Written By: Olivia B. Waxman, Liz Ronk
Barbra Streisand can boast of having more platinum-selling albums than any woman, and of winning an Academy Award. All that success was in front of her in the photos presented here. Back then, she was a 19-year-old making her Broadway debut in a lesser-known Harold Rome musical about the garment business, I Can Get It for You Wholesale.
Somehow, she looks as if she knows what’s coming, even if others didn’t. As LIFE magazine reviewed her performance in the May 18, 1962, issue:
“Barbra has a lovely face that goes well with Cry Me a River and other sad ballads that she sings in nightclubs. But for her stage role she makes herself look like a sour persimmon in order to play an overworked office girl who secretly wants to be called pet names instead of being yelled at all day long, ‘Miss Marmelstein!'” It was at least a kinder review than the one she received in the New York Times, which described Streisand as a “natural comedienne” but also “a girl with an oafish expression, a loud irascible voice and an arpeggiated laugh.”
It was Streisand’s role a few years later as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that would make a more lasting impression on audiences and critics. As TIME reported in its April 10, 1964, cover story on her breakout, “as she sings number after number and grows in the mind, she touches the heart with her awkwardness, her lunging humor, and a bravery that is all the more winning because she seems so vulnerable. People start to nudge one another and say, ‘This girl is beautiful.'”
She had come a long way from her days as an introverted Brooklyn teen and the years before she removed an “a” from her first name, as a feature in TIME magazine explained:
Her recollections of a Brooklyn girlhood are somber. “It was pretty depressing, and I’ve blocked most of it out of my mind,” she says. She never knew her father. He was a school teacher who died of a cerebral hemorrhage when his daughter Barbara Joan was a year old (1943). Her mother spent the next three years lying in bed, crying, and living on her brother’s Army allotment checks until the checks stopped and she took an office job. Barbara spent her days in the hallways of the six-story brick apartment building they lived in, accepting handout snacks from neighbors.
As a slightly older kid, she used to go up on the rooftop, smoke, and think about being the greatest star. Down in the apartment, her mother warned her never to hold hands with a boy. “I never took part in any school activities or anything,” Barbra remembers. “I was never asked out to any of the proms, and I never had a date for New Year’s Eve. I was pretty much of a loner. I was very independent. I never needed anybody, really.”
…When she was 14, she made her first trip out of Brooklyn a subway ride to Manhattan to see The Diary of Anne Frank. “I remember thinking that I could go up on the stage and play any role without any trouble at all,” she says. After school at home, she used to smoke in the bathroom and do cigarette commercials into the mirror, but she never bothered to go out for school plays. “Why go out for an amateurish high school production when you can do the real thing?”
By the time the TIME cover story came out, Streisand’s three albums already made her the world’s best-selling female recording star on LP. And so much more was yet to come.