People Who Love Barbra Are the Smartest People in the World
I rarely do a whole column on one subject. But I’ve long wanted to write about “The Funny Girl” “odyssey”. Breaking news last week made me do finally do that.
On July 11, it was announced that BEANIE FELDSTEIN, 29, the star of the current Broadway revival of “Funny Girl”, would leave the show “early” and would be replaced by Lea Michele, the former “Glee” star. I kind of saw this coming. Reviews of the revival were tepid and it got just one Tony nomination. There are reports that the show will be re-written for Michele.
I doubt Michele or the re-write will make a difference. The truth is that “Funny Girl” had a bad script when it premiered in 1964. The revival producers brought in Tony-winner HARVEY FEIRSTEIN, 68, to re-write parts of the revival. But he couldn’t make a fundamentally flawed musical into a winner.
Fanny Brice, the actress who was the subject of "Funny Girl", was largely forgotten by 1964 because her heyday was in the 1920s and on the stage. She made a few, long forgotten movies. Theatergoers in 1964 had to depend on the musical show to tell them who Fanny Brice was. Sadly, the musical, original and revival, mostly made-up Brice’s biography and had only one fully developed character---Fanny Brice.
The 1964 musical had one irreplaceable asset: BARBRA STREISAND. A very good Youtube channel, “Staged Right”, has a 30-minute video that masterfully weaves together the real story of Fanny Brice with the story of Barbara Streisand as Brice. Staged Right says this about Streisand as Brice: “Some roles become immortalized by the people that first played them. Such instances can only be described as a unique moment where a role and performer meet so perfectly in creating an excitement that it can never be repeated.”
Here's the backstory: FRANCES BRICE, Fanny’s daughter, wanted a movie made about her mother. Her husband, top producer RAY STARK, was persuaded by Broadway star Mary Martin to make a stage musical instead. Martin wanted to play Brice. The problem was that Martin was nothing like the “very Jewish” Brice.
Stark hired STEPHEN SONDHEIM to co-write the songs. When Sondheim learned that Martin would play Brice, he quit. While not an observant Jew, Sondheim could recognize absurd casting. He insisted that a Jewish actress had to play Brice.
The show was in limbo for a while and Martin took herself out of “contention”. Then Carol Burnett was asked to play Fanny. To her credit, she said, “I’d love to do the part, but you really should get a Jewish girl.”
Starting in 1960, Streisand began performing in New York clubs and got a lot of “buzz”. Staged Right says: “No one had heard anything like her . Her power and expressiveness could easily be compared to Judy Garland and Lena Horne. But her phrasing and intonation were so uniquely hers—and her street smarts and quirkiness made audiences fall in love with her.”
Streisand got a supporting role (1962) in the musical “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” over the objections of “Wholesale” producer DAVID MERRICK, who said, ‘I don’t hire ugly girls”. She was a smash and got a Tony nomination. After “Wholesale”, she became a favorite for the Brice role, but she had to overcome the opposition of Frances Brice to get it. Streisand got the role because she had the goods---she could be funny, touching, and she could knock audiences out as she sang a lot of hard-to-sing songs. She endured as directors and songwriters came-and-went and the script changed almost every day.
The musical got so/so reviews, but everyone loved Barbra. Bette Davis, on the game show, “What’s My Line”, gushed about Streisand days after the “Funny Girl” opening. Two weeks later, Streisand was the “mystery guest” on the show and Random House founder BENNETT CERF, a panelist, told her, “It was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on Broadway.”
Beanie Feldstein recently said that Fanny Brice was the person who really broke the barriers for Jewish actresses. She was wrong. The real Brice just wasn’t well known enough to do that. Streisand as Brice, and in other roles, was the woman who broke down huge roadblocks for Jewish actresses. She showed the world you could be openly Jewish, “look Jewish”, and “be funny” Jewish. She even showed that a woman with these attributes could be sexy, too.
I like Beanie Feldstein, but following Streisand was almost impossible. I don’t think that Michele will do any better.