"I always liked to do voices, even as a little kid," says Steven Brinberg [the phenomenal talent behind Simply Barbra]. "I just had an ear for it. After a few weeks at school, I could do all my teachers and friends. I was interested in nothing else but performing. But I was very shy as a child. I still am. So, in school and camp, while I gravitated toward theater, I didn't really pursue it. In high school, I directed and wrote plays but I wasn't in any. Then, as I got older, I was always writing."
Raised in the Riverdale section of New York City, Steven later attended NYU, Hunter, and The New School. "It was at The New School where I first took voice," he notes. "And that changed my whole life. I always knew I could sing but I never really did, even to myself. Before, I would listen to Barbra Streisand records and sing in her voice. If I was listening to Shirley Maclaine, I would sing like her. I didn't really discover my own voice until that singing class."
Steven began performing as Steven, including professional acting roles on stage and in film. "Then, nine or ten years ago," he says, "I started doing cabaret shows at Don't Tell Mama, as me. My own voice is like a high baritone or low tenor. But even then I did Barbra. And I did the Pioneer thing." The "thing" is a fictitious album which he and Chris Denny created, in which "Barbra," singing Home on the Range and other songs, salutes the nation's Pilgrim Fathers. "I'd say, in my own voice, 'You know, Barbra has a new album out.' I'd turn around, no costume or anything, and do her voice.
"From that, the Barbra thing evolved slowly. One day, I just thought, 'Well, maybe I could do a whole show like this.' Thanks to Sidney Myer, I booked four nights at Don't Tell Mama over four weeks, not knowing what would happen. It's Amazing! I've probably done 600 nights over six years, back and forth, and everywhere else I've been."
"Everywhere" has included a Thanksgiving weekend appearance at the Stonewall Benefit in London's Royal Albert Hall (with Elton John and George Michael), a recent sold-out engagement at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London and appearances at the Edinburgh Festival, the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, The Egg in Albany, New York, on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, and, coming up, a tour of the U.K., South Africa and the Far East. Then back to the Dominion in January, and maybe some more Don't Tell Mama dates.
"The hardest thing," says Steven, "is getting a call from a theater in some town in the U.S. where they don't know me and trying to sell them on the idea of what I do. 'Oh,' they'd say, 'I don't know if our patrons would like that.' But one of my reviews said it well: 'Babs is not a drag. Yes, he's wearing makeup, and the wig, and nails. But this is not a drag show.'"
The tradition of men, as actors, playing women's roles dates back to church plays of the Middle Ages, cresting in Shakespeare's Elizabethan theater. "Then, in the 1960s," says Steven, "you had people like Charles Pierce and Jim Bailey -- classy acts that played in top venues. After Stonewall, there was a drag explosion with a lot of people doing just lip-syncing and their performances weren't a family thing. But I don't do anything that's blue. Kids come too.
"Today there are only a handful of us who are live vocalists: Tommy Femia, who does Judy Garland; James Beaman, who does Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, and Richard Skipper, who does Carol Channing. We're actors. It's unfortunate if someone stays away from my show because they think it will be some silly drag show. One reviewer I had said, 'Gender, schmender, it's entertainment!' Sian Phillips, the British actress who has played Marlene, called it a 'female interpretation.' Charles Busch called it 'gender illusionist.' I always say, 'I don't care what you call me; just call me!' I'm very glad to see Dame Edna's success, because it breaks the barriers."
How often does Steven listen to Barbra to perfect his impersonation? "Not much any more," he says. "It's like listening to her listening to me as her! I love doing songs she hasn't done, because now I know just what she would do with them.
"When I knew she had recorded Wasn't It a Pity, but before the record came out, I just imagined what she'd do with it. And when I listened to it, she did almost exactly what I did. In my show I sing Evergreen and on the last note, I move my hand in a certain way. I had never seen her do it but when I finally saw her sing it in Las Vegas, she did exactly the same thing on the same note! I've just absorbed her over the years. It's instinct."
"As good as Steven is as an impersonator," says Chris Denny, "that's only half of it. He writes the whole show, all his words. He has this active, bright, knowledgeable mind, his writer's mind, riffing and spinning on whatever he chooses to do. He is able to create something new on the spot, or able to adjust the show from week to week."
Steven has said that he'd love to appear some day with Barbra herself. Improbable? Maybe not! Marvin Hamlisch, composer, conductor and the real Barbra's musical director whom Cabaret Scenes reached by phone in California said, "I had spoken to Steven about making some sort of an appearance in Barbra's current show. But, because of the way this show has been written and came together, it wouldn't have been right. But I tell you, when you first hear Steven's Simply Barbra CD, for the first brief moment, you almost think, 'My God! Is that really her?' It's so captivating! Not only does he have a wonderful take on her -- not at all mean-spirited -- and this ability to imitate her, he also captures a lot of moments and nuances that are terrific. It was very impressive. I've spoken to Steven. Eventually I'd love to work with him." [Note: Steven and Marvin Hamlisch have now performed together!]
The future: "I've been trying to do some other things: writing, acting, some voice, musical work," says Steven. "I've been involved with a musical workshop that, hopefully, will end up on Broadway eventually. It's a perfect opportunity to show what I do as Barbra and what I can do as Steven, all in the same show. I'd like to maintain that duality. But still, I love doing Barbra, and if I do it for another 30 years, I'll be happy.
"Admittedly, there are a lot of bad things about show business," notes Steven, "having to do with rejection, reviews, sometimes just bad business aspects. Sometimes they get to me. Sometimes I'll say, 'I don't want to do this any more. I'll just go work at Kinko's.' Then I'll get out on stage. I'll be singing, I'll be hearing the music and looking at people smiling and I'll think, 'How could you do anything but this?'"