Critic's Notebook: At Madison Square Garden, Barbra Streisand Delivers Blistering Attacks on Trump

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Barbra Streisand

Performing to a sold-out crowd including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton and Jerry Nadler, the legendary singer took the opportunity to launch into biting political commentary.

"How many Democrats are in the room tonight?" asked Barbra Streisand during her concert Saturday night at New York City's Madison Square Garden. It's not a question you usually hear from a performer during a show. But it was certainly a reasonable one, considering what was to follow.

The query came after a rendition of "Send in the Clowns." Streisand had a sly smile on her face after finishing the song, telling the audience, "We were going to fool around with another version of this. But we decided not to do it because it's not nice." But once she had established that the sold-out arena was largely populated by cheering Democrats (and a few Republicans, to whom she jokingly advised, "Cover your ears for a couple of minutes"), she proceeded to reprise the number, this time with very different lyrics.

"He says he's rich/ Maybe he's not," she sang in her usual gorgeous voice, to the melody of Sondheim's classic. "Until he releases his returns, who can be sure?/ Who is this clown?

"Something's amiss, I don't approve/ Now that he runs the free world, where can we move?

"This is no farce, it's not just smoke/ Is this the art of the deal, or some awful joke?/ You've got to admit, this fraudulent twit, is so full of…."

"I can't say it, I can't say it," Streisand laughed, as she cut herself off. The audience erupted into cheers and a standing ovation (and a handful of people loudly making their displeasure known) as a mocked-up picture of President Donald Trump wearing clown makeup appeared on the giant video screen behind her.

"It would take all night to recite 11,000 lies," she added, before borrowing a line from Oscar Wilde to describe Trump: "He's a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

That Streisand found a receptive audience for her attacks on the current occupant of the Oval Office was not surprising. Not only were there plenty of Democrats in the room, but there were some ringers as well, such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, Al Sharpton and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

"Several of my political pals are here this evening," Streisand announced early in the evening, describing Sharpton as someone who's bearing "the brunt of Trump's wrath these days" and thanking Nadler for "fighting to uncover the truth and for all you're doing to protect our democracy." But she had the most effusive praise for the Clintons, saying that they were "two people I deeply admire and am proud to call friends."

"A great president needs the compassion that would never let children be separated from their parents," the singer declared. "A great president tries to inspire us and in times of distress make our nation heal." She never mentioned Trump by name, but the comparison was unmistakable.

Turning to Hillary, Streisand went on. "In addition to being a magnificent first lady and secretary of state, you gave our allies confidence and our foes unambiguous clarity," she said. "Needless to say, three years ago, I was greatly hoping to sing at your inauguration."

Streisand has always been politically passionate. And now at age 77, she's staked out an unlikely position as a protest singer. Her most recent album, Walls, was a thinly veiled musical criticism of Trump, highlighted by the blistering number "Don't Lie to Me." She didn't perform that song on Saturday, but she did sing the title track, which features such lyrics as "We should be building bridges to a better day/ Where no walls would stand in the way."

"I'm so glad you like that song," Streisand told the cheering crowd.

For long stretches the evening was a typical Streisand concert, performed with orchestral accompaniment and featuring plenty of film clips, vintage photos and sterling performances of such hits as "The Way We Were," "Evergreen," "Guilty," "Stoney End," "Don't Rain on My Parade" and many others. But it was her biting political commentary that made the evening memorable. "Some people say I talk too much about politics. That I'm always tweeting," she admitted. "But reading the news every single day makes it hard for me to contain myself."

Several of her most familiar numbers were presented in very different contexts. Introducing another Sondheim song, "Children Will Listen," Streisand looked down at the Clintons, who were sitting near the stage, and reminded Bill, "I sang it at your inauguration, Mr. President." Later, she talked for a few minutes about how climate change can be reversed if enough people take action before launching into, what else, "People."

"We're living in divided times, but I think there are some things we can agree on," Streisand commented during her encore. "The antidote to lying is truth. The remedy to war is diplomacy. And the solution to hate is love." She then proceeded to sing "What the World Needs Now Is Love" as the audience whipped out their cellphones to provide what another, very different Republican president would have described as "a thousand points of light."

Potentially alienating a large segment of your fan base would seem a risky strategy for a popular performer, but at this late stage in her career, Streisand clearly doesn't give a damn. Her defiant attitude might best be summed up by the title of yet another one of the hits she performed on the night: "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)."