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Steven Brinberg      


I've always liked to do voices, even as a little kid," says Steven Brinberg (the phenomenal talent behind Simply Barbra). "I just had an ear for it. After a few weeks at school, I could do all my teachers and friends. I was interested in nothing else but performing. But I was very shy as a child. I still am. So, in school and camp, while I gravitated toward theater, I didn't really pursue it. In high school, I directed and wrote plays but I wasn't in any. Then, as I got older, I was always writing."

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]


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:

Why Barbra?
If you're gonna inhabit someone's persona for a whole hour, its gotta be someone...good! I've gotta have a lot of great material to work with. Needless to say, I do love Barbra Striesand. I can't imagine spending so much time dealing with someone I didn't adore. It's funny, though but since I've been performing as Striesand, I don't listen to her as much as I used to. I get my fix on stage.

Before the Barbra act, what were you doing?
I was doing my own act as a gig at clubs in the Village like 55 Grove Street and The Duplex. In the middle of the act I did an impression segment, which contained a Barbra bit. Sydney Meyer (who books Don't Tell Mama) came into the show and really encouraged me to do a gig with the wig, nails and whole bit. It instantly took off.

So "drag" was not your original concept?
Not at all! I really thought about it for a long, long time. I knew I could look like her, but then I'd look in the mirror and say, "Wait a minute, there's a problem here!" To this day, I don't think I really look like her...I just make the audience think I do. It's a combination of the sound and the lighting and the wardrobe.

How do you feel about the 'female impersonator' label?
I don't care if they call me an impersonator or gender illusionist... just so they call me! Sian Phillips (currently performing as Marlene Dietrich on Broadway) uses the term "interpreter". I like that. I usually just use the word "actor," because I'm just playing a part. It's a dicey situation, because I have nothing against drag queens, but that's not really what I do. You won't catch me schlepping down Eighth Avenue in a sailor dress, believe me. It's just a role I'm playing.

How old were you when you started singing?
I always sang. My first memory is of my parents playing the Gypsy album. I knew every song from every Broadway musical. Then, when I was eight, I started to write and direct plays and musicals.

With other people or just yourself?
Other people. Hello?! I was not a lonely only child. We went to the Catskills every simmer, there were lots of kids, and we lived in these bungalow colonies. It was very "A Walk On the Moon." The first year I was there, I played the lead in Rumplestiltskin. I memorized pages and pages of dialogue. At age nine! the next year, I produced, directed and co-starred in a children's version of What's the Matter with Helen? Then we did The Great Gatsby. I played the Bruce Dern character, thank you. This was with full-out musical numbers.

After your haunting portrayal of Rumpelstiltskin, how did your first professional job come about?
Years later, I went to a club called Folk City on West Third Street, which is long gone. They had a contest called "Perform As Your Favorite Performer." My first thought, of course, was Barbra, but I didn't have a costume or wig, so I decided on Dr. Ruth. She was really hot then! (much laughter...)

Don't kid yourself... Dr. Ruth is always hot!
Exactly, I wrote a parody of "Let Me Entertain You" called "Let Me Educate You." I wore a bathrobe and an old hat and won second prize! Stephen Holden [New York Times critic] was one of the judges. And he still hasn't come to see me perform to this day!! Right after that, I was cast in my first Off-Broadway play.

Let's talk about your show. Does the audience come in expecting to see a very serious and elegant illusion of Barbra?
I think the tone is set at the very top of the show when I sing a parody of "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard [He sings...] "I don't know why I'm frightened. I'm making so much money..." The audience knows then and there that it's supposed to be funny and is not a wax-museum experience, even though I think the sound is very believable. I love to hear people whisper "He sounds just like her!" That really excites me. There is a funny twist to the character, though. I call the show a "loving satire." It's the show Barbra would do if she performed in small clubs, and if she still had a great sense of humor and if she sang very bizarre material, like "St. Bridgett" from Mame. (Steve is referring to his next concert, Mame 2000 because Striesand has just bought the rights to Mame.)

Is it scary to be responsible for portraying a voice that has been compared to a Stradivarius?
It is very daunting! If I couldn't sound so much like her, I wouldn't bother to do it. Being able to do impressions is like being double-jointed. You can do either do it or you can't, I guess.

Has an angry fan of Barbra's ever cornered you?
Just once. A woman in London said "I think that this whole thing is rather sinister. That woman has had a very hard life and you shouldn't be poking fun at her!" After a bit, though, she came to me and said, "I take it back. It was lovely!" The real hard-core Striesand fans come in droves, though. I can tell when they're in the audience by their laughter. A few of my comments are very "in" and of course they are right here with me.

What is it about Barbra's character that you identify with?
First and foremost it's that voice. Talent is the common denominator with all the stars who are impersonated so often. Striesand is funny, glamorous and so musical. She is also offbeat looking. She really changed the perception of beauty. I like that.

As you're getting ready in your dressing room do you look forward to becoming Barbra?
Yes! I've never had the feeling of "Oh, I really don't feel like doing this." It's always fun, and once I start the show, it files by. Even when I was in London doing two-show days. But I loved it. I'd do three shows in one day if I could. Once I'm dressed and there, I might as well!

How do you take care of your voice? You're doing something rather unnatural, singing in someone else's range.
I always say, I know I'm doing Barbra, but my throat just thinks I'm singing way too high for an hour. Sometimes my throat is tired the day after a show, but I get through it because I don't smoke, I rarely drink, I get all my rest and all of that boring stuff. I've often thought of taking some voice classes, but then I get paranoid that I'll learn too much and lose what I naturally have. You know, Barbra rook one voice lesson, and the teacher told her, "It's not a sleepin' beeeee, it's a sleepin' beu." Tried to make her change her pronunciation for the sake of technique. No thank you.

Has your family been supportive of your career choice?
Before my parents passed away, they came every week and brought all their friends. They absolutely loved show business. That's where I got my love for all of this. In another lifetime they both would have been performers. Especially my father. He loved Frank Sinatra.

You could have done a mean Frank and Barbra duet.
It's kind of a funny, sad story, but when my dad was in the hospital, I brought a tape of my show for him to listen to. A few days later, I went to see him and he was lying there singing "Funny Girl" in his head voice! Doing my act in his hospital bed! I know wherever they are, they know every work of my act. Sometimes, when I think I can't hit a note, I'll picture them sitting in the audience. It really helps.

How long have you been performing at Don't Tell Mama?
This November, it'll be six years.

Is that some sort of cabaret record?
Absolutely! It's so wonderful to have a home base. Cabaret was and is the fastest way to do a show. You can wait forever to be cast in a role, or just get on your feet and do it yourself. And cabaret is NOT a dead end. I'm living proof.

You have two CD's in the can... Live From London and Barbra Duets. Who are you singing with on the duet CD?
I have quite a cast of characters joining me. Kaye Ballard, Donna McKechnie, Debbie Gravitte, Mimi Hines, Julie Wilson, KT Sullivan, Heather MacRae, Claiborn Cary, Karen Mason, Marcia Lewis, Jeff Harnar and Hugh Panaro. So far. We might still add a few people. I'll be in Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival, and I want to make sure we can sell it there.

So many of the legendary ladies you've sung have taken you under their wing. What have they taught you?
I've spent a lot of time with Julie Wilson and Claiborne Cary. They both know the ups and downs of the business. It's fascinating to hear what they have gone through. But they're still here and they love to perform and love to sing. Let's face it, to get to a certain age, you have to survive a lot of stuff. It's very inspiring that they're all still out there doing what they do. Julie's work ethic is unbelievable, too. She never misses a show, and I love that. It made an impression on me. One night, because of bad weather or something, I had only three people in the audience. They asked if I still wanted to do the show... as I'm gluing my last Lee Press-On! I was dressed, so we did it. It was the most fun show I've ever done.

Do you see yourself out there at age seventy... with the page boy wig and sailor dress?
Oh my gawd! That sounds so scary. I love doing Barbra so much, though, so I would hope to grow and age along with her! It will be interesting to watch her change thorough the years. Maybe she'll run for President, like they are always saying.

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?
Funny Girl, of course! There actually is a producer near London who is considering doing it for me. That's a real dream of mine. Funny Girl is one of the most successful Broadway shows that's never been revived. I mean who's gonna make you forget Striesand? So I say, don't forget her... recreate her!

If you had the chance to sit down with her and have a glass of tea, what would you ask?
I want to sing with her. That's my dream. We could do that amazing arrangement of "One Less Bell to Answer" and "A House Is Not A Home."

But you say you're sitting in the Barney Greengrass deli with her...
Oh, right...because she had a sudden urge for sturgeon? No, really, I'd want her to see my show. She was once asked what she thought of all the men impersonating her. Her answer was so great. She said, "I wish they'd do me better." I'd ask her to put me to the test!