Funny Girl and the Streisand Phenomenon
A lot of things are wrong with this season’s Broadway revival of Funny Girl, but the long-story-short is that the leading lady cannot sing the title role. At all. Eyebrows were raised last year when Beanie Feldstein, a charming young actress who made a splash as the sassy best friend in two recent acclaimed films, Lady Bird and Booksmart, and who played the small role of Minnie Fay in the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello Dolly!, was cast in one of the seminal musical theater showcase roles. Funny Girl, which originally opened in 1964 and ran for three years, is a somewhat fictionalized biography of the legendary comedienne Fanny Brice. The show is the quintessential star vehicle, requiring its leading actress to headline twelve numbers over the course of two and a half hours, at least five of which are powerhouse, “big sing,” stop-the-show solos. Few musicals put such demands on a single performer, and Feldstein doesn’t even come close. The critical pile-on has been substantial, and it’s hard not to feel bad for a young woman who seems like a nice person and who has claimed in interviews that it was her lifelong dream to do this show. But a lifelong dream is not valid grounds for casting. The show’s producers, and Michael Mayer, the director, who let her go on stage despite blatantly inadequate qualifications, are at fault.
Brice was popular throughout much of the first half of the last century. Beginning in vaudeville, she eventually became a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies and then a nationally beloved radio star. With what was then recognized as a thick “Jewish” accent, and a healthy dose of Yiddish interpolations, Brice was one of many comics who rode a wave of “ethnic” humor that now feels dated at best. Her shtick was playing the adorable zany, willing to do anything for a laugh. She sang in her shows and even recorded a few ballads (most famously “My Man”), but her voice was only adequate, never more than quirky. She died in 1951, at age 59, and like many performers of her time quickly faded from public consciousness, leaving behind little tangible legacy: a handful of appearances in films do not really convey her gifts. The musical Funny Girl was conceived and produced by Ray Stark, Brice’s son-in-law, who wanted to capitalize on her legacy before it evaporated. With a book by Isobel Lennart, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Bob Merrill, the show had a troubled journey to success. Mary Martin was originally attached to star (as she was to half the shows of the era) but lost interest early on. Anne Bancroft, fresh off an Oscar for The Miracle Worker, was considered, but Styne had written a score for a real, big-voiced singer, not just an actress who could fake her way through a few character numbers, approximating Brice’s shaky warble. Carol Burnett entered the mix, and could have handled the songs, but felt she wasn’t Jewish enough and passed. In any case, Styne always had one specific performer in mind.
And here, of course, we come to the real glory, and the real problem, of Funny Girl. From the moment of its first out-of-town preview, the show became not really about Fanny Brice, but rather about Barbra Streisand, its original leading lady. And every actor who takes on the leading role must now contend with Streisand’s formidable performance, vividly documented in the hugely successful film adaptation. Aged 21 when the show opened, Streisand had already appeared on Broadway in a Tony-nominated supporting role in I Can Get It For You Wholesale and had a burgeoning recording career. Like Brice, her shtick was ethnic/zany, albeit with a much lighter touch on the Jewish accent and mannerisms, in accord with evolving sensibilities. Unlike Brice, she had a singing voice that was already being recognized as uniquely spectacular: supple, rangy, vital, with extraordinary breath control, pinpoint management of dynamics, and a distinctive ability to sound big and intense without ever sounding harsh or brassy. The microphone helped in this regard: Streisand’s voice was always perfectly constructed for electronic amplification, and Funny Girl was one of the first Broadway shows to make extensive use of body mics. In any case, once Streisand was cast as Brice, the trajectory of the show’s development became solely about giving her more to do: more music, more scenes, more focus. And even: the plot of the show itself started to bend to become as much about Streisand’s backstory as Brice’s. Funny Girl portrays a young woman with an aggressive hunger for stardom, fueled by a lower-middle-class upbringing and a chip on her shoulder regarding how the world perceives her looks and talent. This is actually more Streisand’s story than Brice’s, and the show cannily exploited the blurring of actress and role. The New York opening was delayed five times as the creators, including show doctor Jerome Robbins, cut and reshaped the material around Streisand’s persona. And once the show opened, the impetus to memorialize Brice had given way to a showcase for a performer who was destined to become one of the major stars of the century, significantly more famous and—with all due respect—more talented than Brice had ever been.
Streisand’s success in the original production of Funny Girl was immediate, but not unqualified. She did not win the Tony that season (the juggernaut success of Hello Dolly! swept Carol Channing to that honor). Mimi Hines replaced her and kept the show successfully running for a year and a half. Countless performers played Brice on tour and in stock including, of all people, Barbara Cook. It was the 1968 film that permanently cemented performer and role, earning Streisand the Oscar and displaying her gifts in full flower. On the original cast album, she is exciting but sometimes a bit strident, not quite in total control of her imposing instrument. By the time of the film soundtrack, she has smoothed the rough edges. The film’s screenplay and structure also improve on the stage play, but even still Funny Girl in whatever format has always been deemed problematic: rousing in its rise-to-fame first act, but maudlin in its price-of-fame second act. Brice is initially depicted as an ambitious kid who can’t get an audition because she’s not conventionally pretty. Once she gets a break, she achieves fame on her own terms, demanding control over her image and her material. At the same time, she marries the dashing professional gambler Nicky Arnstein, who makes her feel beautiful and loved for the first time. Arnstein’s financial troubles eventually lead to scandal and romantic collapse, but Brice soldiers on, finding redemption in professional success. The problem is that the show’s relentless focus on Brice leaves the rest of the characters one-dimensional, with the small exception of Brice’s supportive mother, who at least has some warmth. Arnstein (who in real life was an irredeemable scoundrel) never comes to life, and so the audience has very little investment in the couple’s romance. The second act descends into cliché, with the proud but weak man humiliated by his loving but too-successful wife (cue the inevitable scene where someone refers to Arnstein as “Mr. Brice”). So Funny Girl has always been seen as a medium-good show, albeit with a great score, that provided the ideal launching pad for a major career.
And major that career certainly has been. Streisand turned 80 earlier this year and remains immensely popular. I haven’t always been on board with how she evolved as an artist. Too much of her career was spent on material unworthy of her. Her well-known perfectionism led to far too many uninterestingly glossy performances. Her taste (in film scripts, song repertory, arrangements, collaborators) did not always keep pace with her talent. On the other hand, she smartly husbanded her resources, staying in excellent voice long past her contemporaries. After many years of abjuring live performances due to fear of the inherent lack of control, she returned to concertizing in the mid-1990s and was still excitingly charismatic, with undiminished vocal resources. And she never lost her gift for deep interpretation, bringing word-by-word nuance to everything she performed, always singing with lyrical specificity, perhaps her most singular gift. Streisand seems to find each word as she sings it, relying on outstanding, often artfully heightened, diction. She’s truly an actress through song, not just a vocalist. In fact, she always claims that acting was her ultimate goal and her voice only a tool that helped her achieve a dramatic career. One might say that she is more interested in words than music, a fact that makes her premium vocalism all the more remarkable.
Streisand still records and performs, maintaining her interpretive gifts even as her technical resources have inevitably faded with age. Still, it’s her earliest work, from the 1960s, that I find most enduring. Take her performance of the key ballad “People” in the Funny Girl film. It’s a tough song to pull off. Merrill’s lyrics are generic, more suited to a pop song than to the particularity required of a theater number; there’s nothing here that sounds “in character” for Brice at this moment in the plot. At best, the lyrics give the performer a sense of vulnerability, of groping toward connection through thickets of self-doubt. Streisand puts it all on the table—and yet, paradoxically, keeps something back, forcing the audience to watch and listen carefully, to probe her work as it unfolds. She is both generous and withholding, captivating and elusive, aggressive and delicate, full of angry pride and also wounded self-deprecation. She’s awkward and real and yet almost divinely sensual. Some of this she accomplishes through the simple trick of closing her eyes and undulating her body whenever the song’s melody soars. When she sings the lyric, “Lovers are very special people,” the eroticism is blatant. It borders on camp, and yet her absolute confidence keeps it on the safe side of that border. She is, in a phrase my friends have heard me say frequently about performers of her ilk, “possessed by the demon of music.”
Very few performers encompass those multitudes—human yet otherworldly, relatable yet virtuosic—while also conveying a sense of channeling a volatile muse. That possession is, for me, what separates the great from the immortal. Maria Callas, certainly, is the preeminent avatar of this type of artist. Like Streisand, she harnesses an exhilarating, confident anger (always the most blazingly theatrical of emotions) to an incredibly clear, moment-by-moment articulation of the musical-textual line. She is both manifestly real and mysteriously different. In their different ways, other great performers encompass these dualities while channeling their demonic muses: Marlon Brando, Janis Joplin, Vanessa Redgrave, Greta Garbo, to name but a few. Judy Garland, of course, falls into this category, although comparing her to Streisand shows how much variety exists within the demon of music’s domain: Garland was warm and vulnerable, heartbreaking and generous, whereas Streisand is cool and eccentric, explosive and mercurial.
The sheer sound of Streisand’s singing is also difficult to parse. Right before she began rehearsals for Funny Girl, Streisand was the guest star on Garland’s weekly television variety show. Everyone remembers their epochal duet which laced together Streisand’s signature ballad version of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and Garland’s slowed-down version of “Get Happy.” But an equally memorable moment was the surprise appearance of Ethel Merman, who came out from the studio audience to join Garland and Streisand in a trio version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Before they jump into the song, Merman hails Streisand as “the New Belter,” and that designation has always given me pause. Yes, Streisand sings mainly in chest voice and with throbbing intensity. But her sound is not the prototypical trumpet-like Broadway belt as immortalized by Merman, as well as Susan Johnson, Karen Morrow, and Dolores Gray. Nor is it the rock-influenced high belt one hears today from singers like Cynthia Erivo and Idina Menzel—again a trumpet-like sound, but less pushed and more pointed than Merman et al. Streisand’s money notes are mellower, and she holds them forever—letting them soar rather than blare.
Just what kind of singer is Streisand? She’s obviously not a classic Broadway soprano like Julie Andrews or Barbara Cook. Nor is she solely of the suave pop-vocalizing tribe as exemplified, in the 1960s, by Nancy Dussault, Diahann Carroll, and Leslie Uggams: she’s too idiosyncratic, too interpretative, to fit neatly into that group. Nor indeed does she fall into the camp of eccentric, mannered vocalists like Carol Channing and Gwen Verdon. Although Streisand always delighted in bending (some might say obliterating) written melodies, she’s not a jazz singer, either of the smoothly melodious variety like Ella Fitzgerald or of the craggy, inflected variety like Billie Holiday. Jazz singers tend to use songs as vehicles for musical elaboration. Streisand, as noted, is primarily a musical actress, using song as a vehicle for character and narrative. Her sound and her approach was immediately striking because it mixed all of the above and came up with something brand new: beautiful but also powerful, quirky but also prodigious. She was one of a kind, if eventually hugely influential. And what’s more, her entire personality was brand new. There had been innumerable popular “ethnic” performers throughout the century. There had been plenty of zanies—in fact, the sixties saw a particular vogue for the “kooky” female. There had been lots of great tragic actors, some of whom could really sing too. Streisand brought all of these qualities together in a novel way and added an unexpected dollop of sensuality. This originality eventually catapulted her to a level of fame that none of her theater coevals approached.
Over and over, in her performances from the 1960s, Streisand plays a game where she first disarms you with madcap, wacky charm, and then—bam!—flattens you with that glorious voice. One sees it on early television appearances, such as her 1962 performance of “Happy Days Are Here Again” on The Garry Moore Show which she turns into a funny and melancholy vignette, initially silly and then, when she pulls out the vocal stops in the final minute, devastating. In the 1969 film of Hello Dolly!, Streisand turns the conventional rouser “Before the Parade Passes By” into an at-first half-spoken meditation and then suddenly an urgently sung sexual reawakening. Perhaps the archetypal example is the first big number in Funny Girl, “I’m the Greatest Star,” Brice’s credo as she attempts to talk her way into a professional gig. As seen in the film, the first half of the song is jokey, endearing, mildly desperate. Then the entire song repeats, and this time we witness something completely, shockingly, different. Now Brice—or really, let’s be honest, Streisand—is not desperate. And she’s no longer half-talking her way through the song with goofy voices and rim-shot timing. She’s now singing in a bravura style, vocally ascending and riffing. She’s utterly confident, but it’s a confidence driven by hurt and insecurity. More than that, she’s channeling an electrifying rage, as if to say, “How dare they not recognize my talent.” It’s not a pretty emotion, but it’s a gripping one. It was in fact a huge gambit to place such a blatantly self-regarding song so early in the show, potentially souring the audience on Brice/Streisand’s naked ambition and pride. Yet the gambit pays off because, in the face of that second half of the song, there’s no possible response besides: “Right. Of course. You are the greatest star. Everyone else, stand aside.”
And so we come back to the Funny Girl problem: how anyone else can ever play this role and come out from under Streisand’s shadow. This challenge might seem confusing at first—surely there are countless examples of shows with legendary Broadway performances which have been successfully revived. Few theater performances were more acclaimed than those of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Mary Martin in South Pacific, Robert Preston in The Music Man, Ethel Merman in Gypsy, Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof—and yet all of those shows have had multiple successful revivals. The difference is twofold. First, the shows just named (and many other like examples) are blue-chip works, sturdily constructed and able to withstand vagaries of casting, direction and design. Decades ago, I saw the egregiously miscast Tony Randall in The Music Man and still had a grand time, thanks to the show’s rock-solid book and score and the panoply of rich supporting characters. The second difference is the inimitable nature of Streisand herself as an entertainment phenomenon. In her case, Broadway was just a launch to a major international career, exponentially bigger than the careers of Harrison, Mostel, Merman, Martin, or Preston, however remarkably talented those actors all were. Those few cases where those performers got to re-create their stage triumphs on film (Harrison, Preston, Merman in Call Me Madam) feel more like treasurable souvenirs than fully realized screen performances—marvelous but perhaps a bit “practiced.” Streisand made her movie debut with Funny Girl, and the film was a revelation, not just a confirmation. It announced a major film talent, one that quickly expanded beyond the bounds of the traditional musical and its fan base. There are millions of people who associate Funny Girl with Streisand who have never even heard of Gypsy or South Pacific. Hence her total dominance of the role, to the extent that even fans like myself who eagerly applaud new visions and new takes feel slightly queasy about anyone else playing Fanny Brice.
Let it be noted that I also find myself queasy about this article’s unabashed worship of the Streisand phenomenon. She’s a controversial performer, not to all tastes. In many ways, my adulation of Streisand is more about what she was and might have been than what she became. Anyone who can sit through The Mirror Has Two Faces and its self-pitying excesses without rolling their eyes has my undying admiration. The misfortune of Streisand’s career is that she seems to lack much perspective or humor. There is a sense that she never really got past her resentment over the initial, unfair rap that she was an unattractive but talented freak. Surely the ways she was filmed and photographed throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s should have destroyed the idea that she was unattractive: the glorious Cecil Beaton costuming in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever; her gorgeously tan, athletic presentation in What’s Up Doc; her romantic apotheosis in The Way We Were. Perhaps the heavy chip on Streisand’s shoulder is understandable, given her difficult upbringing. What’s more problematic is Streisand’s renunciation of the messy spontaneity that characterized her early years. In the first decade of her career, she skillfully navigated the compromised balances between vocal splendor and dramatic effect. By the 1970s, she had become corporate, ironed out. And even when she gave up trying to keep up with pop music trends (let’s draw the veil of charity over her pop and disco albums and the 1976 Star Is Born film) and returned to theater music, she never truly went back to her anarchist roots, instead putting out albums that feel over-produced and performances that feel over-prepared. The electric crack in her voice at the end of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” on the Funny Girl cast album would never have been allowed ten years later, by which time Streisand had become an institution. She was—and still is—a great artist. She kept virtually all of her gifts: the voice, the virtuosity, the concentration, the gift for lyrical interpretation, the ability to bring dimensional acting to a song. But she lost the sense of wild possession, the strangeness. Compare her 1961 performance of “Moon River,” as heard on a live performance on the television show P.M. East, with the same song from her 2003 studio disc, The Movie Album. The former is exuberant, full of punched words, dynamic shifts, forceful joy. The latter is supple, exquisite, and tame.
A legend unfulfilled is still a legend, though, so pity anyone who takes on the role of Fanny Brice. I saw a production at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse in 2001 with the excellent Leslie Kritzer, who encompassed all the role’s vocal and dramatic requirements and yet still couldn’t erase precedent. The current Broadway revival, directed by Michael Mayer, began as a chamber-sized production at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, starring the British performer Sheridan Smith, a charming and miscast actress. Instead of seeming driven and confident, Smith was humble and desperate to please, empathetic but not impressive. Smith worked very hard, showing intense effort to diminishing effect. But none of that mattered in face of the fact that she simply did not have a good enough voice. The original production of Funny Girl made a decision once Streisand was cast: this would be a role centered more or less solely on the protagonist’s Olympian vocal prowess. The bet paid off in the original production and set a trap for the show’s future.
The London production at the Menier laid the groundwork for the current Broadway revival, most specifically in the revisions to Lennart’s book by Harvey Fierstein. These mainly concerned the problematic second act: Fierstein attempted to give Arnstein more depth and to psychologize Brice’s stand-by-your-man stance. To that end, he reinstated a song for Arnstein that had been cut in the original production’s early rehearsals: “Temporary Arrangement,” a wan echo of Guys and Dolls’ “Luck Be a Lady.” The Menier revival also cut a song for Brice’s mother and her friends, “Find Yourself a Man,” and moved another song for the minor characters, “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows,” to the second act. Brice’s solo, “Who Are You Now?,” was turned into a duet for Brice and Arnstein and dialogue was added which implied that her devotion to her wayward husband was connected to her devotion to her absent father. All of these changes, more-or-less carried over to the Mayer-directed Broadway revival, were admirable and useless, particularly since the show still stuck to the cringey idea of Brice’s mother telling her that she drove Arnstein away because “You wouldn’t let him be a man.”
The Menier production also suffered from its theater’s postage- stamp-sized stage. The Broadway revival at least held the promise of appropriate scale and choral talent. Alas, the producers did not invest in providing a sense of historical context for the Follies numbers, casting only eight chorus women and five chorus men to fill a scaled-down design. The supporting cast is also problematic. Ramin Karimloo is fine as Arnstein, with a strong voice, but his expanded role actually makes the second act even more of a slog. As Mrs. Brice, Jane Lynch lacks believable ethnicity and performs every scene in the kind of arch quotation marks that work for her roles in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries but not for a classic musical. Jared Grimes plays choreographer Eddie Ryan, Brice’s mentor and supporter, and he’s given a handful of exciting tap numbers that have little to do with the narrative. (Grimes scored the show’s only Tony nomination.) Only Toni diBuono, as Mrs. Brice’s friend Mrs. Strakosh, strikes an authentic note.
And then there’s Feldstein, whose vocal issues disqualify her from the start. Her mid-range is weak. Her top is unpleasant, whiny, without any intensity. As was the case with Smith, the ballads suffer the most. Just as damagingly, Feldstein is not even particularly funny, relying on three muggy facial expressions that she cycles throughout the performance, all of which are variations on “Can you believe I’m up here on a stage singing and dancing?!” Most damagingly, she seems like a teenage girl (although, amazingly, she’s older than Streisand was when she originally played the role), with a jejune quality, lacking in any lived experience. Her performance feels high school, and not just in its amateurishness. She seems like she’s playing dress-up in mommy’s wig and high heels. The second act is a particular problem, requiring her to pretend that she’s a great, suffering, grown-up lady: “Look at me! I’m acting sad!” The romantic scenes with Karimloo feel downright creepy, as if a 43-year-old professional actor was imported into a high school production to romance the 16-year-old girl who got cast in the lead because it was her turn. Feldstein also ducks any kind of anger or wounded pride or determination that would come off as aggressive. She’s so invested in being nice and adorable—which is exactly not right for Funny Girl’s version of Brice.
Could this production have succeeded with a different leading lady? Funny Girl has never been more than a rickety star vehicle with a great score (the kind of thing that Encores! used to do regularly). There are no interesting supporting roles in the show, no powerful life lessons or insights, and not even much of the fizzy humor that makes even less-than-great Broadway shows of the 1950s and ’60s still entertaining. Still, there was a lot of goodwill toward this revival before it opened, mainly because Funny Girl was one of the very few major golden age shows that had never come back to Broadway. And although the book will never truly work, and Merrill’s lyrics are inconsistent, the Jule Styne score is sterling, representing, along with Gypsy, his career-best work. Better direction and design and a more lavish production would have helped. And casting a real singer as Brice, such as Jessie Mueller, would have at least allowed us to enjoy the music. The comparisons to Streisand would have remained, of course, and Mueller, talented as she is, would probably have been found wanting. But at least the audience might have acknowledged the unfairness of the comparison and enjoyed Mueller for her own special gifts. The show might have worked on reinvented terms, with a different kind of talent at its center. With Feldstein, however, the revival is dead in the water. There’s just no Funny Girl without a voice.