© 2024 Wyoming Public Media
800-729-5897 | 307-766-4240
Wyoming Public Media is a service of the University of Wyoming
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Transmission & Streaming Disruptions

Barbra Streisand shares her secret for keeping performances honest

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. Today, we conclude our series featuring some of our favorite interviews of 2023 with on the bestselling recording artists of all time, Barbra Streisand. This was my second opportunity to interview Streisand. We spoke in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Before the Broadway musical "Funny Girl" turned my guest, Barbra Streisand, into a star, she was getting a lot of attention in 1962 for her nightclub act and for her show-stopping comedic number in the then-new Broadway musical, "I Can Get It For You Wholesale." That led to her being booked on "The Garry Moore Show," which, at the time, was a popular TV variety show. Here's how she was introduced by Garry Moore in 1962.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GARRY MOORE SHOW")

GARRY MOORE: You know, one of the biggest thrills for a guy who's been around in this business as long as I have is the advent of a bright, new, young star. Several weeks ago, a very talented 19-year-old newcomer named Barbra Streisand did a comedy song in the Broadway musical "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," and she stopped the show cold. Also, in addition to that, she appears nightly at the Bon Soir and kills the people there. Well, I was delighted to learn during rehearsals this week that she is equally effective in straight numbers as she is when she's being zany. Here, then, is Ms. Barbra Streisand.

GROSS: After that introduction, Streisand performed what became one of her signature songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GARRY MOORE SHOW")

BARBRA STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days are here again. The skies above are clear again. Let us sing a song of cheer again. Happy days are here again.

GROSS: Barbra Streisand has a new memoir called "My Name Is Barbra." Her career got off to a rocketing start. In 1964, she won two Grammys for her first album, "The Barbra Streisand Album." She was nominated for Tonys for her two Broadway shows. Her first Oscar was for the film adaptation of "Funny Girl." She became one of the bestselling recording artists of all time. In 1983, when "Yentl" was released, she became the first woman to write, produce, direct and star in a major studio film. A new 40th anniversary release of the "Yentl" soundtrack includes two discs. The second is largely devoted to demo recordings featuring Streisand. She recorded her end of our interview from her home.

Barbra Streisand, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the book. It is an honor to have you back on the show.

STREISAND: Thank you so much, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Your memoir starts with how early articles about you focused on your nose. Why did you want to start with your nose? It's a 900-page book. Why start with your nose?

STREISAND: Well, what would you have started with?

GROSS: I don't know. I didn't write the book.

(LAUGHTER)

STREISAND: Well, that's what I mean. I had to get their attention, you know, and it was also true. I mean, the articles about me that I remember were - you know, I had a researcher that researched me because I never kept a scrapbook, even. And right away, I didn't like being interviewed and being asked certain questions. But even if the interview went well, I noticed that they printed something that was not nice. So what was that about? I never quite understood it. The negativity, you know, like the picking on my nose. It wasn't that big, ever. I wasn't Jimmy Durante, you know?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. You initially - well, you decided you weren't going to get it fixed, in part because you were worried it would affect your voice, and for good reason, probably.

STREISAND: Yeah. The - my first instinct was that I liked my bump, and people would say, well, you know, you should have your bump removed or something. Why would I remove my bump? And I was - I just had a problem with the tip of my nose. But I wasn't faithful that any doctor would do something so tiny, you know? I probably wouldn't like it. The third thing I thought about was - way later, was, oh, it might affect my voice, my nasal quality, you know, seeming was liked, so why would I change it? And I don't like pain. I mean, I've seen people with the bandages on their nose, and sometimes they're not happy, and sometimes they take too much off and you can't put it back. I don't know, I just didn't want to take a chance. And it was expensive, remember. When I was growing up, expensive - we didn't have the money to do anything like that. But, you know, it just - no, I decided I'll try to just make it on my own and make it about who I was, really.

GROSS: Early on, when you were starting out, you performed at the Bon Soir, which you describe as a sophisticated nightclub in Greenwich Village. And there's a - you did a live recording from the club that was never released in 1962 when it was recorded, but it was released last year in a remastered version. So to talk about your early career - very early career, I want to play a track from that. And I thought we'd hear "Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now," 'cause it's quite delightful. So here it is - Barbra Streisand live in 1962.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STREISAND: (Singing) Keepin' out of mischief now. I really am in love and how. I'm through playing with fire. It's you whom I desire. All the world can plainly see you're the only one for me. I have told them in advance they can't break up our romance. Living up to all my vows. 'Cause I'm keeping out of mischief now. Out of mischief now. I'm in love and how. I'm...

GROSS: That was Barbra Streisand, recorded in 1962 at the club the Bon Soir.

You wanted to be a dramatic actor at first. Why did you think of singing as secondary to drama?

STREISAND: 'Cause I wanted to be on the stage and play, you know, Juliet and "A Doll's House," whatever. You know, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare. And to sing, to me, in a nightclub was not what I imagined my career to be because I knew I had a pretty good voice, and I was living with a man who had a great record collection, and he said, there's a club across the street. It was a little club called The Lion. And that manager of that club took me over to the Bon Soir to audition, and that's how I got a job. It was a wonderful job. And I met Phyllis Diller. You know, we shared a tiny, little dressing room together. She was great. She was a great friend to me. Bought me a dress 'cause I came out in antique clothes that I thought were beautiful.

GROSS: And cheap (laughter). Yeah.

STREISAND: Yeah. And cheap. Beautiful sequins and gorgeous buckles on the shoes and, you know, from the 1920s. And the top I wore the opening night, it was from 1890.

GROSS: What?

STREISAND: I mean, the craftsmanship, the boning.

GROSS: And you got these at thrift stores?

STREISAND: Of course. Yeah.

GROSS: Wow. How did you realize you should try Broadway musicals? So you wanted to be a dramatic actor. Then you started singing at a club. And then, of course, you started auditioning.

STREISAND: I went to acting classes where I could play the roles I wanted to play. My first acting class when I was 14, taking the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan - and I tried out for the Actors Studio when I was 15. So when I didn't get jobs, I decided I had to make a living somehow. I went to that talent contest and won. And that's how I became a singer.

GROSS: So you kept auditioning, and you got a part in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," which was, you know, a musical comedy on Broadway.

STREISAND: I had a wonderful, serendipitous - is that such a thing, a word? Serendipitous, yeah. I had a wonderful agent who saw me in "Another Evening With Harry Stoones," a little off-Broadway play that lasted nine previews and one performance. But he saw me in that, and he's the one who set me up for "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," that first Broadway play. Now, you know, it didn't matter to me if I lost roles 'cause I really wanted to be an actress. I mean, that's when I came in and said - you know, when I had to sing, they gave me the sheet music for "Miss Marmelstein" - 'cause she was originally written to be an older woman, and they changed it for me. I was only 19 years old. And that's the story I tell, coming back and saying, I'd like to do the song in a chair.

GROSS: Yeah. She's a secretary. So you wanted to be in, like, a secretarial chair on wheels.

STREISAND: Yeah, but they didn't have a secretarial chair. But my vision of it was that I would sing the song in a secretarial chair. So, again, you know, it's logic. It's like, I got the job. And then when we started rehearsal, they said, now we're going to stage it. What do you mean? I - didn't you like my idea of singing it in a secretarial chair? Well, it's OK. But now we're going to, you know, go to work and do a conceptual, you know, staging with lots of people in the office and so forth.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, what happened to the chairs?

STREISAND: Yeah.

GROSS: You kept persisting, like, this is how it should be, and you won.

STREISAND: That's the point.

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: The point is I always had these visions of the way things should be, but I also believed in trying to do, to the best of my ability, what the director wanted. I mean, I really tried to make it work for myself, but it just felt so awkward, so not right.

GROSS: Because you were just like - what? - standing around while other people were on stage, too. You were just standing and singing.

STREISAND: Yeah. It just didn't feel right. And finally, right before we went to Philadelphia - I think that was first - Philadelphia and then Boston. Philadelphia - you know, they said - he said, do it in your goddamn chair. And it stopped the show. I almost felt guilty, but - you know, but I was happy that it worked.

GROSS: Why don't we hear it? So this is "Miss Marmelstein" from 1962 cast recording of "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," featuring my guest, Barbra Streisand, who has a brand-new memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISS MARMELSTEIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Oh, why is it always Miss Marmelstein?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Other girls get called by their first names right away. They get cozy, intimate. Do you know what I mean? Nobody calls me, hey, baby doll.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Or honey dear.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Or sweetie pie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Even my first name would be preferable, though it's terrible. It might be better. It's Yetta. Or perhaps my second name, that's Tessye, spelled T-E-S-S-Y-E. But no, no, it's always Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) You'd think at least Miss M. they could try.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #14: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #15: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #16: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #17: (As character) Miss Marmelstein.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Miss Marmelstein.

STREISAND: (As Miss Marmelstein, singing) Oh, I could die.

GROSS: That's Barbra Streisand in the 1962 original cast recording of "I Can Get It For You Wholesale." That is just delightful.

STREISAND: Well, it's - it worked.

GROSS: And it...

STREISAND: I was happy about that.

GROSS: Yeah. It's interesting. Like, you wanted to do dramatic acting. And so, like, your big breakthrough is in a musical comedy. But you were already doing comedic songs, yeah.

STREISAND: I didn't get the jobs of the straight shows.

GROSS: Yeah. Why do you think that is? I mean, when you wanted to be a dramatic actress, what kind of roles did you think you'd get? Because when you were young and going to movies to escape being home, basically, you thought to yourself, the girls on screen don't look like me. And they probably didn't, you know?

STREISAND: No, they didn't. They didn't. I mean the stars anyway.

GROSS: Yeah. So what were you expecting to get initially?

STREISAND: Wow. I just somehow always saw my future. I can't explain that to you. Maybe it was my mother's negativity. I don't know if it was like, I'll prove you wrong - 'cause she kept telling me to get a job as a secretary.

GROSS: Well, you got to play a secretary. That's close.

STREISAND: I sure did. I sure did. I think it's hard for, sometimes, parents who would have loved a career for themselves to have their kids become what they wanted to be.

GROSS: And your mother wanted to be a singer, yeah.

STREISAND: Yeah. She had a beautiful voice, my mother.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbra Streisand, and she has a new memoir, which is called "My Name Is Barbra." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY RANDY NEWMAN'S "RAGTIME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Barbra Streisand. She's speaking to us from her home, and she has a new memoir, which is called "My Name Is Barbra."

You know, you write that Elliott Gould, who you met, I think, at the auditions for "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," you know, became your husband. And he developed quite a gambling habit.

STREISAND: Which I didn't know for a long time. I didn't know it.

GROSS: Did you know it during "Funny Girl"?

STREISAND: I didn't know it at first, that he really had a gambling habit. But it was surprising when I did find out. And then was part of the reason we broke up, but not really. You know, we were both young...

GROSS: Right.

STREISAND: ...And it was sweet. I mean, he - that first day that I auditioned for "I Can Get If You Wholesale," I gave people my telephone number, said, you know, somebody please call me. It's like, I just got my first phone in my new old apartment. And he called. I remember that was so sweet of him. He said, hi, it's Elliott Gould. I saw your audition today. It was brilliant. And he hung up. And we still keep in contact. He calls me. He says, you know, we'll always be family. And it's true. We share a son. So that's great, you know? He gave me my son.

GROSS: When you were in "Funny Girl," were you able to take liberties with the songs, like - and did that change over time? Were you able to take more liberties as time went on?

STREISAND: In how I sang the songs every night?

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: Oh, gosh, I had the most wonderful conductor. And he said - you know, he would say things like, tonight, you really wanted to speed it up, right? He was right with me, like the great conductors who know that I'm never going to sing it the same twice.

GROSS: Because you want to be in the moment.

STREISAND: That's right. I want to play with it, play with the music, you know, rephrase it depending on how I felt that night. That's what I think keeps a performance honest. You can't just copy what you did from the night before. You know, it never works, I don't think. I like actors who respect their reality at the moment.

GROSS: Does this get back to you being shy and - like, there's two sides to you. There's the side that's going to, like, keep pushing for what you want no matter what, no matter how famous the director is or, you know, whoever. You're going to push for what you think is right. And at the same time, the other side of you feels very, like, shy, very vulnerable, kind of fragile.

STREISAND: Right. Right.

GROSS: So those are, like, two totally opposite things. Do you feel, like, at war with yourself sometimes, like, wanting to push and also feeling very vulnerable at the same time?

STREISAND: Well, usually, they don't happen at the same time. Usually, it's like, no, I have a vision of this, and this is what it has to be, like doing - you know, directing my first film, "Yentl." I mean, this is what I see in my brain. This is - and now let's improve on that. You know what I mean? It's not necessarily that that I do. I have to be open to change. I love being open.

GROSS: So I want to play a song from the original cast recording of "Funny Girl." And I think we played "People" the last time you were on the show. And so I was thinking of "Who Are You Now?" It's really beautiful. It's not a song as well known.

STREISAND: Very pretty song. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: Very pretty. Yeah.

GROSS: But it's a beautiful song. Do you want to say anything about the song and what this song means to you?

STREISAND: It was just a wonderful melody and a wonderful lyric. I mean, who are you now? - how people change in marriages. Or do they or don't they? Or how they grow, hopefully together, or how they don't. I love that song.

GROSS: Good. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO ARE YOU NOW?")

STREISAND: (Singing) Who are you now, now that you're mine? Are you something more than you were before? Are you warmer in the rain? Are you stronger for my touch? Am I giving too little by my loving you too much? How is the view…

GROSS: That was Barbra Streisand from the original cast recording of "Funny Girl." Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbra Streisand, and she has a new memoir, which is called "My Name Is Barbra." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARBRA STREISAND'S "OVERTURE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Barbra Streisand. She has a new memoir called "My Name Is Barbra."

So I want to change the subject a little bit. When did you realize that you'd become a gay icon?

STREISAND: I think quite early on.

GROSS: Why do you think you became a gay...

STREISAND: I have no idea. 'Cause I could be imitated? 'Cause I had a certain rebel quality, a certain thing that was different? That they felt when I sang, that it was about heartbreak, and, you know, a lot of the songs, anyway, were.

GROSS: So you met your first husband, Elliott Gould, at auditions for "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." So then in your second show in "Funny Girl," you starred opposite Sydney Chaplin, who was Charlie Chaplin's son. He's no longer alive. And you started to think you were falling in love with him because he was falling in love with you.

STREISAND: Yeah. That's flattering. It was flattering. And, you know, that's an occupational hazard sometimes...

GROSS: Explain.

STREISAND: ...With actors and actresses. Well, you're playing a part. And then to get to feel something about the person that you're playing with, you sometimes get a crush. And he was very attentive to me until it got boring, you know, always wanted to have lunch with me and have dinner with me. No, when we were out of town only.

GROSS: You called it off. And then...

STREISAND: That's right.

GROSS: ...He kind of got back at you on stage in front of audiences. Tell us what he did.

STREISAND: Well, he would mumble under his breath while he was not even looking into my eyes. He was looking at my forehead and completely through me, like, saying curse words and...

GROSS: Like, cursing you?

STREISAND: Oh, yeah. And I went into his dressing room after the show once or twice to beg him to stop doing that. You know, it's not feasible now. I want to be with my husband. You know, hopefully, you want to be with your wife. That's it. We can't, you know, play games anymore. The show is set. But he wouldn't stop. And it - literally, I had - I got sick to my stomach. I was thinking, oh, my God, I can't remember my next line. You know, what do I do if I want to throw up and run off stage? I'm on the stage. The first act is an hour and a half.

GROSS: You were really afraid you were going to throw up on stage.

STREISAND: I was - yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I was timing how fast I could get to the bathroom, you know? And I - no, it was horrible. I almost was going to quit, but I'm not a quitter. They - finally, they begged him. I remember seeing him on the stage. And he says, I don't need your money. I got - my father left me a fortune. And, you know, they let him go because he wouldn't stop.

GROSS: You write that this is what started your stage fright, that you hadn't had it before.

STREISAND: It's true.

GROSS: You never did Broadway again.

STREISAND: I never did Broadway...

GROSS: Oh.

STREISAND: ...Again. Right.

GROSS: Was that because of Sydney Chaplin? Do you think if it wasn't for that, that you would have wanted to be in more Broadway shows?

STREISAND: Not really. I just fell in love with film. I fell in love with doing a scene once or five times or whatever it was in a day or two, and it's over. You don't have to do the same show, say the same words, night after night. It became boring, really. I was ready to move on to and love film. That was amazing. Why would I ever want to go back to Broadway?

GROSS: So, you know, I'm just thinking, like, you have been so brave in pushing for what you think is right in terms of a scene, a performance, the way a song should be interpreted, the lighting, your hair, which side of your face you want to be photographed. But then you started developing these phobias about performing - you know, performing live. So I guess I find it a little hard to square the phobias with the side of you that is so determined and certain. But did the phobias really get to you? Like, did it change your image of yourself to be afraid of one of the things that you do best, which is just, like, performing live, being on stage?

STREISAND: Sometimes, I felt like a clown. Like, walk back and forth 'cause you have to hit this side of the audience or that side. You know, you have to walk. And then I have back problems. Then my feet started to hurt. You know what I mean? I was just like, this is too strenuous. And then I like the designing the show part. I like imagining it. I loved going back to do my first concert in 1993, New Year's Eve into 1994. That was exciting for me to, you know, use my experience, use my therapists, you know, and put it into...

GROSS: Yeah. You had a monologue, but instead of doing a monologue, you pretended like you were talking to, you know, three...

STREISAND: Different therapists.

GROSS: ...Therapists.

STREISAND: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: Yeah. I had had a woman, I had had an older man. I had had a medium-sized man. But in other words, developing it, designing it is the most exciting part to me...

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: ...Not doing it. But I did - that - see, in the movies, I loved making the movies I directed because it's so interesting. Yeah.

GROSS: You credited some of your insecurities to your mother who was always criticizing you. And I want you to name some of her more memorable and cutting criticisms. I'll start with my favorite of the ones that you mention in the book - is that she used to send you bad reviews. And when you'd say, why are you sending this to me? - she'd say, you need to know about this. Don't get a swelled head. That's pretty destructive, considering how sensitive you are about some things. So what are some of your most memorable criticisms she made of you?

STREISAND: Oh, God. Well, when I first allowed her to, she came the second night when I was at the Bon Soir. My mother, the first thing she said - I remember - was, your voice needs eggs. You have to use a guggle muggle 'cause your voice needs to be stronger.

GROSS: What's a guggle muggle?

STREISAND: A guggle muggle was you - she made hot kind of chocolate and put a raw egg in it, which I could never swallow. My mother came twice, once to see me as a singer and once to see me as an actress. When I came off the stage as an actress in my acting class - we put on a little show - her comment was, your arms are too skinny.

GROSS: So your mother was very critical of you. Your father died when you were 15 months old, so you never really got to know him. Your stepfather you describe as not physically abusive but emotionally abusive. What did he...

STREISAND: He never saw me. He never talked to me. Literally, I can say to you, I don't remember a sentence or even a word hello. It was like I wasn't seen. It's like I vanished in front of him. He would not talk to me. So I think my early upbringing did affect my wanting to be famous in some way or an actor, you know, because I wasn't seen. What a way to be seen. You become an actress, I guess, you know? You become a movie star. Yeah.

GROSS: Right. Let's talk about music. So you are very brave. You a couple of times asked Stephen Sondheim to add a lyric or change a lyric for you.

STREISAND: Yes.

GROSS: And so I want to ask you about "Send In The Clowns." In the show that that's from, "A Little Night Music," you know, it's about a couple who - he was in love with her, and then by the time she's in love with him, he's kind of married so is no longer available. And, you know, years pass. So anyways, in the song, you thought that since it wasn't done in the context of the show, that people wouldn't get what the lyrics were really about.

STREISAND: Exactly. You got it.

GROSS: So you asked Sondheim to add...

STREISAND: Another - a second bridge.

GROSS: ...A second bridge to kind of explain what was happening. How did you have the nerve to ask Sondheim (laughter) to write something for you?

STREISAND: You know what? Because I knew him. He had a strange mother, like I did, who didn't believe in him.

GROSS: Right. Right.

STREISAND: And therefore, I could talk truth to him. I know who he is. And I know that he's always - like me, in a sense - looking for something even better than what you did before. You know what I mean? I mean, there are certain people who would never change a lyric.

GROSS: So what did you think of the bridge that he wrote for you?

STREISAND: Loved it.

GROSS: Yeah. It's good. It's good.

STREISAND: Loved it, loved it. I didn't even know - 'cause I don't remember seeing that show. Or if I did, maybe I left at intermission. But I don't remember - I didn't remember the story. And then when he told me - when I called him, he says, you know, you're saying something that really happened on stage. There was time, and you're asking me to write something else. That's really filling that time for a record. And he said, so I was really glad to do it.

GROSS: So we're going to be hearing a little more than just the part that Sondheim wrote for you. So I want to point out to our listeners which is that part, in case they're not that familiar with the lyrics. So it's the part - the part that he wrote for you is the part that starts, what a surprise. Who could foresee I'd come to feel about you what you felt about me? So it's those two lines plus two other lines. OK, so here we go. This is Barbra Streisand.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")

STREISAND: (Singing) Don't you love farce? My fault, I fear. I thought that you'd want what I want. Sorry, my dear. But where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns. Quick, send in the clowns. What a surprise. Who could foresee I'd come to feel about you what you felt about me? Why only now when I see that you’ve drifted away? What a surprise. What a cliche. Isn't it rich?

GROSS: That's Barbra Streisand with an extra bridge written for her at her request by Stephen Sondheim. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "LIFE ON MARS?")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Barbra Streisand. She's speaking to us from her home, and she has a new memoir, which is called "My Name Is Barbra." So another song I want to ask you about - and this is one of the songs you're most famous for - is "The Way We Were," which is the title song from the movie of the same name which starred you and Robert Redford. And you say originally, the song was composed with the melody going down in notes instead of going up in notes. So I'm wondering why it struck you as not being right.

STREISAND: Well, again, you see, these are mystical things. They're magical things. They're one me. I can't describe it to you. It's why I could write "Evergreen," 'cause I hear it in my head. I hear it, and then I have to figure out how you do it. I had to learn to play the guitar to do it. But "The Way We Were," it originally went (vocalizing). The original went (vocalizing). See? I just heard it (vocalizing). I went up because that's what I heard in my head. That's what my voice did. It's unconscious or conscious. I don't know how you'd describe it. It's - people who have that ability to do it in the first place, like, you know, Michel Legrand or Marvin Hamlisch. I mean, they write music. And then the song became elevated in my mind, meaning elevated sonically.

GROSS: I'm forgetting who composed the melody.

STREISAND: Oh, Marvin Hamlisch.

GROSS: Marvin Hamlisch. Well, so what did Marvin Hamlisch think when you said, by the way, you know, I think the melody should be with the notes heading upward instead of down? Yeah.

STREISAND: He said, good idea. I mean, when you work without ego, when it doesn't matter who says what, you just - when you know it's right, that's great collaboration.

GROSS: Now, you know how you said when you're working without ego, you take suggestions? And I think because you have so many suggestions and you have such a strong vision in your mind of how things should be that a lot of people...

STREISAND: Right. Or it could be. Yeah.

GROSS: Or could be - that a lot of people perceive you as having a large, domineering ego. What's your...

STREISAND: Well, I don't think it's...

GROSS: ...Reaction to that? Yeah.

STREISAND: I don't think it's ego, 'cause on the other hand, I'm not sure what I do. I'm not sure if this book is any good. I'm not sure if somebody tells me it's fabulous, I'll - you know, great. If they tell me, well, it could have been much better, I could buy that, too.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. You know what that's reminding me of?

STREISAND: What?

GROSS: After your first album came out, Arthur Laurents, who...

STREISAND: That's right.

GROSS: ...Had directed you in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" - he wrote you this, like, horrible letter saying, you know, you're a great singer, but this is too much. It's like putting the frosting on the icing on top of a cake. It's just - it's too much. And he said, but the ingredients are good. You know, the song is good. Your voice is great. But just, like, take off all of that - all that frosting and, you know, you're being too dramatic. And then you wrote him back saying, oh, you're so right. You know, no, I wasn't prepared. I...

STREISAND: Right. I did the album in three days. Four songs, you know, each session. Twelve songs. I didn't know if it was that good. I mean, I didn't.

GROSS: You topped him in criticisms. You just started tearing the record apart in your letter back to him.

STREISAND: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: So that - just one more time, I want to say that's another example of the combination of your having a vision and really wanting to do it a certain way and then being really insecure when...

STREISAND: When it's done. Was that really good? I could - I don't know.

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: My editor keeps saying to me, the book is really good. I say, really? Is it really? You know what I'm saying. I have two sides of me, and one helps the other. No, I don't have a swelled head. My mother didn't have to worry. I never got that swelled head. I believed her...

GROSS: Right. When she...

STREISAND: ...You know?

GROSS: ...Put you down.

STREISAND: When she put me down, I...

GROSS: Yeah.

STREISAND: ...That's probably - I'm like two different sides of my personality. Yeah. God, I have to go back to therapy, I think.

(LAUGHTER)

STREISAND: But I'm not that interested in myself again. So I love being interested in grandchildren - my grandchildren.

GROSS: Thank you for enduring the ordeal of being interviewed.

(LAUGHTER)

STREISAND: Well, thank...

GROSS: I appreciate it.

STREISAND: ...You, Terry, for - you know, this is 10 years we're talking about.

GROSS: That you wrote the book.

STREISAND: More than 10 years...

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

STREISAND: ...That I talked to you.

GROSS: Oh, since you've been on the show. Yes. Well, like I said, it was great...

STREISAND: Can you imagine?

GROSS: ...To have you back.

STREISAND: OK. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Barbra Streisand's new memoir is called "My Name Is Barbra." Our interview was recorded in November. And that concludes our holiday series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Coming up, our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, reviews "Prophet Song," a new novel set in the near future about the onset of fascism and tyranny by the Irish novelist Paul Lynch. It's the 2023 winner of the prestigious Booker Prize. Maureen says it's a masterpiece, horrifying yet lovely. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPLIN'S "NOCTURNE IN C SHARP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Enjoying stories like this?

Donate to help keep public radio strong across Wyoming.