Raised in the Riverdale section of New York City, Steven later attended NYU, Hunter, and The New School. "It was at The New School where I first took voice," he notes. "And that changed my whole life. I always knew I could sing but I never really did, even to myself. Before, I would listen to Barbra Streisand records and sing in her voice. If I was listening to Shirley Maclaine, I would sing like her. I didn't really discover my own voice until that singing class."
Steven began performing as Steven, including professional acting roles on stage and in film. "Then, nine or ten years ago," he says, "I started doing cabaret shows at Don't Tell Mama, as me. My own voice is like a high baritone or low tenor. But even then I did Barbra. And I did the Pioneer thing." The "thing" is a fictitious album which he and Chris Denny created, in which "Barbra," singing Home on the Range and other songs, salutes the nation's Pilgrim Fathers. "I'd say, in my own voice, 'You know, Barbra has a new album out.' I'd turn around, no costume or anything, and do her voice.
"From that, the Barbra thing evolved slowly. One day, I just thought, 'Well, maybe I could do a whole show like this.' Thanks to Sidney Myer, I booked four nights at Don't Tell Mama over four weeks, not knowing what would happen. It's Amazing! I've probably done 600 nights over six years, back and forth, and everywhere else I've been."
"Everywhere" has included a Thanksgiving weekend appearance at the Stonewall Benefit in London's Royal Albert Hall (with Elton John and George Michael), a recent sold-out engagement at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London and appearances at the Edinburgh Festival, the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, The Egg in Albany, New York, on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, and, coming up, a tour of the U.K., South Africa and the Far East. Then back to the Dominion in January, and maybe some more Don't Tell Mama dates.
"The hardest thing," says Steven, "is getting a call from a theater in some town in the U.S. where they don't know me and trying to sell them on the idea of what I do. 'Oh,' they'd say, 'I don't know if our patrons would like that.' But one of my reviews said it well: 'Babs is not a drag. Yes, he's wearing makeup, and the wig, and nails. But this is not a drag show.'"
The tradition of men, as actors, playing women's roles dates back to church plays of the Middle Ages, cresting in Shakespeare's Elizabethan theater. "Then, in the 1960s," says Steven, "you had people like Charles Pierce and Jim Bailey -- classy acts that played in top venues. After Stonewall, there was a drag explosion with a lot of people doing just lip-syncing and their performances weren't a family thing. But I don't do anything that's blue. Kids come too.
"Today there are only a handful of us who are live vocalists: Tommy Femia, who does Judy Garland; James Beaman, who does Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, and Richard Skipper, who does Carol Channing. We're actors. It's unfortunate if someone stays away from my show because they think it will be some silly drag show. One reviewer I had said, 'Gender, schmender, it's entertainment!' Sian Phillips, the British actress who has played Marlene, called it a 'female interpretation.' Charles Busch called it 'gender illusionist.' I always say, 'I don't care what you call me; just call me!' I'm very glad to see Dame Edna's success, because it breaks the barriers."
How often does Steven listen to Barbra to perfect his impersonation? "Not much any more," he says. "It's like listening to her listening to me as her! I love doing songs she hasn't done, because now I know just what she would do with them.
"When I knew she had recorded Wasn't It a Pity, but before the record came out, I just imagined what she'd do with it. And when I listened to it, she did almost exactly what I did. In my show I sing Evergreen and on the last note, I move my hand in a certain way. I had never seen her do it but when I finally saw her sing it in Las Vegas, she did exactly the same thing on the same note! I've just absorbed her over the years. It's instinct."
"As good as Steven is as an impersonator," says Chris Denny, "that's only half of it. He writes the whole show, all his words. He has this active, bright, knowledgeable mind, his writer's mind, riffing and spinning on whatever he chooses to do. He is able to create something new on the spot, or able to adjust the show from week to week."
Steven has said that he'd love to appear some day with Barbra herself. Improbable? Maybe not! Marvin Hamlisch, composer, conductor and the real Barbra's musical director whom Cabaret Scenes reached by phone in California said, "I had spoken to Steven about making some sort of an appearance in Barbra's current show. But, because of the way this show has been written and came together, it wouldn't have been right. But I tell you, when you first hear Steven's Simply Barbra CD, for the first brief moment, you almost think, 'My God! Is that really her?' It's so captivating! Not only does he have a wonderful take on her -- not at all mean-spirited -- and this ability to imitate her, he also captures a lot of moments and nuances that are terrific. It was very impressive. I've spoken to Steven. Eventually I'd love to work with him." [Note: Steven and Marvin Hamlisch have now performed together!]
The future: "I've been trying to do some other things: writing, acting, some voice, musical work," says Steven. "I've been involved with a musical workshop that, hopefully, will end up on Broadway eventually. It's a perfect opportunity to show what I do as Barbra and what I can do as Steven, all in the same show. I'd like to maintain that duality. But still, I love doing Barbra, and if I do it for another 30 years, I'll be happy.
"Admittedly, there are a lot of bad things about show business," notes Steven, "having to do with rejection, reviews, sometimes just bad business aspects. Sometimes they get to me. Sometimes I'll say, 'I don't want to do this any more. I'll just go work at Kinko's.' Then I'll get out on stage. I'll be singing, I'll be hearing the music and looking at people smiling and I'll think, 'How could you do anything but this?' [from garyparkes.com]
from Jim Caruso site:
We are standing in front of the Barney Greengrass Delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and I'm scared. They specialize in sturgeon. I don't know what sturgeon is. This in not one of those cute "I'll have a low-fat cinnamon bagel with a smear of cilantro/kiwi cream cheese" delis. This is serious. Inside. I gaze at jars of stuff floating in green liquid, looking like some kind of bizarre, Hebraic science product. I'm an Italian from Dallas with heavy WASP overtones. I don't know my knish from my kreplach. But Steven Brinberg does. If you stared at him for three months, you'd never guess what he does for a living. He's five feet seven inches, even more bookish looking than Matthew Broderick and has a "don't mess with me" swagger that must have come from his Bronx upbringing. And for the past six years, he has been filling nightclubs from New York to Los Angeles to London performing as Barbra Striesand.
The 30ish actor is appearing in an open-ended run at Don't Tell Mama, one of those theater-district haunts with a piano bar up front and a jewel of a cabaret in back. The real gem, though, is Brinberg. His current show, Simply Barbra: The Wedding Tour, is a homage/satire celebrating the over-hyped marriage of Her Deliriousness to B-movie actor James Brolin. Toward the beginning of the show, "Barbra" waxes poetic the joys of marriage, then launches into "Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady." My favorite screamingly funny bit is Barbra's announcement of The Pilgrim Album. "It's a return to my colonial American roots! Our forefathers made this country a better place in which to live...especially if you live in Malibu."
So here we are at Barney Greengrass. Steven has insisted on eating- I mean noshing here- because it is rumored that "she" eats here when she's in town/ As I stare at a corned-beef-on-rye the size of a golfbag, I ask:
Before the Barbra
act, what were you doing?
was not your original concept?
How do you feel
about the 'female impersonator' label?
How old were
you when you started singing?
With other people
or just yourself?
After your haunting
portrayal of Rumpelstiltskin, how did your first professional job
Don't kid yourself...
Dr. Ruth is always hot!
Let's talk about
your show. Does the audience come in expecting to see a very serious
and elegant illusion of Barbra?
Is it scary
to be responsible for portraying a voice that has been compared to
Has an angry
fan of Barbra's ever cornered you?
What is it about
Barbra's character that you identify with?
As you're getting
ready in your dressing room do you look forward to becoming Barbra?
How do you take
care of your voice? You're doing something rather unnatural, singing
in someone else's range.
Has your family
been supportive of your career choice?
You could have
done a mean Frank and Barbra duet.
How long have
you been performing at Don't Tell Mama?
Is that some
sort of cabaret record?
You have two
CD's in the can... Live From London and Barbra Duets. Who are you
singing with on the duet CD?
So many of the
legendary ladies you've sung have taken you under their wing. What
have they taught you?
Do you see yourself
out there at age seventy... with the page boy wig and sailor dress?
The Barbra Striesand/Donna
Karan ticket! The only administration with a signature fragrance!
If a producer came to you and offered to produce you in any Striesand
musical, which would you choose?
If you had the
chance to sit down with her and have a glass of tea, what would you
But you say
you're sitting in the Barney Greengrass deli with her...