good. These icons that will last long after we’re all gone and they’re all gone, they are just unbelievably talented and I think there is such a hight standard and she continues to deliver. Barbra was really well managed and now everyone is on television all the time. Barbra never did interviews, only rarely, so whenever she does anything its still a huge deal. She is so picky and she doesn’t make movies that often, she has made nineteen movies in fifty years. So it is still a big deal a big deal whenever she leaves the house basically (laughs). I would love to see her play Helena Rubenstein, maybe a movie of the Broadway musical War Paint.
MC:You are a performer who is representing an icon of the community, what gives you the most pride?
SB: I love when people come to see the show and the have a wonderful time, If it gets someone interested in her by coming to see me, who was not interested in her before or didn’t know a lot about her, I love that. Barbra was at the forefoot of the fight against AIDS way in the beginning when no one was. I remember going to a benefit in New York City and Bette Midler, Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin were there. Carol Burnett was on the Today show with Jane Pauley in what I think was 1985. Jane plainly asked Carol “aren’t you afraid you are going to alienate some of your fan base by endorsing this cause”? Carol Burnett looked at her and simply said “if they have a problem with it then they’re not worth it are they”? Barbra was doing things for APLA, she and Elizabeth Taylor when nobody else was. She was helping the community simply by giving us her talent. I have done a lot of benefits myself and I am happy to do them. I think it’s important to give back to our community. I want people to learn about Barbra, search her out and find all of her material. So many people know Barbra, but the younger generation sometimes doesn’t; she is so important to every generation
THE GREEN ROOM 42 – Broadway’s newest intimate concert venue – will present Steven Brinberg in the latest edition of Simply Barbra, his acclaimed all-live homage to the legendary Barbra Streisand, for two Wednesday night shows, the next one being May 15 at 7:00 PM. The evening celebrates the 50th anniversary of the film Hello, Dolly! and features songs from and stories about the film, as well as other Streisand hits right up to her current album Walls. Christopher Denny will serve as Music Director.
Tickets are available: https://ci.ovationtix.com/34878/production/995081?performanceId=10370893
Steven also has shows throughout the summer, including at The Blue Moon in Rehoboth Beach, DE: Tickets are available at https://bluemoonrehoboth.com/blog/event/__trashed-3/