The Importance of Being Barbra
by Tom Santopietro
St. Martin's Press | 256 pages | Biography
Thomas Dunne Books | Pub Date: 06/2006 | ISBN: 0-312-34879-7
I'Barbra,' need we say more? - by William Henderson
CONNECTICUT-NATIVE TOM SANTOPIETRO'S BOOK ON BABS SHOWS THE GOOD AND THE BAD OF THIS ICONIC SINGER, ACTRESS AND GAY RIGHTS ADVOCATE
Write a book about Barbra Streisand and you could focus on any number of topics, said Connecticut-native and author of the just released "The Importance of Being Barbra," Tom Santopietro.
You could write about her as a cultural figure, for being a talented singer-actress-director triple-threat combination, for changing how people think of beauty, or for breaking down barriers facing women in the film industry. You could even write about her outspoken political activism on controversial subjects like gay rights and a woman's right to choose.
"She really has what I consider to be the biggest individual all-media career ever," said Santopietro. "We live in a day and age of celebrity culture, where the newest kid on the block is instantly called a star with absolutely no body of work to back it up. Streisand has a four decade body of work to back it up."
It also doesn't hurt that Santopietro is the type of fan that he is.
Blown away by "Funny Girl" and "The Way We Were," he easily forgives her for "The Mirror Has Two Faces," and "Guilty Pleasures;" thinks her return to film as Rozalin Focker in "Meet the Fockers" did not stretch her as an actor ("she could have done that role with one arm tied behind her back," he said); and thinks that she sizzles when she takes risks.
"When she's original, that's when she's at her best. Like her "Broadway Album." That's the greatest album of her career, I think," said Santopietro. "Yet it was a risk. Everyone told her that it wasn't going to be commercial, but she listened to her guts as any real artist does."
Something similar could be said of Santopietro. He grew up in Waterbury, Conn., and after college, went to law school at the University of Connecticut despite knowing from "the first class on the first day that it was just really wrong for me."
"But I had that feeling of once you start something, you can't quit," he said. "And after I graduated I just thought, well, there's no point to this. Sure, I could have made a ton of money, but what's the point?"
He moved to New York, and experienced what he calls the "New York clich."
"I knocked on doors and kept knocking on doors and at first I couldn't get to first base, I couldn't even get arrested," he said. "But then I got lucky and I was hired to be a producer's gopher for a new play, and the three weeks I was promised turned into three months and then I got to be the director's assistant and it all took off from there."
Some two dozen Broadway shows later - at which he's been a company manager, a house manager, a stage manager, and even managed to do some directing on the side - and during a trip to Australia in 2004, he decided he was going to write the book that would eventually become "The Importance of Bring Barbra."
Opinion, specifically Santopietro's opinion, matters most in "Importance." He decided early in the process not to talk to Streisand, her colleagues or her work partners.
"I knew right away I did not want to write a biography," he said. "There have been plenty written about her, and it didn't interest me."
Throughout the writing process, he watched each of her movies again and re-listened to all of her recordings. It was important, he said, that he was responding to her work from the perspective of the early 21st Century as opposed to the impression she's made on him over the years.
"Your memory plays funny tricks and distorts things. What you thought was great 25 years ago isn't and vice versa," he said.
It's this "good and occasional bad" that fuels the book, which is not a love letter to all things Streisand, promises Santopietro.
"It doesn't treat everything she does as perfect," he said. "I am pretty blunt in my dislike of "A Star is Born" and "The Main Event," but after working on Broadway for 20 years, I have dealt with many "stars." Barbra Streisand is that rarest of breeds. She's the real thing."
He has met Streisand. Once. She came to see one of the more than two dozen Broadway shows he managed. They spoke briefly after the show, though not about the book, and "she was exactly as you'd expect - pleasant and reserved."
"The really interesting thing is that when you meet a movie star, and I mean a real movie star, we're so used to seeing them as being 60-feet tall on the screen, that you forget that they're not really that tall," said Santopietro. "She's this tiny woman. Maybe 5'3. And yet she remains this giant for so many people. But that's the part of her life - that inside this rather petite woman is a rather larger-than-life wildly talented and very complicated personality."