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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review: 'Hello Gorgeous'

HELLO GORGEOUS: Becoming Barbra Streisand
By William J. Mann
October 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547368924

Before Madonna, before Lady Gaga, before Nicki Minaj or any other performer of the past 50 years, there was Barbra. Hello Gorgeous is a well-structured look at how a quirky teenager who desperately wanted to become an actress became one, but not before becoming the toast of Broadway and a woman who didn't even realize the power of her gift -- that voice. That glorious voice.                        

William J. Mann, whose previous books include biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and John Schlesinger, as well as novels, has put together bits and pieces of not only the legend, but also stories from people who knew her when. The result is a coherent and cohesive narrative of how Streisand became an overnight sensation after only four years.

Mann recounts Streisand's early acting classes and compares the myth to what he can document. He takes the same approach through her tutelage under her first boyfriend, actor Barry Dennen, who encouraged her to sing and who introduced her to music she later incorporated in early nightclub appearances. Two other friends helped Streisand with her distinctive makeup and fashion sense to cultivate the thriftshop look that became an early trademark.

Throughout, there is a consistent sense that Streisand wanted to be the best and do her best, although doing the same performance night after night after night soon grew tiresome in her first Broadway show, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Streisand made a splash in that show and captured the heart of leading man Elliot Gould in her small role. Mann recounts the lack of warmth and support from her mother without making her a monster.

Between the show and her nightclub appearances, comparisons soon began between her and Fanny Brice. The convoluted path that led to her getting the role of a lifetime in Funny Girl is described chronologically and thoroughly. Even knowing the outcome and the bare bones of the myth, Mann's account makes for compelling reading.

Mann is careful about noting his sources, but part of his writing style does grate. When he refers to how Streisand or others must be feeling or how if something didn't happen on one night it happened on a night like this, the reader can be forgiven for pausing to question, well, how does he know? Because so much of this comprehensive look at Streisand's path to stardom is documented here with credit to primary sources, these narrative tics take away from the scholarship that was plainly involved.

Even so, Hello Gorgeous is an engaging look at a star and the era when she first blossomed.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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