On The Once and Future “Funny Girl”

Okay, who wants to see a Fanny Brice cage match between Kimberly Faye Greenberg and Beanie Feldstein? Only me? Quel dommage! KFG has been heroically holding the fort for years as New York’s reigning Fanny Brice interpreter (and educator) in a series of Off-Off-Broadway (and touring) one woman shows. Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s sister, and Monica Lewinsky in American Crime Story: Impeachment) is starring in the first ever Broadway stage revival of Funny Girl, which begins previews tonight (opens officially April 24). Of the two, KFG is more the Fanny Brice “type”; Feldstein seems more of a Sophie Tucker, and doesn’t seem as shark-like as either of them; with my back to the wall, I’d cast her as one of the teeny-boppers in Bye Bye Birdie. But no doubt the producers see something in her that I, who have only caught her as Lewinsky, have not yet seen.

At any rate, today also happens to be the 58th anniversary of opening night for the original production of Funny Girl (March 26, 1964), and so it seemed an auspicious time to look more closely at the musical’s previous incarnations.

As it happens, just before the pandemic, in late 2019 I spoke on the topic of Fanny Brice and Funny Girl to a group in Concord, Mass. which was producing their own version of the musical. My talk was roughly based around my biographical post on her. Check it out here if you need to. I’ll wait!

And now, back to our narrative.

Fanny Brice, star of vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway and radio, died in 1951. The idea of dramatizing her life story originated with her son-in-law, movie producer and agent Ray Stark, who’d been married to Brice’s daughter Frances since 1940. Stark, a former writer for Edgar Bergen, was one of the founders and bosses at Seven Arts (the name of which I am going to guess originated with Gilbert Seldes’ 1923 book Seven Lively Arts, and/or Billy Roses’s eponymous 1944 Broadway revue). Prior to Funny Girl, Seven Arts had brought to the screen such things as West Side Story (1961), Gigot (1962), Lolita (1962), and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).

Stymied in his original intention to produce a screen biography of Brice, Stark began to develop a stage musical at the suggestion of Mary Martin, of all people, whom at one point was attached to the project to play Fanny. Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, who had written the songs for the similar Gypsy, were approached to do the same for Funny Girl, but Sondheim demurred so Bob Merrill, best known as a writer of novelty hits like “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?”, “Mambo Italiano”, “Chicka Boom” and “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake”, was hired to write lyrics. To write the book, Stark hired screenwriter Isobel Lennart, best known for things like Anchors Aweigh (1945), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960). Garson Kanin directed the show, under the supervision of Jerome Robbins.

In addition to Martin, actors considered for the part of Fanny included Anne Bancroft (what?), Carol Burnett, and Eydie Gorme, who wanted to be part of a package with her husband Steve Lawrence playing Nicky Arnstein (an idea I don’t hate!) Believe it or not, I also don’t hate the idea of Burnett, who (though a non-Jew) was a triple threat who possessed a homely low comedy clownishness not unlike Brice’s. Despite the fact that Barbra Streisand has essentially owned the part for a half century, you must admit that the funny side of the character is more of an effort on her part; the show is more crafted around her singing, typified by the moody, introspective “People”, very much in the spirit of Brice’s own signature tune “My Man”, the original title of the show. At the time of her casting, Streisand was already a rising star, having made a big splash in I Can Get it For You Wholesale (1962), two record albums released in 1963, and lots of television variety appearances. Funny Girl was the right vehicle for her at the right moment, and her career exploded like a supernova as a consequence. The show itself ran for three years, and was nominated for multiple Tonys (although it didn’t take home any). Also in the original cast was Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s son) as Nicky Arnstein, Kay Medford as Mrs. Brice, a pre-All in the Family Jean Stapleton, and Lainie Kazan, who understudied for Streisand. The 1965 national tour starred Marilyn Michaels as Fanny, and Lillian Roth as Mrs. Brice.

In 1968, after the Broadway show closed, Stark got to realize his original intention of making the story into a film. To direct he hired no less than the great Hollywood veteran, auteur of a dozen classics William Wyler. Funny Girl was Wyler’s penultimate film; The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), was his last.

Naturally I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times; it’s my second favorite Streisand role after What’s Up, Doc? It’s primary flaw however, a near fatal one to my mind, is the preposterous casting of Omar Sharif as Nicky Arnstein. I’ll be scratching my head about that one ’til the day I die. Could there be anyone LESS like the sponging, shady gangster/gambler, who was a jailbird and an associate of mob boss Arnold Rothstein? Granted, the story bowdlerizes the full extent of the man’s crookedness (probably in an attempt to protect Brice’s reputation), but still…to cast this mild, soporific, soft spoken gentleman? Oddly, in the part he looks like far less like Arnstein himself than he resembles Sydney Chaplin, who played Arnstein onstage. Why didn’t they just keep Chaplin? I’m guessing that the latter’s stock was probably diminished by A Countess from Hong Kong. Whereas Sharif was blazing hot from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. Still it’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. (I also won’t comment on the wisdom, or lack thereof, of casting an Egyptian as a Jew…in the aftermath of the Six Day War, no less). Equally miscast is Walter Pidgeon as Flo Ziegfeld. Why not cast a mummy or a cigar store Indian? 

Funny Girl‘s 1975 sequel Funny Lady seems to be even MORE about Streisand (as Streisand rather than Brice) than the first one does. She goes so far as to make herself all beautiful and glamorous (to the extent that nature allows) with revealing outfits and beautiful hairdos, whether or not it’s got anything to do with Brice. It’s inferior to the original as a musical but it does have the livelier James Caan as Billy Rose, and the two stars have a chemistry here that is lacking in the previous film. Even though, compared with Funny Girl, this one has no plot, it’s more entertaining in some ways to watch. The relationship between the Rose and Brice characters has fireworks. It moves. Also, later career Brice suits Streisand better as a character – a diva who knows her own power.

I love hearing the Billy Rose songs. The Kander-Ebb ones, though, are not their best work. Worst is this weird, anachronistic gospel number Streisand does in a show-within-the-show, featuring Ben Vereen as a fictional performer named “Bert Robbins” (a mix of Bert Williams and Bill Robinson? Why?). Every half hour or so Omar Sharif comes back and says “Still the same old Fanny” or “Fanny, Fanny, Fanny”. My favorite element of this film is the art direction…very cool psychedelic-deco sets for the stage numbers, part of the cultural moment we wrote about here. The movie was directed by Herbert Ross, who had staged the musical numbers in Funny Girl, and did the same for the original Broadway production of I Can Get For You Wholesale.

There’s a “Funny Girl” that’s not a musical?

In 2015, Funny Girl was given its first full scale revival on London’s West End, with an updated book by Harvey Fierstein and direction by the estimable Michael Mayer (2007 Tony winner for Spring Awakening, among much else). That production ran for nearly a year, and then toured well into 2017. The team probably didn’t intend to wait another four years to being it to Broadway, but we did have a two-year pandemic in the middle there! In addition to Feldstein, the current incarnation boasts the universally beloved Jane Lynch as Mrs. Brice. Info and tickets here.

For more history on vaudeville and its veterans, like Fanny Brice, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.