There’s really no reason in the world that anyone should remember that 50 years ago today a musical called “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” opened at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway. There were no hit songs from the score, the play had a run of only 300 performances and it’s never been revived on the Great White Way (just off-Broadway). With the exception of one 19-year-old theater neophyte making her debut, “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” has generally been a forgotten musical.
However, that 19-year-old kid was named Barbra Streisand. Her turn as ‘Miss Marmelstein’ was literally a “star is born” moment. With just one song, she stopped the show in its tracks and audiences rose as one to give her daily standing ovations. In the years to come, there would be countless more standing ovations, because Barbra Streisand wasn’t just any actress with an exceptional voice. She was Barbra Streisand.
Today, it’s only because of her presence in that show and on that stage throughout the run that “Wholesale” is a footnote in history. It was the first Broadway show of an artist who is now nothing short of a legendary star, and for that reason alone, March 22nd, opening day of that show (1962), is an important day in the history of entertainment. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the professional debut of one of the greatest and most successful entertainers who has ever lived, so attention must be paid.
With the perspective of time, what is it about Barbra’s appearance in this show that made audiences respond so vociferously? It wasn’t the song itself, because “Miss Marmelstein” was a specialty number which was neither melodic enough to show off her lovely voice, nor even as funny as some other great Broadway showstoppers like “Adelaide’s Lament” (from “Guys and Dolls”) or “I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No” (from “Oklahoma”). What was it then that had people buzzing about Barbra Streisand? It comes down to a convergence of many factors:
- Star power – Barbra Streisand has it now and she had it then. There’s a glow that comes from within her and is palpable to everyone around her. You see it when she’s on stage and also if you’re simply in her presence. Broadway audiences saw it instantly in “Wholesale.” Dustin Hoffman, her costar in “Meet the Fockers,” remembered meeting Barbra in the early 1960’s when they both were struggling actors. Hoffman recalled that no matter what Barbra did, in whatever exercise they did, she always managed to ‘capture the light’. She had a seemingly magnetic presence, even when she did seemingly nothing at all.
- Unconventionality – When she rolled onto the stage in her secretarial chair in the role of Miss Marmelstein, Barbra Streisand didn’t look like a Broadway ingenue. But she also didn’t look like the kind of girl you’d walk past without a second look. She was unconventional and arresting. Instead of conforming to the norm, Streisand accentuated her uniqueness by embracing her unconventionality. She created her own personal style, and has since never wavered from it.
- Memorability – During the intermission at each performance of “Wholesale”, when theatergoers opened their Playbill to read more about the girl playing the secretary, the funny girl with the mousy brown hair and big voice, they read a fiction that was right out of Scheherazade. Instead of her bio saying that she was a Jewish girl from Brooklyn playing a Jewish secretary from Manhattan, Barbra embellished her three inches of type to make an impression. She crafted her bio herself, claiming to be “born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon.” Audiences were even more interested in her as the second act curtain rose and they would never forget that face, that voice and that presence…ever.
- Excitement – There’s nothing more thrilling than being in on the start of something big. Everyone wants to say: “I was there.” Anyone who saw Streisand in “Wholesale” connected to that excitement. As photographer Bob Deutsch recalled, “I used to stand in front of Sardi’s, looking for celebrities and when the doors would open (as people left), I would rush into the theater and watch the curtain calls. Everyone would walk out for their bows except Barbra. She’d rolled out on her secretary chair to take her bow! It was awesome!”
In honor of “Wholesale’s” 50th anniversary, author William J. Mann — whose book “Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand” is set for release this coming November, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about her today. He said, “Streisand did more than simply fuel “Wholesale” for 300 performances. She challenged the handbook on such things as style, glamour, beauty, and success. Later that year, she signed a contract with Columbia Records, by which time she was already on her way to landing the lead in the Broadway play, ’Funny Girl’, the first of many leads to come. The newness and difference of Barbra Streisand — and just how new and different she was in 1962 is sometimes forgotten today — rewrote all the rules.”
Streisand is still rewriting those rules. And she’s still in possession of that ‘inner glow’ and star power. She remains decidedly unconventional and has created enough memorable moments in the spotlight for a dozen careers. As for excitement, one need only recall that just last week the news that she would star in “Gypsy” set the entertainment world a-twitter. Miss Marmelstein would be amazed if she could see little Miss Barbra Streisand now. In fact, she would plotz!