Funny, when you think about it: How will historians explain why late 20th-century men and women flocked to vast arenas, paying three-figure sums to hear a woman with long nails sing syrupy ballads? OK, it is Barbra Streisand but .. William Grimes reports

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When some future cultural historian tries to identify the most puzzling instance of mass hysteria in the 20th century, he will skip right by Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and proceed directly to Barbra Streisand's 1994 concert tour.

Consider the evidence. The Sunday before last, 65,000 tickets for her three New York shows at Madison Square Garden in late June (two more have since been added on) sold out 24 minutes after being offered for sale, with a top price of dollars 350 (this is not a misprint). About 5 million calls were placed to Ticketmaster, the order-by-phone ticket company, between noon and 3pm last Sunday, when tickets went on sale. The pattern was repeated in every city on the singer's 22-concert tour.

In London, 26,000 tickets for her four dates at Wembley Arena, starting next Wednesday, sold out in hours. The arena is to be fully carpeted because Streisand thought it might otherwise be 'too draughty', but that hardly explains the top price of pounds 260. For the unlucky, tickets were available on the black market the next day at pounds 800. One reason for the draw must be that these are her first appearances here since 1966 (ticket price pounds 2.5s, or pounds 2.25).

In other words, in tight economic times, thousands of consumers are paying three-digit sums to hear a woman vith a powerful voice, very long fingernails and world-class reserves of self-esteem perform syrupy ballads for two hours. Why? There is no convincing answer. There was no reasonable explanation for Liberace either. No one has developed an adequate theory of post-bloat Elvis. Some figures in American entertainment reach critical mass and then become unstoppable. Usually they are confined to the city limits of Las Vegas, so the damage they can inflict is contained.

Barbra Streisand is a different case entirely.

She started out harmlessly enough, a Broadway-style belter who could slow down a tempo and drag out a note for so long that audiences at The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 had no choice but to begin applauding fiercely. Clearly, emotional upheaval was taking place onstage, accompanied by dramatic arm gestures. Some sort of response was called for. Audiences did the same for the guy who got the 38th plate spinning on top of a stick.

This was straight out of the singing-as-suffering school, whose graduates include Liza Minnelli and Michael Bolton. It's an approach that more or less extorts standing ovations. With Streisand, all the songs coalesced into a huge, vibrating blob of sentimentality that said 'Love me'.

For her fans, Streisand with the stops pulled is a quick trip to heaven. They love the unabashed emotionalism, the throbbing romanticism, the larger-than-life passions.

In the early days, she was the awkward outsider determined to break through to the inside by force of will, and therefore an inspirational figure to the unsung millions who felt like outcasts because they were too fat, or skinny, or homely or sensitive. Whatever. For her Jewish fans, and they are many, she scores a thrilling victory for the home team. For her gay fans, and they are legion, she has appeal as one of the few authentic stars carrying on the tradition of Judy Garland. She is the last great drag-queen paradigm.

True, Barbra was cute. You had to root for the funny-looking girl from Brooklyn, with the burnished Sixties helmet hairdo and the Cleopatra eyeliner, singing her heart out.

But then she wouldn't stop. The night-club career became a Broadway career, which became a film career. Streisand played herself, with an emphasis on the kooky, spontaneous Brooklyn-girl side of her persona. The critics were enchanted.

Then she became a legend.

By the early Seventies, she could release an album titled, ponderously, Barbra Joan Streisand, and see herself as the natural choice for the lead in A Star Is Born.

The acting style - in movies such as Yentl, The Way We Were and Nuts - achieved seamless unity with the vocal style, which is to say it became self-regarding and excessive. Rare was the frame that did not include a flatteringly lit close-up of the Barbra gaze, or the scene that did not call for an emotional firestorm.

Consider the highlights of the post-Seventies resume. The Way We Were, A Star Is Born ('a bore is starred', one critic had it), The Main Event, Yentl and the unforgettable Nuts, in which Streisand chewed her way through everything except her own leg.

Critics could carp. The fans got what they paid for: wall-to-wall Babs.

In The Prince of Tides she played a psychiatrist who combined intellect, compassion and all-around fabulousness in one irresistible package. It's an unforgettable moment when Nick Nolte's character first lays eyes on this vision.

The audience had the same question on their minds as he did: 'If that's a psychiatrist's office, how come Barbra Streisand popped her head out of the doorway?'

At the Academy Awards two years ago, her fans widely regarded it as a crime against nature that Ms Streisand, in Hollywood's Year of the Woman, was not nominated for an Oscar as best director. Only the high percentage of male hogs in the industry could account for it.

No one seemed to remember that, in the best-director category, it does help if you've directed a good film. Like Streisand, however, Prince of Tides was big, loud and insistent, as sticky as seven miles of fly paper.

The Streisand reputation continues to grow. There's Barbra the singer, of course, but also Barbra the deal-maker, Barbra the collector of art deco furniture and art, and Barbra the political player. During the presidential campaign, it was unclear whether Streisand was getting access to Bill Clinton, or vice versa.

When Streisand appeared at Wimbledon last year with the awesomely hairy Andre Agassi nibbling her ear, the tabloids feasted for days.

And now the concert event of several lifetimes. The newspaper ads feature a full-page close-up of the singer that could not have been bigger without designing new presses. Streisand looks coyly over one shoulder, with a smile expressing an iron determination to charm.

One look, and the memories come flooding back, like a lava flow of treacle. 'A House Is Not A Home', 'People Who Need People', the theme song from The Way We Were.

Enjoy the concert.

The New York Times 1994. Distributed by New York Times Syndication Sales.

(Photographs omitted)

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