Barbra Streisand is a diva, a superstar, an icon. You don’t need me to tell you that, of course—evidence is everywhere, and her fanbase is huge. There are four words that would make pretty much every girl I went to high school with go wobbly: “The Way We Were.”
But the connection between Barbra and gay men—now, that’s something special. It’s the underlying subject of writer Jonathan Tolins’s wonderfully droll one-man-play Buyer & Cellar, about an out-of-work actor who takes a gig tending to the private mall/antique atelier that La Streisand has built in her basement. The diva herself checks in from time to time, so everything must always be in tip-top shape. (Really, that’s what it’s about. And believe it or not, it’s based on fact.)
As Buyer & Cellar is about to open at 1812 Productions, I put the question of Streisand and her gay following to a group that includes Philly’s beloved Dito van Reigersberg—who will be the solo performer—the show’s director, Dan O’Neil, and 1812’s marketing honcho, Tyler Melchior. (Of course, I can’t resist joining in. I’m the oldest in the group, I bought my first Streisand record in the 1960s, and dozens since then.)
I start by gauging the obsession, as I ask each to assign themselves a number (1 to 10) on the Streisand Fan-o-Meter. Dan, endorsing especially her “insanely talented” early work, is a 6-7; Tyler is in the same range, and expands on the thrill of Yentl, with its “sweeping, interior monologue songs.” One particular moment we all agree is a locus for our fandom: “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the movie Funny Girl. “Oh, my God—she’s on a tugboat! The water, the sky, the Statue of Liberty—everything is aqua… except Barbra. She’s wearing orange!” This observation of Dan’s is followed by a moment of total, awed silence.
But what’s this? Dito himself is more reticent. While he says that the best of her pegs him at a 6, at other times, he’s only a 3! Pressed to explain, he follows up. “Her singing… it’s as smooth as glass… and the production values are, too. Sometimes, it’s so perfect, it’s almost like a synthesizer. But that’s not really my aesthetic.”
Yet Buyer & Cellar speaks to him. “I certainly understand diva worship. Aretha Franklin is everything to me. And Judy!” Also, he responds to the broader themes. “I’m fascinated by the nature of the relationship between fans and performers. We speculate so much about these people. It’s untouched by reality, but it’s almost a mutual seduction. It can dehumanize both them and us. Here, though, we see it evolving over time… how ultimately it becomes a real relationship.” Tyler adds, “It’s very moving about their relationship. Different as they are, they sometimes find the same language. They make connections.”
I mention that what particularly charmed me about Buyer & Cellar, which I saw in New York, was how it captured with real compassion the kind of isolation that superstars experience every day. Dan chimes in here. “It’s like how Hillary Clinton hasn’t driven a car in 25 or 30 years. She’s too important, so she can’t drive a car. What that would be like?” He laughs out loud at the play’s central conceit. “Imagine creating a world that’s your personal playhouse… where all the customer service people in it actually work for you!”
As the conversation develops, I wonder whether the takeaway from Buyer & Cellar about Streisand herself is positive or negative?
Dito responds. “It’s fascinating to think about what it must be like when people put you on a pedestal. It’s a recipe for insanity. Fame is monster and it consumes you. By the end of the play, I think she reveals both her monstrous strangeness and her humanity. I have a lot of compassion for Streisand, now… more than I did before.”
Often as Dito talked, he slipped effortlessly into a Streisand-flavored speech pattern, complete with Brooklyn vowels. One of the considerable challenges in Buyer & Cellar is how the actor—while always playing a single character—will subtly impersonate the other people who populate his stories, especially Barbra herself. It’s not that he becomes Barbra. “It isn’t an Anna Deavere Smith kind of show,” as Dito puts it. But somehow, he must make her come to life for the audience. How difficult is this?
“The voice seemed to come easily,” says Dan, as much to Dito as to me. (This is no surprise, really—in another performance mode, Dito is celebrated for his drag alter-ego, Martha Graham Cracker.) “We worked a lot with silhouette,” says Dito. “That helped.”
As we near the end of our time, I ask if there was one single element that really helped “crack open” the Streisand persona. “Yes,” says Dito. “The fingernails. I’m thinking I have long fingernails, with soft, rounded tips, and clouds of pink.”
And as he gestures, fingers splayed, it’s as if she’s in the room.
Buyer & Cellar has performances at Plays & Players Theatre from October 5 to 29. For more information, consult 1812productions.org.