In honor of Barbra Streisand’s landmark 80th birthday, Chelsea Table + Stage, NYC’s newest hotspot for intimate dining and extraordinary music, will present a special concert of Simply Barbra on Monday, July 18.
Written and performed by renowned Streisand impersonator Steven Brinberg, this award-winning production will offer up some of the icon’s greatest hits, songs from her latest album, selections to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of her first three movie musicals, as well as songs she never sang. Additionally, Brinberg will be joined by Julie Benko, the acclaimed Fanny Brice standby from Broadway’s Funny Girl.
Starting in New York where it ran for three years, Simply Barbra is updated annually and has since been played across the country and world. Brinberg spent 11 years touring with Marvin Hamlisch and his symphony orchestra as a special guest star, and the legendary Stephen Sondheim even requested his appearance at his birthday concert at the Library of Congress.
Brinberg took some time to talk more about the show with Instinct.
Thank you for taking some time to chat with me, Steven! How excited are you to make your Chelsea Table + Stage debut with Simply Barbra?
I’m very excited! I always look forward to playing a new venue. I live in New York, and I’ve played at just about every club. This one’s relatively new, and it’s just so beautiful and elegant. There’s this big grand staircase, so I’ve already adapted an opening number incorporating the staircase. I would do the Hello Dolly moment; except I sing that later in the show. That’s not an opening number, so I worked out another number that lets me walk down the stairs. But yes, it’s such a pretty and great location. I hope it’s going to become the next big club in New York.
Can you talk more about what audiences can expect from the show?
Well, I’m constantly changing the show. I first started doing it many years ago, and as opposed to Judy Garland or someone who’s no longer with us, Barbra Streisand is very much alive. Thank God! So, whatever happens to her, it goes right into my show. If she does an interview and says something funny, I’ll refer to that.
Of course, through the years, every time she had a new album, movie, or concert, I’d work that into the show too. I always try to keep it current, but also like her shows, I’m looking back at her body of work and including old songs from her career. I also do songs that she’s never done, as she might do them, which is really fun to imagine.
What do you hope they take away from it?
Obviously, people who already love Barbra will get every little detail and every little thing that I do. I talk in between every song and tell sort of funny stories, and I’ve invented a lot of them (laughs). Some of them are real or close to the truth, but it’s so fun when somebody will say, that one story you told about Barbra and so and so. Is that true? I’ll be like, no. What about that other story? Yes.
So, I’ve done my job if they can’t tell which ones are true and which ones aren’t. They’re just in the vein of how she would talk and act. Also, even if someone’s not a huge Barbra fan, if they just like that kind of music, musical comedy, and musical theater, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
When did you discover you had a knack for impersonating Barbra, and how did this production come to fruition?
When I was in high school, I found a karaoke recording and I put my voice on a tape. My dad found it and said, I found this tape and it has your name on it, but it’s not you. It’s Barbra Streisand. I said, no, that’s me, and he was flabbergasted. I then played it for a friend of mine and her mother, so that was when I really knew I could do that voice. Although, it wasn’t until college when I started singing and taking lessons.
My first thought was to just be a theater or film director. I even went to film school for a while, but once I discovered singing, I was like, oh my God, this is more fun than anything. I always loved music and I could play the piano a little. I still didn’t incorporate Barbra for a while because it hadn’t even occurred to me to make the leap into changing how I have to look to be Barbra.
Somebody said one day, why don’t you just do a whole Barbra show? I was like, I’ve never gotten dressed up in drag, and I don’t know. Would that work? Then I booked around four shows, and that was 29 years ago. I’ve been doing it ever since! It also sort of coincided with her return to doing concerts. I literally booked those shows, and then she announced her comeback.
Has she seen your show?
She hasn’t seen it in person, but she’s definitely watched me online. When her best friend Donna Karan turned 60, she was having a big party and Barbra couldn’t come. So, Barbra’s manager hired me to perform instead, and she, through somebody else, directed my entire performance. Usually at a birthday party, I’ll come out and sing “The Way We Were,” “People,” and then end with “Happy Birthday.”
Her direction was, I want him to sing “Happy Birthday” first, which I thought was interesting. Then I had to say a couple things that were between her and Donna Karan. Like, Donna, remember those flammable sweaters? After that, I knew for sure that she knew me and approved, but literally everybody close to her has come to see me. Her musical director, her record producer, the director of her shows, Marvin Hamlisch, who I worked with for many years. Everybody who’s a heartbeat away from Barbra has come to see me, so that’s been nice.
Speaking of Marvin Hamlisch, you spent 11 years touring with him and his symphony orchestra as a special guest star. What did you take away from that experience?
Oh, it was just amazing, and he was totally normal for such an important person. He was an EGOT before that was so common. He won all those awards when it was much harder to become an EGOT. Now, you can win an Emmy by singing one song on Good Morning America, as opposed to “Best Actress in a TV Series.” You can win a Grammy for reading a book on tape, as opposed to having a hit record. Marvin won all those awards, and the Pulitzer Prize, but he was just so completely normal.
You could ask him anything, and after the concerts, say we were in Milwaukee, he’d be like, this is a great place for custard, and we would go out with some of the musicians. He was such a great, great person. The last concert we did, it was in Pasadena at an outdoor venue, and they didn’t have proper dressing rooms. So, he was given this huge trailer, and he said, you can get changed in the trailer.
I’m like, okay, great! I’m getting all made up in the trailer, and he was sitting there talking with his nephew. When it was close to showtime, he said, my tie is a little off. Could you help me fix it? By now, I’m completely dressed as Barbra with the wig and nails, fiddling with his tie. Unfortunately, the nephew had already left. Otherwise, that would have been the perfect photo op of all time.
What have been some of your other favorite Simply Barbra moments?
Getting to do it all over the world has been amazing, and I’ve actually performed in more places than she has. I’ve been in Scotland, Barcelona, on television in New Zealand – it’s just mind boggling to me. In Barcelona, they had me write down a script, which I don’t really have because it changes all the time, but I had to make some kind of script because they translated my dialogue into Spanish with subtitles. That was great because they’d say something funny, and then they would laugh like a minute later after they saw the translation. Luckily, the pianist they had for that gig spoke Spanish, so I still had some ad libs because I can’t help myself. That was kind of special.
One time in London, I was appearing at a theater, and Dionne Warwick was the next act. She arrived in town the day of my show, and they said she just flew 17 hours, but they’ll see if they can get her to watch some of the show. When the show started, I didn’t know if she was there or not, but I made some comment, and I hear, ‘right on!’ I recognized her voice. It was Dionne Warwick! So, having people like that in the audience is always special. Liza Minnelli was probably the most exciting one because next to Barbra, she’s my most favorite person on earth. She was just so nice and kind, and it was a small venue, so I could see her face and smiling. It was just great.
Have you always had a passion for performing?
Not performing per se, but showbusiness. I was shy as a child, and I still kind of am, but I always loved to write. I thought, writing is great because nobody has to see you. You’re by yourself, and performing was always kind of harder for me, but I’m not myself when I’m doing Barbra. I’m literally playing a character. I can go on stage, and I’ve performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie Hall for thousands of people, and I’m not the least bit nervous. It’s just fun and exciting, but if I’m at a party, and I want to talk to somebody, I’m like, I’ll just sit in the corner. It’s fascinating how different parts of your own personality work.
I also think being an introvert adds to what I do as Barbra because she’s not quite like those American Idol people who are sort of screaming. Yeah, people know “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but the bulk of her material is balanced, quiet, and subtle. In a way, she’s sort of like a sister to Peggy Lee, who would just stand in the middle and draw you in. In a lot of my shows, I’m not jumping or moving around. Well, now I’m playing somebody who’s 80 (laughs). But even at 50, she could just stand in the middle in front of the mic and sing. You come to her. She’s not like Bette Midler, Liza, or a lot of other more gregarious performers. She’s sort of the queen, and she knows it.
In addition to Barbra, you have a number of film and television credits to your name. Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?
Yeah! There’s a film project that somebody’s working on that’s sort of being built around me, which sounds very exciting. I would get to play both me as a guy, which is a totally different look than Barbra, and then I would play a character in drag. Not Barbra, but a live, singing drag performer. I think that’ll be a lot of fun to do.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you would like to mention or plug at this time?
Just visit my website to find out where Simply Barbra will be playing! After this Chelsea performance, I’ll be in Three Oaks, Michigan, and then Provincetown and Palm Springs.