Funny Girl…from stage to screen

In December of 1936, Fanny Brice made her final appearance in front of a New York audience at the Winter Garden Theater as part of that year’s tour of the Ziegfeld Follies. 

Nearly three decades later a show based on her life opened on that very same stage.  The Broadway production of Funny Girl opened on March 26, 1964 and ran for 1,348 performances.  Produced by Fanny Brice’s son-in-law, Ray Stark, the production and its inception were not without their troubles.

Ray Stark had been working on a screenplay about the life of Fanny Brice since 1948 but could never quite come up with a good enough angle or story.  Being Brice’s son-in-law, Ray Stark always felt the need to make sure his wife was happy with whatever story he chose to tell about her mother and she was very adamant that story portray her mother in a positive light.  After numerous pitches to many different writers and actors, Stark had one version that got some attention – a 1960, straight, dramatic version, which was presented to Mary Martin.  Martin was a big star at the time, really liked what she saw and agreed to play Brice on stage, if the play was made into a musical.  Stark, who was more interested in a film version of his story didn’t mind changing it because he knew Hollywood would be more likely to produce a film once Martin’s name was attached to the project.  However, after many ego clashes over rewrites and the production as a whole, Mary Martin pulled out of the project to star in another show.

Notable names like Stephen Sondheim were involved in the writing of Funny Girl from the beginning but most walked off when Ray Stark repeatedly ran the story by his wife for final approval.  It wasn’t until the legendary Jerome Robbins stepped in as director that the production gained prestige and momentum.

After Mary Martin’s departure the search for a new star was on and talents like Carol Burnett, Shirley MacLaine and Eydie Gormet were seriously considered.  But (again) Stark’s wife wanted her say and she was partial to the beautiful Anne Bancroft.  Though not blessed with a great voice, Bancroft had proven in the stage version of The Miracle Worker that she could carry a show.  Jule Styne, however, who had written the score, wanted a singer to perform it and he was not happy with Anne Bancroft as the choice.

Step in David Merrick – famed and powerful Broadway producer who was now attached to the show.  Merrick had worked with ingénue Barbra Streisand in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and insisted
that Barbra was right for the part.   Merrick took his friend, Jule Styne, to see her perform at the Bon Soir nightclub in New York City.  Although Styne was not crazy about her personally, he could not deny her talent and agreed that Streisand was the one to play Fanny Brice.   He convinced Mr. and Mrs. Stark to go see Barbra.  Ray was very impressed by Streisand’s talent but Mrs. Stark was insulted that anyone would consider the “nut” she saw before her to play her mother.  Barbra was very young, extremely talented but also quite eccentric.  As a result, Barbra was not given consideration – Anne Bancroft remained the Starks’ first choice.

By the time the final decision was made to sign Bancroft, the actress had second thoughts about doing the part.  She had just won an Academy Award for her role in the film version of The Miracle Worker and was unsure about playing a comic who also sings – neither of these things were her forte.  Still bent on Streisand and noting Bancroft’s indecision, Jule Styne decided to help things along so he handed Bancroft a very complicated score that only a very accomplished singer could handle without embarrassment.  Bancroft backed out of the show and the Starks quickly turned to Carol Burnett as their star of choice.  Carol too was ready to sign when she also had second thoughts – she was concerned about the “ethnic” look required to play Brice.  Upon declining the part, Carol Burnett reportedly said to Ray Stark “Hire Anne Bancroft if you want a star and Barbra Streisand if you want to make a star.”  Still, Barbra, who had already auditioned for the part at the request of Jule Styne, was not an easy sell for the Starks and she was asked to audition seven more times before she was hired.

The previews for the original stage production of Funny Girl were not good and the show went through several directors and script changes.  But by the time the show and Streisand hit Broadway all had come
together.  The show’s reviews were good but Barbra Streisand’s were fabulous, she was a sensation.  Howard Taubman of The New York Times wrote “Miss Streisand is well on her way to becoming a splendid entertainer in her own right, and in Funny Girl she goes as far as any performer can toward recalling the laughter and joy that were Fanny Brice…Fanny and Barbra make the evening.”  The reviewer for Cue wrote, “Magnificent, sublime, radiant, extraordinary, electric – what puny, little adjectives to describe Barbra Streisand.”

On opening night in 1964 Barbra Streisand had 23 curtain calls.  Shell-shocked – she was now the 21-year-old who had successfully carried an entire Broadway show – she shoved her way into her dressing room that night without noticing anyone around her.  But someone else shoved her way in right behind her.  Barbra turned trying to make sense of what had just happened and there stood Ethel Merman booming out her congratulations.

“Hello Gorgeous!”  Finally, three years after Funny Girl opened on Broadway Ray Stark’s dream came true with the production of the film version.  This production also proved troublesome, however.  Columbia Pictures didn’t want Barbra Streisand as the star because she was too “ethnic” looking and not attractive enough for the big screen.  The original director, Sidney Lumet, left the project after a falling out with Ray Stark.  His replacement, the legendary William Wyler was hired, but not without trepidation from the studio.  Despite Wyler’s long and illustrious film career, he had never directed a musical. Adding to studio worries – the week after it was announced that Omar Sharif was to star opposite Barbra, Arab and Israeli forces clashed in the Middle East.  A publicity photo of the two stars in an embrace triggered anger from all over the world and from the Hollywood community who wanted the Egyptian actor off the picture because of their unflinching support for Israel.  Director, William Wyler stepped up and threatened to quit if Sharif was thrown off the film as he felt that a self-proclaimed “free” country was doing what it claimed it was against.  Needless to say, the film was completed with Sharif as Nick Arnstein.

The film version of Funny Girl starts as Fanny Brice arrives at the New Amsterdam Theater.  (Good time to mention for anyone who is not familiar with the story or has not seen the film, there are spoilers ahead.)  We follow her steps from behind as she goes
through the corridors from the backstage entrance until she steps in front of a mirror, stops, sees her own reflection and utters the now famous words.  She continues on to the stage to look from behind the curtain out onto the majestic, empty theater.  Ziegfeld’s biggest star now, Brice steps down to sit in the audience to look at the stage from a view she’s never had, that of an audience member.  Her thoughts interrupted, Fanny is told Florenz Ziegfeld is waiting to see her.  Ziegfeld is waiting to see her!  The impact of that simple statement brings her to reminisce about all that’s happened in her life – all which brought her to that seat, in that theater, at that moment.

As mentioned above, Funny Girl is the story of Fanny Brice’s life.  In particular how she rises to stardom from a struggling ingénue who doesn’t quite look right, yet becomes the biggest star the Ziegfeld Follies ever featured.  During the film Brice grows from a naïve, talented girl to the sophisticated, toast of Broadway.  However, despite the growth we see in Fanny as an entertainer as the film progresses, the real drama in the film comes through the trials and tribulations resulting from her love affair and marriage to Nick Arnstein, the handsome, sophisticated, gambler, and embezzler she has the misfortune to fall in love with.  Arnstein is unlike anyone Fanny has ever known in her world on Henry Street and her mother’s saloon.  Nick is all spit and polish, used to a high life of travel and gambling, all foreign to Fanny Brice at the onset of the film.  Ultimately, Brice reaches the pinnacle of show business and is loved by millions while Arnstein ends up in jail – her star shining far too brightly for the likes of him.

This version of Funny Girl has as much to do with Streisand as with Brice.  It is a “star vehicle” if ever there was one.  In fact, everyone and everything in this film that is not Barbra, from costumes to sets to Omar Sharif, is a mere supporting player.  Barbra is the star, she is a delight and all else is her backdrop.  One even finds, in those rare scenes in which she does not appear that we can’t wait until she does so again.  Her famous voice made her a star and gave her the opportunity to play Fanny Brice in the original production of Funny Girl on the Broadway stage.  But in this film one sees that star quality is not merely talent but presence.  And Streisand has it.  There is also no arguing that Streisand shows great comic ability and has a face and profile, though perhaps not of beauty, definitely unforgettable.  Like Brice (and one cannot dismiss the similarity between the look of the two women) Streisand’s looks are not conventional, but when there is real talent that overwhelms then the other pales in comparison and importance, though there is no doubt that that look makes a statement in this film, as does Streisand’s acting, which is quite good.  The part calls for Brice to age from a naïve girl to a mature, sophisticated star and Streisand makes the transition believably.  She is charming when she has to be, plays the more dramatic scenes convincingly and has great comedic timing.
And then there’s the singing.  Streisand doesn’t actually just sing a song in this film – she lives it.  She does things with her hands (those amazing hands!) and with her face that are unique to her – there is no other way to describe it.  Simply put, when she sings one is happy to be there – listening, watching.

The Funny Girl score, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, is a great one.  I will admit, though, that I can (pretty much) listen to Barbra Streisand sing the phone book (do those still exist?) and be moved.  There are a few standout songs in the film worthy of special mention, not due to the quality of the song necessarily, but because of the star’s rendition of it.  The first is “I’m the Greatest Star.”

At this point in the story the young Fanny Brice longs to be noticed as a talent and is willing to do anything to prove she belongs on a stage.  She goes to an audition to be a chorus girl in a local Vaudeville house.  While auditioning we see she’s clearly not chorus girl material – “she doesn’t look like the other girls, she has skinny legs, she sticks out.” After a futile attempt at convincing the owner of the establishment that she is great and talented, she finds herself alone on the stage…

Thinking she’s alone,  Fanny’s surprised when she hears someone clapping after the number’s over.   Eddie, her future friend and supporter tells her “you’re no chorus girl, you’re a comic, and a singer…”

Much further along in the film – Fanny, now the star of the Ziegfeld Follies, is much more experienced on the stage and in life, having experienced great success in the first and disappointment in the latter.  She’s re-acquainted herself with Nick Arnstein after running into him at a train depot in Baltimore, MD.  They spend the week together and both are clearly smitten.  But now the week is over – the Follies are moving on to the next City in the tour and Arnstein is embarking on a gambling cruise to Europe.  Unable and uneasy about letting him go, Fanny decides she has to go with him, as much to prove to him as to herself that they belong together.  While at the station she announces to Ziegfeld and the rest of the Follies troupe that she has to skip out on the rest of the tour to be with Nick.  Protests come from everyone there – “are you crazy,” “you’re making a fool of yourself,” “he’s no good,” “don’t do it”…”don’t tell me not to live, just sit and putter…” A fabulous song and an iconic scene in film result – Streisand, the voice and a tugboat shot from a helicopter.  (It’s interesting to note that the entire sequence featuring this song took nine days to shoot).

At the end of the film, after the reminiscing is over, we are now back in the empty theater on that fateful day when Fanny awaits word from Nick pertaining to their future together.  He’s completed his 18-moth long stint in jail for embezzlement and, at her request, will now tell her whether he wants a divorce.  As she prepares for that evening’s performance he appears in her dressing room.  By the somber way he stands there she knows the news is not good.  (I must interject here that the fact that she has relinquished to him all the power to decide her life is very upsetting.  Each time I see this film there is a part of me that hopes his news is different, that somehow he changes his mind and decides to change his ways.  Of course, there is no doubt that they are not good for each other –but still, the romantic in me wants them together, and I can’t help disliking this guy).  In not too many words he tells her their life together is over and she is devastated.  But, the show must go on.  So onto a bare stage she steps.  The curtains are black and there are purple lights in the background (the color of grief).  Her voice quivers, fighting back tears, as she is overwhelmed with emotion.  The hurt is palpable.  Tentatively she begins to sing…

Oh, my man, I love him so…

As the song progresses she regains her footing and the hurt turns to anger and then we see she is where she belongs (both Brice and Streisand).  However, as good an entertainer as she is, it is where she shines best after all, she holds nothing back letting the world know through this song that she still loves this man, no matter what people may think of him, no matter what they may think of her and no matter what either of them truly are.

This scene and this song at the very end of this film leave a lasting
impression and still packs a punch.  After each one of the many times
I’ve seen this, my reaction remains, always, a resounding – WOW!  When she sings that last note and those hands go up in the air and the music sounds triumphant there is little doubt this is the greatest star – and so concludes one of the greatest film debuts in all of Hollywood history.

In 1920, Florenz Ziegfeld, while on a trip to Paris, bought the rights to a heartbreaking song called “Mon Homme” specifically for Fanny Brice.  He had an English lyric made for Brice to perform in the 1921 “Follies.” Fanny thought she would play it for comic effect, but Ziegfeld would have none of it.  This torch song, “My Man” became a huge hit for Brice and proved that her talents went well beyond the comic. As she sang it the usually hyper comedienne stood nearly motionless on the stage and, singing in a beautiful, unaccented voice, moved audiences to tears with her rendition of the song.  As a result, Fanny Brice became the first crossover performer of the 20th century.

Interestingly, “My Man” was not featured in the stage production of Funny Girl to the great disappointment of everyone involved in the production because the legal rights to the song were involved in some kind of litigation and the song was unavailable.  That is, with one exception, when, during her last performance, Streisand sang it as a final tribute to Fanny Brice.  I would give anything to have been there.

Funny Girl premiered on September 18, 1968 and went on to become an enormous hit.  Ultimately it became the second highest grossing film of the 1960’s for Columbia Pictures.  Funny Girl was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, (lost to Oliver!), Best Cinematography, Best Song (“Funny Girl”), and Best Supporting Actress for Kay Medford, who played Brice’s mother in the film.  Barbra Streisand won the Best Actress award in a rare tie with Katherine Hepburn who starred in The Lion in Winter.

Like so many other classic musicals of yesteryear that lose little with the passage of time, Funny Girl is a joy to watch.  A musical made past the musical’s prime, it still moves and stirs. To Ms. Streisand, the wonderful music and lyrics, and a legendary director’s eye, we owe one to remember.

8 thoughts

  1. Since Oliver! and Funny Girl are both Columbia Pictures films the studio won Best Picture either way. Lion in Winter represented the desire for British product, Funny Girl represented the want for musicals, Oliver! covered both grounds.

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