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‘Hello Gorgeous’

Gay biographer deconstructs Streisand’s ascent to superstardom

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Barbara Streisand, gay news, Washington Blade

Jewish Literary Festival: William Mann
Closing Night
Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
D.C. Jewish Community Center
1529 16th Street, NW
Tickets: $10

Barbara Streisand, gay news, Washington Blade

Barbra Streisand in the recording studio for Columbia in New York, mid-1960s. (Photo from the Collection of Stuart Lippner, courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It’s an interesting time for Barbra Streisand fans.

She’s on tour and played New York last weekend (no D.C. dates scheduled).

A (sort of) new album dropped Oct. 9 called “Release Me” that collects 11 previously unreleased outtakes from various album projects going back to the beginning of her career in the early ‘60s. The faithful legion, of course, are beside themselves finally getting to hear rare cuts like her interpretations of Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We” and “Home” from “The Wiz.” Her MusiCares tribute concert, in which she was serenaded last year by Diana Krall, Barry Mainlow, Seal, Stevie Wonder and others, is out on DVD and Blu-ray from Shout! Factory Nov. 13.

But just as interesting is the new book “Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand,” also released this month from gay author William J. Mann, who, in addition to several novels, has penned well-received bios on William Haines, John Schlesinger, Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. Mann, an iconoclast who doesn’t smash his subjects but delights in deconstructing widely parsed anecdotes of show biz folklore, zeroes in on Streisand’s early years from early 1960 (when she was 17) to the spring of ’64 by which time she had opened in the long-delayed “Funny Girl” on Broadway and recorded three platinum-selling albums for Columbia.

Mann focuses on her early years because he says “everything we think we know about her can be traced back to this seminal period … She arrived in New York in 1959 as a penniless teenager without any connections or experience. Less than five years later she was the top-selling female recording artist in the country and the star of one of Broadway’s biggest smash hits. Going in as close as I have in this book has allowed me to really shed light on how she accomplished such a feat.”

Mann’s in Washington Wednesday on his book tour at the D.C. Jewish Community Center for a 7 p.m. Streisand presentation after which he’ll sign copies of the book. During two phone chats this week, the 49-year-old author talked about the process of bringing the book — he wasn’t particularly a Streisand fan before — to fruition and how writing it compared to his mammoth Hepburn and Taylor tomes.

Mann says focusing on Streisand’s early years turned out to be an unexpected advantage. Because few of the key players are still in touch with the notoriously private and exacting legend, they felt freer, Mann says, to cooperate. He wasn’t on a mission to bash Streisand, but he did want an honest and fresh take.

“These very, very famous people really live in a bubble,” he says. “It becomes virtually impossible to get an unvarnished opinion because any colleague you talk to is going to have nothing but superlatives and that becomes very difficult. … About 90 percent of the people I spoke to didn’t continue on with her. … so they could be candid. They didn’t have to think, ‘Gee, is Barbra gonna be pissed at me, I have to work with her next month.’”

Barbara Streisand, William Mann, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay historian and author William J. Mann (Photo by Michael Childers; courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Despite calling the book “notable for its breadth of detail and fair mindedness,” biographer James Gavin writing for the New York Times said “little” of the book is new, a point Mann counters with his biggest coup — being granted the right to delve into the Jerome Robbins (the Broadway legend who worked on “Funny Girl”) papers at the New York Public Library, which had not previously been plumbed for any Streisand book and are not available to researchers (Mann got an exception through the Robbins’ estate).

And even though Streisand’s first boyfriend, Barry Dennen has written an entire book (1997’s “My Life with Barbra”) on their relationship, Mann says he got fresh material from the gay actor for “Gorgeous.”

One of Mann’s favorite experiences was visiting Phyllis Diller, who became a pal and mentor of the young Streisand during their time performing at seedy New York nightclub the Bon Soir in the early ‘60s. (Diller died in August.)

“She was such a hoot,” Mann says with a laugh. “That interview was probably the most enjoyable of the process. I got to go to her house and she was flirting and laughing. I asked her if she’d give me one of her trademark laughs and she did. I just sat there thinking, ‘I love my job.’”

Other “gets” weren’t so splashy but proved equally invaluable. Though scads of Streisand material has been released and is on YouTube, Mann says the Streisand aficionados — almost all gay — were helpful. He thinks his track record on the Hepburn and Taylor books helped open doors on several fronts.

“There’s one fan, and of course he’s made me promise never to reveal who he is, who had some really amazing stuff. There was a DVD (Streisand) was planning to put out maybe five-six years ago of all her old TV appearances but for whatever reason, it never came out. This guy had a bootleg copy of it, which was extraordinarily helpful. Another fan had some of her original contracts. Which is crazy. Who knows how they get this stuff. You’d think she’d have those herself, but somehow they had them and those were very helpful as well. And of course once you get in those fan circles, one things leads to another and another. I didn’t write it for the fans, because then you’d end up censoring it to please them, but they were a great help.”

Early signs are good.

Barbara Streisand, Hello Gorgeous, gay news, Washington Blade

(Courtesy Houghton Mifflin)

According to Nielsen BookScan, the book has already sold about 2,000 copies. And a glowing USA Today review said Mann’s “meticulous research and insightful analysis go deeper than any previous (Streisand) biography.” Liz Smith called it “excellent.” Amazon reader feedback has been highly positive and perhaps the surest sign that the writer did his homework, there’s been nary a peep, at least so far, from the Streisand camp (she devotes a whole section of her official website to debunking what’s written about her — check out the juicy reads on her tangles with Larry Kramer over a never-made film adaptation of “The Normal Heart” she wanted to do).

At more than 500 pages, “Gorgeous” makes for a lengthy yet brisk read. Mann, who splits his time between New York and Provincetown (where he does most of his writing), is happy to engage a few questions the book inspires, one common enough that he’s written a Huffington Post piece on the topic: that is, surely it’s no coincidence that Streisand, who had several key gay men in her life very early on in her career, ended up one of the biggest gay entertainment icons of all time, right?

“It’s not a coincidence at all,” he says. “She was shaped by so many gay influences … in various ways. The way she dressed, the way she put a song across, the way she styled her songs, they way she interacted with an audience, it’s so obvious all her early mentors were gay and I believe that when those early audiences went to see her, they responded to something familiar. The way she laughed, the way she moved, her campy humor. There was something there gay men recognized and thought, ‘Oh, we can relate to this chick.’ And she was not the first one to have this happen either. It goes all the way back to Mae West and the drag queens she worked with in New York. You see it with Judy (Garland) with Roger Edens, with Joan Crawford and Billy Haines … with Madonna it was the same thing.”

Barbara Streisand, Elliot Gould, gay news, Washington Blade

Barbra Streisand with first husband, actor Elliott Gould en route to the Tony Awards on April 29, 1962. (Photo from the collection of Stuart Lippner, courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

And since Mann, with the Taylor and Streisand books especially, has focused on the nature of fame and how it was achieved — a dissection of the lucky breaks versus the raw material — another question occurs: given Streisand’s undeniable talent and famous drive, was her legend and success inevitable?

Mann says no.

“She would like us to think that, but no, I don’t think it was at all. I think she benefited form some really shrewed salesmanship and a degree of luck. Just the fact that there were some major parts with ‘I Can Get it For You Wholesale’ and “Funny Girl’ for unusual looking Jewish girls, she was lucky that she was there for those parts at the time they came along. Of course she’s brilliantly talented but there are lots of people who were. You hear some of these other singers from the nightclub era like Blossom Dearie or Joanna Beretta and you’re like, ‘Wow, they’re every bit as good as Barbra,’ but they lacked something — either a very shrewd publicity campaign on their behalf or perhaps their own ambition … it took a terrific amount of PR to make it happen.”

Game time: Kate, Liz or Babs?

William J. Mann has written well-received bios of three of the most famous legends the 20th century produced: Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and now, Barbra Streisand. At the end of an interview, Mann was game for a “lightening round” in which he considers how the three icons stack up. He had to answer each question with one of the three names.

Of the three, which had:

  • the most raw talent? “Streisand”
  • the most career triumphs? “Taylor”
  • Was the most personally content? “Taylor”
  • Whose personality evolved the most over the decades? “Hepburn”
  • Which was the most fan friendly? “Taylor, by far.”
  • The most private? “Streisand. Hepburn was private, but she also put things out there, although not always her true self. So I guess Streisand.”
  • Whose work has best stood the test of time? “That’s kind of a draw. They all have. You look at Hepburn in a film like “Alice Adams,” which is this beautiful, brilliant, heartbreaking film that totally stands up. Or Elizabeth in ‘Virginia Woolf’ and you just think, ‘Wow, nobody could have done that better.’ Or one of Barbra’s albums.”
  • Which had (or has) the most ardent fans? “Streisand”
  • Was the toughest to research? “I suppose Hepburn but she had just passed away so that opened some doors. The other two were alive when I was writing.” (Taylor died shortly after the Mann book came out.)
  • Had the most gays in her personal life? “Taylor”
  • Had the easiest path to stardom? “Taylor. It was practically handed to her.”
  • The toughest? “Streisand, even though it was really fast.”
  • And just for fun, any word on how Streisand or Hepburn felt about tying for the Best Actress Oscar in ’68? “They both probably hated to share it,” he says. “Hepburn made a big show of not caring about the Oscars but of course she cared a great deal. … Streisand was very gracious when she accepted (Hepburn did not attend) and said she was ‘in great company.’ It was probably unlike either of them to send the other a congratulatory note, but I don’t fully know the answer to that or whether anybody ever tried to get them together for a photo. I suspect neither of them would have been too wild about that.”

— Joey DiGuglielmo

 

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Theater

‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater

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Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Hadestown
Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
Kennedy-center.org
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to Kennedy-center.org/visit/covid-safety/

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Books

Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers

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‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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Arts & Entertainment

NSYNC star Lance Bass & husband Michael Turchin welcome twins

Singer, husband, and popular West Hollywood nightclub owner, now adds the job of ‘Dad’ to his resume

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Lance Bass and Michael Turchin via Instagram

WEST HOLLYWOOD – Former boy-band NSYNC star and co-owner of the popular LGBTQ+ nightspot Rocco’s, Lance Bass, announced that he and husband Michael Turchin are the proud parents of twins, Violet Betty and Alexander James.

In his announcement on Instagram, Bass wrote; ‘The baby dragons have arrived!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ I can not express how much love I feel right now. Thank you for all the kind wishes. It meant a lot. Now, how do you change a diaper??! Ahhhhhhhh!”

The babies were carried via surrogate, the singer noted saying that Alexander, born one minute before his sister on Wednesday, weighed 4 lbs., 14 oz. Violet weighed 4 lbs., 11 oz. Bass said in his Instagram post.

His husband also announced the news on his Instagram account. “Introducing the newest members of the Turchin-Bass household: Violet Betty and Alexander James!!!! They’re pure perfection and yes that includes the dozens of poops we’ve already dealt with. Our hearts our full!!! Thank you everyone for the well wishes 🥰🥰🥰”

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