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Review: William J. Mann's 'Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand' a brisk, great read

Sometimes the best way to tell a big story is to focus on one compelling part to paint the larger, truer picture.

Celebrity biographer William J. Mann (Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor) follows that rule in his masterful Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand. In it, he captures one of the most fully realized pictures of the multihyphenate superstar to date.

Mann opts to tell the story by pinpointing a small segment of her life: the period from 1960, when the Brooklyn-born "street urchin" landed in Manhattan bent on becoming a great actor, to 1964, when she conquered Broadway in her Tony-nominated turn in Funny Girl.

These four formative years, Mann argues, formed the basis of the woman Streisand, now 70, would be ever after. She sought greatness, not mere fame, he observes. And Streisand's not done. She's on an arena tour, and she opens a movie with Seth Rogen in December. Last month she extended her Top 10 streak of albums to 32. Only the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra have had more.

Mann, who claims to have been a casual fan before he embarked on writing this lengthy bio, had a daunting task. Many books have been written about Streisand, but few if any put readers as close to the subject. The author uses meticulous research, intelligent analysis and a gift for depicting time and place. Most previous bios focused on tabloid stories: clashes with directors and co-stars, romances with famous men, a chronological laundry list of hits and misses.

But Hello, Gorgeous delves deeper into theater, nightclubs and television in the early 1960s. Mann sets the stage to help readers understand the drive that pushed Streisand to escape a dreary existence in Brooklyn.

History would suggest that everyone was immediately awed by Streisand's oversized talents; actually, few wanted to give her a shot. She was no one's first choice to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and had to fight for the part. The imperious president of Columbia Records, now Streisand's home for 50 years, turned her down more than once.

Streisand's peculiarities were such that sharp-eyed producers realized the only way Funny Girl was going to work was if writers worked more of her persona into the musical rather than relying on Brice's less interesting story.

The song If a Girl Isn't Pretty features a group of cackling hens who derisively sing of Brice's unconventional look. Nonplussed, Streisand responds I'm the Greatest Star with gale-force conviction, willing it into being. By 1964 her fourth collection of show tunes and standards, People, dethroned the Beatles at the top of the Billboard album chart.

Mann's conversational style makes Hello Gorgeous a brisk, compulsive read, and he leads readers to empathize with and grasp how Streisand accomplished the impossible. Throughout this marvelous book, we witness this kooky, original, charming, infuriating, sensuous, insecure and confident mass of contradictions coalesce into one of the greatest talents of the 20th century.