By Alan Hurst
Last month the musical Funny Girl was revived on Broadway for the first time in 58 years. Fittingly, opening night was on April 24, Barbra Streisand’s 80th birthday. I say fittingly because the legend of Streisand is irrevocably tied to this musical. Any actress who attempts to play Fanny Brice is inevitably compared to Streisand, such was her impact in the role and as a performer. Actresses attempting the role in London, in regional and touring productions have all felt the sting of the comparison.
The Broadway revival stars the wonderful Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird, Booksmart) who made a charming Broadway debut five years ago alongside Bette Midler in the 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly! As talented as Feldstein is – she’s a gifted actress, a great comedienne, and a good signer – critics quickly and almost gleefully noted that the role of Fanny was too much of a stretch. If comparisons to Streisand are going to happen – and they were inevitable – then you have to be sure those comparisons aren’t going to be negative. But they were. Feldstein’s reviews were mixed at best (some were downright mean) and the production itself also received mixed reviews.
The stage version of Funny Girl is not a great musical. It has a wonderful score, one of the great overtures of all time and, when produced right, it’s a big, splashy example of the type of production that were once a staple on Broadway. But the book doesn’t really tell the story of the great comedienne and singer Fanny Brice – it’s fictionalized to the point that it’s little more than the typical show biz rags to riches to heartbreak story. But at its centre is a role for an actress and singer that remains one of the best in musical theatre, with songs that were written for one of the best vocalists of all time: Streisand.
The fond reputation of Funny Girl as a great musical is primarily due to the successful film version that has cemented itself in people’s memories. The 1968 release was one of the most successful movie musicals of the sixties featuring one of the most spectacular movie debuts in movie history. The film has been a staple for me since a first viewing on television in 1973 – back when first time showings of films like this on TV were a very big deal. It continues to be a big deal, as does Streisand’s iconic performance.
Funny Girl had a long journey to the big screen. Producer Ray Stark (Brice’s son-in-law) tried to get a screenplay pulled together from recordings that Brice had made and recollections of those who knew her, but multiple writers couldn’t get anything that worked. Isobel Lennart completed a version called My Man (one of Brice’s signature songs) that met approval but instead of turning it into a film, it was felt that it would work better as a Broadway musical.
Legendary Broadway producer David Merrick discussed the project with director/choreographer Jerome Robbins (West Sides Story) who suggested Anne Bancroft for the role of Fanny. Bancroft was just coming off major Broadway successes and back-to-back Tony wins for Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker and would soon be an Oscar winner for the film version of the latter. The question was, being a non-singer, would she be able to handle the music, which composer Jule Styne had secretly written to accommodate the incredible range of the then burgeoning Streisand. Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill continued to work on the score and eventually played it for Robbins, Stark and Bancroft. Bancroft said no immediately, not surprisingly intimidated by the range required for the songs. The team went to Eydie Gorme and then Carol Burnett who point blank said they needed a Jewish girl (Brice was Jewish).
Enter Streisand, thanks to Styne’s advocacy, who was just starting to achieve some fame thanks to a Tony nominated featured performance in I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1961-62) and some exciting night club appearances. She blew everyone away at the audition, got the part and became the toast of Broadway when it opened during the 1963-64 season. But before the opening, the drama continued when Robbins had some issues with the script and left the project, replaced first by Bob Fosse and then Garson Kanin. Robbins eventually returned towards the end of the pre-Broadway tryout to oversee the production. The show was a major hit when it opened, garnering multiple Tony nominations and a three-year run, a #1 cast album and a hit single with the show’s main song “People”. Despite the success everyone recognized that the show was just OK, but Streisand emerged as a force of nature.
When it came time for the film version, producer Stark eventually hired William Wyler to direct – not an obvious choice, but it turned out to be a smart one. Wyler’s extensive credits included Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1943), Roman Holiday (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959), but this was his first musical. While there really wasn’t anyone but Streisand considered for the lead, the bigger discussion was around the casting of Nick Arnstein, Fanny’s gambler husband. Frank Sinatra (an inspired choice) was approached but he wanted the part to be built up and more songs added. That wasn’t going to happen. Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando and James Garner were also considered before Stark and Wyler decided on the Egyptian Omar Sharif to play the very New York Nick. In terms of the real life Arnstein, that casting makes no sense but there is no denying the chemistry between Streisand and Sharif – and Sharif is actually very good in his few musical scenes.
There were some significant changes from the Broadway production – songs added and eliminated, story lines adjusted, reduced focus on some secondary characters – but it all makes sense because each of these changes basically shifted the entire focus of the film to Streisand, and she was more than up for the challenge.
The film begins with a beautifully orchestrated version of the overture and follows Fanny (Streisand) as she enters the theatre. We don’t get to see her until she walks by a mirror, moves the collar of her leopard coat away from her face, looks at her reflection and then, with just a hint of sarcasm, says the immortal line, “Hello gorgeous”. What a terrific way for Wyler to introduce Streisand to movie audiences.
He then very quickly moves things back in time to give us Fanny’s professional story from the time she first auditions for a vaudeville revue through to her success in the Ziegfeld Follies. We also get her personal story – meeting the dazzling but mysterious Nick Arnstein, their marriage, the birth of their daughter, and eventual separation. Like the Broadway show, it’s not a faithful re-telling of Brice’s life but it’s nicely dramatized by Isobel Lennart from her book for the Broadway version. Wyler and Streisand make the traditional show biz clichés work.
The success of the film (as well as any stage production) rests on the audience believing what the character of Fanny believes – that she is supremely talented and was born to be a performer. That’s put to the test in Fanny’s first number, “I’m the Greatest Star”. If she doesn’t convince us, then everything that comes after doesn’t work. Of course, Streisand hits it out of the park – it’s a spectacular solo performance: she’s funny, desperate, and animated, all supported with a Broadway belt like no other. You know this character will be a star – it’s just a matter of when.
One of the many things that Wyler and his artistic team get right is the look of the film. Scenes backstage in the theatre, hotels, train stations and even Fanny’s mother’s saloon are all art directed perfectly and feel very early 20th century. Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. does a beautiful job as well in terms of augmenting the feel, and the costumes by Irene Sharaff are stunning but still ideal for the characters. This film deserved much more attention for its creative team, but it was overshadowed by Romeo and Juliet and Oliver! at the Oscars that year.
The supporting cast is solid. Sharif is very attractive and suave as the not-so-upstanding Nick. He has some nice moments with Streisand and he’s fun in their “You Are Women” duet, but he’s not really an actor of much depth and not entirely believable as a ne’er do well gambler (Sinatra would have been better). Next to Streisand, Key Medford is the films biggest asset, recreating her Broadway performance as Fanny’s mother. It’s a nicely modulated performance and she’s able to show both her pride for her daughter and her success, and her exasperation with some of her decisions and behaviour. Medford received a deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Walter Pidgeon is suitably commanding (if a little wooden) as Ziegfeld and Mae Questel (the original voice of Betty Boop) has some fun moments as one of Mrs. Brice’s friends.
But Wyler knew this film would only succeed on the talent of Streisand, so she’s front and centre from the first frame.
In 1968 Streisand the movie star was like a breath of fresh air. She was stylish, independent, and broke the mold of what a traditional star should look like. And this worked perfectly in Funny Girl. She gave the character a self deprecatingly comical spin that makes her dialogue almost feel improvised. You get the feeling that Fanny was never comfortable in her own skin, and that gave her the drive she needed to succeed – much like the real-life Streisand. Both women were not considered traditionally attractive, but they were both elegant yet accessible and, when not being the clown, quite striking. I think it’s safe to say that this role and 1973’s The Way We Were were the best fit of Streisand’s career.
Musically Funny Girl is Streisand’s crowning achievement in film musicals. Aside from the terrific opening number, she achieves one home run after the other: “I’d Rather Be Blue”, “People”, “Funny Girl”, and “Sadie, Sadie”. Two other numbers in the film have reached legendary status.
“Don’t Rain on My Parade” is one of the ultimate Streisand moments. Director William Wyler opened up the song in a way that made it iconic. He moves Streisand/Fanny from a train station to a train to a dock and ultimately to the bow of a tugboat as she desperately tries to take control of her love life and get to Nick before he sails to Europe. Wyler’s skill as a director builds the tension as to whether she’ll make it – and Streisand is delivering a knockout vocal performance that’s wowing the audience. Wyler’s final shot – where he pulls away from a close-up of Streisand to give us a view of New York harbor as she’s on the tugboat heading for Sharif’s ship – is pure cinema. And just listen to Streisand hold that final note.
The other number comes at the end of the film. “My Man” was one of Brice’s biggest hits and it was decided to use it to end the film rather than the one from the Broadway production, the excellent “The Music That Makes Me Dance”. Streisand steps into the spotlight, framed all in black and tentatively launches into the song, barely suppressing her emotions. But then something happens part way through. The arrangement of the song suddenly kicks into pulsating mode and Streisand just lets it rip. “My Man” is one of the great torch songs and Streisand redefines that genre forever with this one performance. She’s not lip syncing to a pre-recorded track here – this is live. And I think it’s at this point that she nailed the Oscar she was going to share that year with Katharine Hepburn for her work in The Lion in Winter (1968).
Funny Girl was a major hit, receiving eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Streisand’s Best Actress trophy was its only win. After achieving major success on Broadway, recordings and on television, Funny Girl ensured that Streisand was now set to be the biggest female movie star of the seventies. And it also provided William Wyler with a fitting swan song.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.