In the summer of 2016, Barbra Streisand hit the road with her latest tour, The Music, The Mem’ries, The Magic. In early June, I sat uncomfortably on the fence with a spike up my ass when it came to buying tickets. Her prices are nowhere near affordable for those of us hanging on to our careers in publishing; the venue was a two-hour drive (or nine, with Bay Area traffic); and as much as I loved both the young, fun, silly “Fanny Brice” Barbra and the ‘70s Barbra who went in for that hair perm every other day, the duets of her recent years never made it to the top of my playlists.
On June 12, 2016, an unimaginable thing happened in an Orlando nightclub. Actually I’d give anything to call it “unimaginable,” but of course we could imagine it; we’ve seen it too many times and hoped for too many years that our leaders will try something other than prayer to make us feel safe. With more shooting tragedies that we can count or name or cry over, this was the first time when I ran to the bathroom because I thought I was going to be sick. As I paced around the toilet unsure of my stomach’s plans for me that morning, ten words that someone had said to me years ago brought my pacing to a halt – if they didn’t do something after Newtown, they never will. For a moment I simply existed in my bathroom, mentally disassociated from the world and staring at a framed picture of Bert and Ernie that, for the first time, failed in its attempts to brighten up the place. On my phone were texts of love or loving thoughts, invitations to lunches and drinks, dinners and movie nights, all of which I declined. I’ve been there before, and I knew what could happen if I joined the hundreds who were drowning their grief and sorrows. When raw emotion drastically assumes power, no amount of alcohol will produce the desired intoxicating results. Even if I could drink a bar out of business, in that state, I knew that my body would refuse the embrace of a red wine hug or allow itself to be wrapped in the warm blanket of a good Manhattan – nope, no wine hugs and whiskey blankets that day, but like a phone bill, a hangover is much more reliable; no matter how much fun I had the night before, a hangover is guaranteed to show up and ruin the day.
I said no to drinks, no to dinner, and no to movie night, but sitting around the house and consuming all the news coming out of Orlando was not an option. I had just started volunteering at a cat café around the corner from my house, and although I hadn’t signed up for shift on that particular Sunday, I took a chance and popped in to see if I could help out that day. Half café, half cat shelter (with health codes well intact), KitTea was exactly where I needed to be that afternoon, and I spent about five hours cooped up with a mama and her three kittens who were still in acclamation, because the poor dears still needed to be fixed and were in desperate need of attention. The world outside throbbed with its news cycle, but in that tiny acclamation room it fell away for those few hours, and I left with maybe not a full smile, but perhaps half of a grin, which was the best that we all could do that day.
That evening, high on kitten love but low with a helpless sorrow, I struggled for balance. Even on our safest of days, life is short, and only one thing would restore harmony – I bought my Barbra tickets.
Okay, enough of the therapy session. Watch Gilda, and then we’ll talk some more.
Barbra walked out in a dazzling little black number and started the show with “The Way We Were.” Yes indeed, my friends, she started her show with that classic of a classic, knowing full well that, with those first few hums, she had us sitting in the palm of her impeccably manicured hand. Girlfriend is 74 years old, so if perhaps she didn’t hit every single note of “Evergreen” or hold it for ten minutes like she did 30 years ago, we all know that I was still buying a T-shirt before I left. At the top of my “she probably won’t sing it” wish list was the song “Woman in Love” which has a note that Barbra and I practice in the car to and from work at least three times a week. With all her classics, not to mention a new album on the way, it was such an undeniable long shot that I didn’t even recognize it when she started to sing the first few words. That night, she gave us all of ‘em – “Evergreen,” “Stoney End,” “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” “People,” “Children Will Listen,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and after a costume change to a lovely gray evening gown, she twirled, swirled, and totally nailed “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”
You’ll allow me the bragging rights for a moment: After I see Dolly in a few weeks, my own Divas Live set list will be complete – Madonna sang “Like A Prayer” on two of the three tours that I’ve attended. I was about 14 years old when Mom took me to see Bette Midler sing “The Rose,” a night to remember. In Seattle, Cher performed “If I Could Turn Back Time” in the same outfit that she wore in the music video 25 years ago (not a single stitch has been altered; don’t even think such things!), and before Cher came on, Cyndi Lauper closed the opening act with “True Colors.” Perhaps my crowning achievement was sitting in the second row when Liza sang “Cabaret” and tried to hit the final note a second time after our first standing ovation. All dramatically different diva experiences, each performance comprised of magic from a different spell book, but on August 4, 2016, you could color me only one color, and that color was “Barbra.”
At the beginning of Act II, Barbra paraded back out, and although I was hoping for her to begin with “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” (which, l learned only recently, is from the Sunset Boulevard musical, tripling my love for the tune!), she started with a little a speech about changing the world before she hit us with, “Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination.” Not to be dramatic, but the light shining off of the 19,000 tears that ran down everyone’s cheeks was greater than any light show that the arena could have designed. I never look up set lists before I go to concerts, and since her new album hadn’t been released yet, the song “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and I call it a film, NOT a movie!), truly came out of nowhere. We sang along through the tears as commanded, and the show continued with another set of both the old and the new. Through all the cloudy gray times, ongoing work frustrations, a new scratch on my car, and a very long wait on Netflix for A Star Is Born (1976), Barbra’s tour has been my mental happy place for weeks, and, if only for a second or two, who didn’t retreat to a mental happy place when Gene Wilder died last week?
Thousands of words in hundreds of obituaries memorialized the magic of Mr. Wilder not only as Willy Wonka but also as a permanent resident of Mel Brooks’s universe. When I hear the name “Gene Wilder” I think first not of Willy Wonka but of another magician, the late comic Gilda Radner (if you didn’t watch the entire video above, scroll back up. I can wait). Admittedly I glamorize any Hollywood relationship and cannot imagine it as anything less than perfect: Bogie and Bacall; Hepburn and Tracy; Lucy and Desi; Brooks and Bancroft; Bert and Ernie . . . in my head, even the marriages that ended in divorce were flawless, and every moment of every day was filled with nothing but love and laughter. Biographies and memoirs try to tell me otherwise, but until I sit down with these couples and hear true stories of heartache directly from their lips, well, you can’t believe everything that you read. Hardly what Hollywood would consider a photogenic couple with enough material for a glossy coffee table book (um, but I would totally buy it), Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner each had so much magic in one little finger, that combining all 20 of those fingers in marriage should have allowed them more time together before Gilda’s cancer forced them to part ways.
With each and every news cycle more tragic, outrageous, or disgusting than the one that preceded it, I start to doubt Wonka’s message in “Pure Imagination” that if we want to change the world, there’s nothing to it. Sure, buddy! You live a secluded life in a candy factory, completely closed off from the world with its revolting spoiled children and their irresponsibly vile parents. Seriously, what kind of father says “Alright, sweetheart” when his daughter demands that he buy her a golden goose and pink macaroons and a million balloons and performing baboons and . . . hmmm, okay, I’m beginning to understand Wonka’s doctrine of seclusion. If you want to change the heinous world, simply leave it and create one of your own. At times I find this idea perfectly reasonable and very appealing for a moment, but even with a chocolate river, lickable wallpaper, and dozens of little orange men from Loompaland running around the factory, Willy Wonka’s existence is nothing if not lonely. His musical, magical, and memorable life can exist only in the pure imagination of his guests, so I’m starting to wonder what kind of fantasy life exists in the pure imagination of Willy Wonka?
I guess it depends on who’s singing. The sound of only a few lyrics brings together the forces of Barbra, Gene, and Gilda like a trio of superheroes, and it’s with their help that I can exist in the world that seems to go out of its way to terrify us these days.
Those three teaming up to change the world . . . can you imagine?