Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Allan Sherman, Barbra Streisand, and the Old Neighborhood

There is a lot of Barbra Streisand coverage lately with a new biography and in advance of her first ever concerts on Thursday and Saturday in her old neighborhood of Brooklyn, but the best item out there is a video clip from a documentary about Streisand filmed 30 years ago. It captures (mainly Jewish) Brooklynites spouting off about the famous singer.

You have got to see this. Watch it here now.

The thing that hit me about the wonderfully brash, unapologetic people in the video is the lifelong impact it leaves on anyone raised among them. I mean, you can't shake that off.

Allan Sherman wasn't raised in Brooklyn, but his Chicago childhood was populated by the same crowd. His grandparents, uncles, aunts, and many cousins were either immigrants or the children of immigrants full of vigor and humor and criticism and also craziness, which isn't spelled out in the video but that both Sherman and Streisand knew about. (Both performers had abusive step-fathers and impossible mothers.)

So the question is, what do you do with such an inheritance?

One route is visible in one of the most remarkable performances I've ever seen. In a 1963 street fightin' rendition of "Cry Me A River," Streisand tapped her Brooklyn roots to deliver a snarling taunting vicious "C'mon, c'mon/Cry me a river" moment about three minutes into that song that literally gives me goose bumps. She is frightening. To use today's lingo, it is gangster. Watch it from the beginning and don't worry that I've already spoiled it for you. It will knock you out.

Sherman, of course, went in the other direction with an absurd humor that put all those people in the Streisand documentary, complete with their classic accents, into songs previously known for their sweetness, such as his first big hit, the 1962 "Frere Jacques" parody "Sarah Jackman." In its very different way, it also knocked people out in 1962-63. In place of the French lullaby lyrics that were incomprehensible to Sherman's audience was a language they knew well.