Steven Brinberg performs as Barbra Streisand on the 40th anniversary of Yentl

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Steven Brinberg performs as Barbra Streisand on the 40th anniversary of Yentl

The New Yorker is bringing his incredible act to London

Louisa Walters is Features Editor at the Jewish News and specialises in food and travel writing

Did Barbra Streisand foresee Zoom meetings and their opening lines when she first sang the words ‘Papa, can you hear me?’ It’s 40 years since Yentl and New York-based Steven Brinberg is bringing his ‘Simply Barbra’ show to London to celebrate.

Brinberg is, quite simply, Barbra. On stage, anyway. The rest of the time he’s just a regular theatre-loving Manhattanite. But when he dons a sparkly dress and a razor-sharp blonde-bob wig he transcends into arguably the greatest female singer of all time, with undoubtedly the closest singing voice to hers. The first time I saw him live, if I closed my eyes, I could genuinely believe I was at  Barbra Streisand gig.

“When I realised I could sing like Barbra Streisand, I thought I should probably do something with this,” he tells me over Zoom from New York. “I put my voice on tape singing like Barbra and my father found the tape, which had a label ‘Steven singing’. He said to me, ‘I found this tape. I listened to it. It has your name on it, but it’s not you. It’s Barbara Streisand’. I said, ‘No, that’s me.’”

Growing up in the Bronx, Steven always loved music and his parents often took him to the theatre. When he was young, his aunt paid for him to have piano lessons. “I could sort of play by ear but I realised I liked singing more than I liked playing. I was very shy so I didn’t pursue that until high school when I started singing and putting my voice on tape. Once I got to college, I took a voice class and I was like, oh, singing – that’s what I was always meant to do.

“My voice is as deep as can be. It’s not really a falsetto, or a countertenor – it’s like a mix, so I can pretty much sing in all Barbra’s original keys. I’ve taken a few of them down over time and I think having a strong or deep voice has made the high voice deeper. Another female voice that I do is Cher which I do in my deep male register, whereas I do Julie Andrews in the same placement as Barbra.”

That Barbra Streisand has a unique voice with stunning enunciation makes Brinberg’s talent all the more impressive. “Nobody sounds like her – except me! – but a lot of people her evoke her style,” he says. “I grew up listening to her. I always say she was my voice teacher, my voice lessons and I learned all of her phrasing. I’ve always loved to do songs that she’s never done and if she then does them, in some cases it’s almost note for note what I imagined. It’s very easy for me to be in her skin and her voice.”

Steven Brinberg attending the memorial to honour Marvin Hamlisch, New York 18 September 2012

Brinberg has never met Barbra but has met “literally every single person who is close to her. I know she’s aware of me because when her best friend Donna Karan had a 60th birthday, Barbra couldn’t come so her manager hired me to sing and through somebody else Barbra directed my performance. Usually for a party, I’ll sing a couple of songs and then end with Happy Birthday. But her direction was, ‘I want him to come in and sing Happy Birthday first, and then sing the other two songs.’

Bless my parents – I went to the concert that she did in her backyard in Malibu. It was crazy expensive. And I was like, that’s what the bar mitzvah money was for. It was amazing. Even then, the thing was – she may never sing again.”

Brinberg spent 11 years on tour with Marvin Hamlisch as a special guest on his shows. “Marvin phoned me when Barbra was doing one of her big tours and said he was thinking of having a bit in the show where she says, ‘You know, I’m so busy. Sometimes I wish there were two of me,’ and then I would appear. He called me back a week before the show was supposed to begin and said we already have this little girl in the show playing young Barbra so it’s too late as it is already written, but I really want to work with you. Within a couple of months, he called me to sing with him in the symphony for Barbara Cook.”

Brinberg toured with Hamlisch for 11 years. He would start playing The Way we Were and Brinberg would start humming from the wings and then come out and do the number with Hamlisch and the 80-piece orchestra. Towards the end of the show, he would take off all the makeup and come back out as himself.

This is a big year for Barbra. As well as being the 40th anniversary of Yentl it’s the 50th anniversary of The Way We Were and in November her much anticipated book is due out. “There’s been so much written about her, I think she probably wants to set the record straight about some of the stories. I don’t think we’re going to hear much about her love affairs and all that stuff, because that’s just not her style. She is very much a lady and if anything unsavoury has been said about her, she has sort of taken the high road. Everyone said when she did Hello, Dolly, that she Walter Matthau hated each other, but when I was at the concert in her backyard, he was there. And then I read that she later became friendly with him and his wife. It’ll be interesting to see what she says about the making of that film, which is very, very beloved by many of us.”

Marvin Hamlisch and Brinberg as Barbra

Brinberg recalls that Barbra got a lot of flak for Yentl. “People thought, who does she think she is directing and starring, but men do that all the time. She kicked in the door for women directors. There was controversy about Mandy Patinkin in the movie because he is a great singer, but he didn’t get to sing anything. The fact is that he was cast very late – that role was mean to go to Michael Douglas, who of course doesn’t sing. I think it did Mandy Patinkin a favour, because if he had sung in that movie, he might have been pegged as ‘musical theatre guy.’

Brinberg says that when he takes the stage, his goal is to make us think of Barbra. “I always say I’m not in drag. I’m just in costume playing a character. On a radio show with Diana Rigg I said I would never dress like that to vacuum. And she said, ‘Oh, why not?’ which was pretty funny. But the physical part of it has never been as important to me as the musical. I really think if I had to, I could do Barbra in a tuxedo as long as I had the fake nails – she has the most beautiful hands and nails.”

If you go to his show you’ll see Brinberg using his hands with fake nails to push that blonde hair off his face, just as Barbra does, and you will most definitely think of her.


Simply Barbra is at Brasserie Zedel on 11, 18 and 23 October and then on tour in the UK.

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