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Barbra Streisand: An Icon's 50th Anniversary in Showbiz

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Fifty years ago tonight, a unusual-looking, unknown kid rolled out onto a Broadway stage on the casters of her secretary's chair and sailed straight into pop-culture immortality. The show was I Can Get It for You Wholesale, and the kid was Barbra Streisand. Most in the audience that night assumed her name to be misspelled in their Playbills. That her name was there at all was only because director Arthur Laurents was taking a chance that the largely inexperienced 19-year-old, in a showy supporting part, might make up for a flawed book with her big voice and even bigger stage presence.

Two years earlier, Streisand had arrived in Manhattan penniless and without connections. But she'd known exactly how to get what she wanted. The Legend, as it's come down to us over the past half a century, has always insisted that Streisand's triumphs were fated and unrehearsed. But from the moment he first saw her at auditions, Laurents pegged what he called Streisand's "calculated spontaneity." She knew exactly what she was doing. She threw off a glamorous old fur coat to reveal a plain wool dress underneath, hardly the high couture most aspiring actresses chose for auditions. Her hair wasn't coiffed either, but instead knotted in an old-maidish bun. "Spinster Incarnate," Laurents thought, which was precisely what he needed for the role of the harried secretary, Miss Marmelstein.

Even more shtick was to come: Streisand's sheet music, taped together and held comically to her waist, suddenly accordioned after her as she bolted onto stage. "A good trick," Laurents admitted, especially since it was punctuated by a "trilling giggle of feigned surprise." But he felt she was "trying too hard." Indeed, when it came time for her to sing, Streisand conspicuously plucked the chewing gum out of her mouth and, using a bit of business she'd perfected in her nightclub act, impudently stuck it under the chair. Laurents rolled his eyes. "She'd better have a voice," he thought to himself.

She did.

The great classical pianist Glenn Gould would call Streisand's voice "one of the natural wonders of the age." Certainly her voice convinced Laurents that he needed her in his show. Yet while Streisand's talent was, and is, formidable, her breakout was due to even more than that. There had been spectacular voices before, but it was what came with the voice that mattered. Streisand had a spark, a presence, a belief in herself that made her stand out even when she wasn't singing. Even at that first audition, there was a sense that she was the future, that this skinny Jewish kid in the thrift-shop clothes heralded more egalitarian days to come, when girls who didn't look like Doris Day -- and boys who didn't live up to the whitebread, all-American ideal -- might still have a chance to become stars. Supporting roles would only satisfy Streisand for so long; not for her a career playing the heroine's less attractive, wisecracking best friend. "Is it crazy for me to want to play the love scenes?" she'd ask. "Is love only for blue-eyed blondes?"

Her casting in Wholesale had been a long time in coming. Since the age of 7, Streisand had had "an uncontrollable itch" to get out of her hometown of Brooklyn and into the big, wide world. Yet her vaunted ambition was never simply an engine to accumulate fans. Streisand didn't desire to be famous as much as she wanted to be accomplished, brilliant, and beautiful -- words that hardly described her life growing up on the corner of Nostrand and Newkirk. What pushed her forward was a desire to prove that she had talent and appeal to a father who had never known her, a mother who didn't seem to care, and a world that felt she was too different to succeed. Unlike so many celebrities today, it wasn't the spotlight Streisand sought. It was the affirmation that she deserved the spotlight.

Proving herself didn't take long. As Laurents expected, when the ungainly novice took the stage of the Shubert Theatre on March 22, 1962, belting out Miss Marmelstein's lament to secretaries everywhere, she stopped the show cold. "The evening's find," The New York Times' Howard Taubman declared. But Streisand did more than simply fuel Wholesale for 300 performances. She challenged the handbook on such things as style, glamour, beauty, and success. Later that year, she signed a contract with Columbia Records, by which time she was already on her way to landing the lead in Funny Girl, the first of many leads to come. The newness and difference of Barbra Streisand -- and just how new and different she was in 1962 is sometimes forgotten today -- rewrote all the rules.

Fifty years -- and some 140 million albums, a Tony, two Oscars, five Emmys, and eight Grammys -- later, Streisand has a new film coming out in November, and if the showbiz gods are kind, she'll headline a revival of Gypsy, a last wish of her late mentor, Laurents. Her childhood dreams have been fulfilled, and on her terms.

Yet it wasn't just her own dreams that she chased down and won. Whether she fully realizes it or not, Streisand has given life to the dreams of so many others who weren't the pretty ones or the privileged ones, the ones who, until she came along, had had to settle for the supporting roles in life. If Judy Garland was the goddess of self-destruction and vulnerability, Barbra Streisand has been the diva of self-confidence and strength -- as well as of a certain kind of magic, one that can elevate the everyday and transform even an ordinary kid into a star.

William J. Mann is the author of the forthcoming Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).