For my column today, I’d like to talk about Fanny Brice, who’s fascinated me for most of my life, and the current Broadway revival of Funny Girl, the musical inspired by her life.
Fifty-six years ago, I was lucky enough to see Funny Girl at the Winter Garden Theatre. And it remains one of the most fondly remembered nights I’ve ever spent in the theater. When I went, Mimi Hines had just taken over the starring role from Barbra Streisand. And she gave an excellent performance, handling both the singing and the comedy with panache. The score by Jule Style and Bob Merrill was glorious. Ralph Burns’ orchestrations were as good as they get. The whole musical, from start to finish, dazzled me. The production values were first-rate. And the cast was solid. (Kay Medford, as Fanny’s mother, gave one of the best performances by a supporting actor that I’ve ever seen.)
I liked every bit of that night, from the first notes of the overture to the last notes of the exit music. I stayed in my seat, in the front row of the mezzanine, until the last note was played; I did not want to leave. And the story touched me, emotionally, far more than the musical I’d enjoyed most up until that time, My Fair Lady, which I saw late in its original Broadway run. My Fair Lady had a kind of austere perfection which I admire; it’s definitely a masterwork. But the storyline of Funny Girl—of two people who loved each other but were not good for each other—intrigued me more. Jule Styne’s great melodies carried me along with such irresistible vitality; and I appreciated Bob Merrill’s lyrics more every time I listened to the cast album of Funny Girl (which I still love listening to).
I’ve often told friends what an impact Funny Girl had on me. That was the show that made me fall completely, utterly, and permanently in love with Broadway. I was a teenager when I saw it—not quite 15. I started taking odd jobs to make some extra money; I stopped buying comic books; I began skipping school lunches, too—I was trying to save every possible penny so I could buy Broadway theater tickets. Theater became my top priority. And as often as possible, I would go to see another Broadway show. (Broadway was far more affordable then than it is now, and I was eager to check out everything—musicals, comedies, dramas. I could often get tickets to shows—up in the balcony–that didn’t cost much more than tickets to movies.) Funny Girl—more than My Fair Lady or any other show I appreciated—was what got me really hooked on theater. And I’m still grateful for that.
I was already sophisticated enough to know that Funny Girl took liberties with the facts. (Older friends who knew the facts of her life filled me in.) Taking such artistic liberties didn’t matter to me. That was fine so long as the show was rewarding. And Funny Girl was all that, and more. The whole production represented a very high standard of Broadway craftsmanship. I was in awe.
I also began collecting old Fanny Brice records and sheet music, and seeking out people who’d seen her and known her, much the way I did with other early showbiz favorites of mine, from George M. Cohan to Al Jolson, to Irving Berlin. And people who were important influences on me when I was growing up happened to have ties to Brice’s world—like ex-vaudevillian Todd Fisher, and swim-coach/camp director Robert Alexander, who’d staged Billy Rose’s Aquacades in the 1930’s and could recall Rose’s marriage to Brice and its breakup like it was yesterday.
All of that eventually led to me, in later years, writing several shows about Brice, which have been produced and published, and to my recently producing an album of rare recordings from my personal collection, “Fanny Brice—The Real Funny Girl: Rare Performances Curated by Chip Deffaa.” That album (available from Amazon, iTunes, Shazam, Footlight Records, etc.) includes material that has never before appeared on CD—recordings of Brice available nowhere else. It provides a great overview of Brice’s early work as both a singer and comedienne.
I’m a Brice specialist; there aren’t too many of us around. If you buy the definitive (and warmly recommended) Brice biography, Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl, by Herbert Goldman (Oxford University Press, 1992), you’ll note that it includes a couple of photos from “the collection of Chip Deffaa.” That book was written 30 years ago. And even then, the author was turning to me, a recognized authority on Brice, for hard-to-find photos of her. I savor Brice’s work.
I really loved Funny Girl on Broadway in the1960s, and I also very much enjoyed later regional productions of the show that I saw at Westchester Broadway Theatre and at Paper Mill Playhouse.
When tickets for the current Broadway revival of Funny Girl first went on sale some months ago, a friend of mine bought me tix to see the revival in late May of this year. (He hoped that the pandemic would be history by then.) He thoughtfully made sure to get tix in the front row of the mezzanine because he’d heard me speak of seeing the original production from the front row of the mezzanine. He wanted me to have a night I’d remember as fondly as that night in the 1960’s when I first saw Funny Girl on stage. (That’s some good friend!)
And even though the pandemic is far from over and my doctor still does not want me sitting in any crowded theaters due to the risk of infection, I’ve loved the musical Funny Girl so ardently for so long that I donned an N95 surgical face mask so I could enjoy my friend’s generous gift. And we headed, with hopes high, to the August Wilson Theatre to see the show. (The theater itself held good memories for me, too; I remembered happily standing on the stage of that theater to audition for a show in my youth.)
This would be only the second time that I’ve been to any theater this year. Because of the pandemic, I’ve tried very hard to avoid crowded indoor places like restaurants and theaters. So this night felt special even before it got started.And my friend was confident I’d love seeing Funny Girl once again.
I wish I could write that I did love what I saw.
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At the performance’s end, I left the theater feeling unexpectedly melancholy. I felt almost like I was in mourning.
I felt saddened by the lowering of Broadway standards that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I actually had to fight the urge to walk out, midway through this revival of Funny Girl, because it seemed so anemic, so sub-standard on almost every level, compared to the original Broadway production. And the star, I’m sorry to say, is simply not up to the challenges of the role. I shook my head in dismay.
I felt almost embarrassed for the Brice estate; the legendary Fanny Brice deserves much better than this indifferent revival. And I felt almost embarrassed for the people packing the theater who imagined that this represented Broadway at its best. Broadway can be, and should be, so much better than this production.
I’m always rooting for Broadway. I want shows to do good business and enjoy long runs. I want to see actors employed and audiences entertained, and I want to see all available theaters booked solid. I was glad that the August Wilson Theatre was packed the night I attended Funny Girl. I was glad so many audience members appeared to be enjoying what they saw.
But compared to the original Broadway production, the current revival struck me as small, cheap, at times oddly amateurish and uninformed, and lacking in class. The score remains glorious, of course—and the show is worth seeing for that reason alone–even if the production falls far short of realizing the full potential. The story (with a book by Isobel Lennart, revised by Harvey Fierstein) remains a good one. Susan Hilferty’s colorful costumes are appealing. There were some moments in the show that I liked. And, Lord knows, Fanny Brice was certainly an important enough figure in showbiz history to deserve being memorialized on stage.
But you’d never know how great Brice was from watching this revival. Or how impactful Funny Girl could be, if produced properly. Ray Stark, who presented the original production in the 1960’s, produced it brilliantly–with love, care, and lots of showbiz smarts. (And he did an equally good job producing the memorable film adaptation—one of the best movie musicals of that era.) But the producers of this awkward, uneven new Broadway revival were not willing to spend enough on actors, musicians, and sets to do justice to the show. This revival could have been—and should have been—so much better.
I had hoped Funny Girl would be revived on a scale comparable to that of the original. But this revival doesn’t come close. The lavish original Broadway production had 43 actors on stage, and 25 musicians in the orchestra pit. This budget revival, by contrast, tries to make do with only 22 actors on stage and just 14 musicians playing the score. The show suffers markedly from the drastic downsizing.
And the sets (by David Zinn) are, at times, lacking in style, and taste, and nuance. This production attempts to conjure up the essence of the Ziegfeld Follies without ever putting a grand staircase on stage. That’s absurd! The original production made effective use of the staircase in several numbers; you really need those big stairs on a big stage to evoke the grandeur of the Ziegfeld era.
Ziegfeld’s primary set designer, the renowned Joseph Urban, was unsurpassed in his day—universally admired for his elegance, beauty, and taste. Ziegfeld productions (not just the Follies but such celebrated musicals as Whoopee and Show Boat) were praised as the best-looking productions Broadway had to offer in that period. Ziegfeld always made his leading rivals, the Shuberts, look cheap by comparison.
But the set that this revival throws in our face for the big “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” number is crude, gaudy, flashy and obvious. And lacking in any kind of period feel. It’s the sort of set that might possibly work for some contemporary, cartoonish kind of musical. But it’s wrong for the World War One-era “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat.” Ziegfeld would have fired the creator of such a gauche set.
The show repeatedly fails to conjure up the opulence and elegance of Ziegfeld’s world. Fanny Brice rose from burlesque to the heights of the Ziegfeld Follies. And there was a huge difference between where she started and where she wound up. We don’t much see the difference between those worlds in this revival. And trying to evoke Ziegfeld with a couple of tap dancers doing their thing or a few showgirls wandering by just doesn’t cut it.
When the Follies girls in this revival are shown rehearsing a weak number called “What Do Happy People Do?” (which was not in the original production of Funny Girl but has inexplicably been added to this one), it could just as easily be a number from a burlesque show as be a number from the Follies.
And when Fanny asks what her role in the number will be, she’s told, in effect, that she’ll be the funny-looking one amidst all of the beautiful showgirls. And she responds that that’s the role she always plays. Ouch!
I was offended by that scene. It slanders the multitalented Brice and also slanders the imaginative, ever-theatrical Ziegfeld. That was not the role Brice always played on stage, nor even the role she typically played. Ray Stark, who knew better, would never have allowed it.
If all you knew about Brice was what this revival told you, you might think that Brice was a kind of one-joke comic, whose only role in the Follies (or anywhere else) was to be the gal on stage who looked funny, acted funny, and talked funny, on a stage filled with gorgeous showgirls. But had Brice merely been that, she’d have been a comic novelty for one season who was soon forgotten.
Brice enjoyed a terrific career for more than 40 years because she was extraordinarily gifted and versatile, equally effective at offering comedy or pathos. She became the highest-paid American singing comedienne because she was tremendous whether singing torch songs or rhythmic numbers or offering comedy. And you never knew what she might do next. Ziegfeld, to his credit, wisely made full use of her assorted talents.
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One reason I’ve produced the album Fanny Brice–The Real Funny Girl: Rare Performances Curated by Chip Deffaa (available from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Fanny-Brice-Real-Funny-Girl/dp/B09T3BB9DP/ is to give people some idea of just how versatile Brice was. It’s the only Brice CD that includes representations of her as both a singer and a comedienne.
Her masterful comic timing is displayed well as we hear her portray “Soul Saving Sadie” (who says she’s “selling salvation and making it pay”) in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. It’s her way of spoofing the likes of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. And we’re actually hearing Brice, “live” in performance on stage (not a studio recording). Recorded in 1935 during the Follies’ post-Broadway tour, this is the oldest known surviving “live” recoding of any American theatrical performance—a priceless rarity!
We also hear Brice (from that same night in 1935) sing a chorus of a standard that she’d introduced and popularized 15 years before, “Rose of Washington Square.” (This is another track that’s never before appeared on any Brice album.) And the applause, as she begins to sing, is thunderous; the audience packing the theater knows that they’re hearing a great artist singing a great song, and they know it is her song. They are acknowledging her importance as a singer, not just as a comic.
The album includes an early 1930’s “live” radio performance by Brice and company of her whimsical take on Pocahontas and John Smith—a routine she’d first done in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1923.
And there’s a snappy later “live” radio sketch co-starring Brice and Bob Hope, in which she portrays “the flame of Paris,” Mademoiselle Fifi. Brice was happy to be reuniting on that broadcast with Hope, with whom she’d done sketches in the Follies. (In one well-received Follies routine, they’d sent up popular movie musicals of the day starring Bing Crosby, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell. In that Follies sketch, Bob Hope portrayed a movie star/crooner named “Bing Powell,” while Brice played his dame, “Ruby Blondell.”)
The album also includes a “live” radio performance of one of Brice’s classic vaudeville monologues, “Mrs. Cohen at the Beach.” And her recording of “Oh, How I Hate that Fellow, Nathan,” a rueful song with a stand-up comedy routine in the middle. Brice found many different outlets for her feelings.
In one Follies sketch, W.C. Fields and Fanny Brice portrayed a contemporary married couple (“Mr. and Mrs Fliverton”), trying to leave New York City for a day in the country. In another sketch, Fields portrayed John Barrymore while Brice portrayed his sister, Ethel Barrymore.
In one edition of the Follies, you could have seen Fanny Brice and her good friend Eddie Cantor do a song-and-dance routine together in blackface, a theatrical convention of the time. In other Follies routines, she burlesqued silent-film vamp Theda Bara and modern-dance master Martha Graham. And the comic sketch that she did in the 1946 film, Ziegfeld Follies, “The Sweepstakes Ticket,” was one she’d first done on stage in the Follies a decade earlier.
In one revue that she starred in in Hollywood, in 1927, Brice played a mother trying to get her daughter into the movies; the program noted that the sketch was written and directed by Brice herself. Very few women were writing and directing anything in that male-dominated era, but Brice felt women were as capable as men. And she took charge of her career. Early in her career, I might add, she chose to be represented by an agent who was a woman; and for years, a key writer helping her create special musical material was a woman, Blanche Merrill; Brice believed women needed to stick together.
The album, of course, includes representative samples of Brice’s enduringly popular work as “Baby Snooks,” the mischievous tot she played every week on the radio for more than a dozen years, after having previously played the character on stage and at parties. (I listened to more than 150 radio performances before deciding which selections to include on the album.)
And I’ve included on this CD no less than three different versions of her signature song “My Man,” none of which have ever been released on an album before. (Her original 1921 record, which was a number-one hit in its day and is now in the public domain, has been reissued many times; but these are much rarer performances of the song by her that I think are at least as strong as the famed original recording. I wanted to help get these rarer renditions out there. I have a major collection of vintage Brice material, and I’m happy to share it.)
“My Man” was, perhaps, the biggest hit to ever emerge from the Ziegfeld Follies, and Brice sang it countless times over the years. To the public, Brice was not just singing a torch song, she was sharing herself with the public. In the song, she is telling us that her man is a bum who treats her badly, but she’s standing by him nonetheless: “I am his, forever more….” The public loved this image of Brice, proclaiming her loyalty to her man, even as newspapers were filled with stories about the arrest and imprisonment of her “man” in real life, Nick Arnstein. They understood the that the song reflected her feelings for him. (Arnstein, I might add, hated the song; Brice was singing, in effect, that she loved her man, no matter how big a bum he was; Arnstein did not relish being publicly identified by her as a bum.) But audiences back then couldn’t get enough of Brice singing “My Man.” After one performance by Brice of the song at the Palace Theatre (the Mecca of vaudeville), Variety reported, the audience applauded for 20 solid minutes. A twenty-minute ovation? Yes, that was newsworthy.
In one edition of the Follies, Brice introduced another song that drew inspiration from her involvement with Nick Arnstein, the aptly titled “He Hasn’t a Thing Except Me.”
Brice often said that Arnstein was the only man she ever loved, but she didn’t like him. After she divorced him in 1927, she cried herself to sleep nightly for years, she said; it hurt like hell to have him out of her life, but she knew it was necessary, “like pulling a bad tooth.”
Her friend Cole Porter, who knew Brice had mixed feelings about divorcing Arnstein, wrote her a song called “Weren’t We Fools” in which she expressed regrets about breaking up with the one man she loved. People knew that that song was about Arnstein, too.
Arnstein got wind of this and he showed up at the theater to hear her sing it. When she learned Arnstein was in the audience that night, she abruptly dropped the song; she never sang it again. It’s a superb song, and it’s a pity she dropped it; she might have established it as a standard had she recorded it and kept it in her repertoire. It deserves to be better known. (If you’re interested in hearing what the song sounds like, I had Alec Deland sing it on an album I produced, Chip Deffaa’s My Man, and he does an excellent job, singing from the heart.)
Arnstein, incidentally, was not quite the dashing confidence man who wound up fleetingly breaking the law, as he is depicted in Funny Girl. He was a crook who served two substantial prison sentences during his years with Brice. He was married when he began his affair with Brice (whom Arnstein’s wife blamed for alienation of affections); Fanny Brice had already been married once.
Arnstein was given the kindest possible treatment in Funny Girl because (a.) he was still alive when it opened and no one wanted to risk any lawsuits from him and (b.) he was the father of Frances Brice, Fanny’s daughter, who was married to producer Ray Stark. Ray Stark, Fanny’s son-in-law, was doing his best to keep the whole family happy. Arnstein, in his 80’s, was then sharing a small apartment with Fanny’s brother, Lew Brice, and was grateful for financial assistance he received from Ray Stark and Frances Brice.
Fanny, in real life, was always well aware that Arnstein was a crook, as were his friends. When one of her friends questioned her wisdom in loaning one of Nick’s associates a nice chunk of money, Fanny replied that the fellow was such a skilled safe-cracker, she had no worries about his ability to repay her.
Brice’s ability to reach audiences was, of course, widely admired. Carol Channing remembered Brice as “tall and skinny, and funny. She was funny, whether the material was great or not so great. And anyone doing live radio shows week after week, year after year—as Brice did–has to deal with scripts of varying quality. And somehow make them work. People tuned in year after year because she was funny, just as people would later tune in to watch Lucille Ball on TV, because Lucy was going to be funny, even if not every script was a classic.” Incidentally, it’s worth noting that producer/writer Jess Oppenheimer, co-creator of “I Love Lucy,” got his start writing for Fanny Brice on the radio. And he took the same dynamics that were the key to the success of Fanny’s ”Baby Snooks Show” and made them work for Lucille Ball. On “The Baby Snooks Show,” Fanny Brice (as Baby Snooks) was constantly trying to put things over on—and was constantly exasperating—her beloved Daddy. On “I Love Lucy,” it was Lucy who was constantly trying to put things over on—and was constantly exasperating—her beloved husband. Jess Oppenheimer was writing the same sorts of interplay he’d written for Brice, only now for Lucy and Ricky, instead of for Baby Snooks and Daddy. (Carol Channing also told me that in the 1940s, Fanny was not sitting around reminiscing about the good old days with Nick Arnstein; she had a new man in her life, actor John Conte, who was more than 20 years her junior.)
Judy Holliday, who was widely praised—as Fanny Brice was—for her rare gift to touch audiences via both comedy and pathos, used to say that maybe a little bit of Fanny Brice had rubbed off on her. Because Judy Holiday’s mother had gone into labor with her while watching Fanny Brice on stage in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1921. That was the Follies in which Brice had introduced to America two of her biggest hits, the torch song “My Man” and the comic novelty “Second Hand Rose.” Holliday always liked having that link to Fanny Brice.
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My friends have been asking me how I liked the current Broadway revival of Funny Girl. Well, there were certainly moments I enjoyed. Jane Lynch was a treat, playing Fanny’s wry, sarcastic mother. And Jared Grimes’ tap dancing on “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows” was sensational. That number was great fun; he adds a lot to the show. And there were some scenes that I liked quite a bit, including “Henry Street” and “Sadie, Sadie.” The score remains terrific. But the musical is really Fanny Brice’s story. You must have a strong, galvanizing Fanny Brice in your production in order to make the show fully work.
And much of the time, Beanie Feldstein, cast as Fanny Brice in the current revival of Funny Girl, appeared to me to be out of her depth. The role calls for much greater emotional range than Feldtein displayed at the performance I saw. In scene after scene on stage, she came across exactly the same: as someone who’s nice, and likeable, and pleasant, and needy—at times almost desperately wanting to be liked. And you want to like her because she seems like a nice person, and you sense how badly she wants to be liked. But there was a lot more to Fanny Brice than that—both in real life and as depicted in the script of Funny Girl.
I watched Feldstein’s amiable, humorous performance and thought: Where’s the drive, the burning ambition, the blazing self-confidence? “I’m the Greatest Star” is a terrific song, and a defining song in the show for young Fanny Brice. When she sings it, we have to see star quality in young Fanny Brice, and we have to believe—without the slightest reservation—that she believes she’s the greatest star. But Feldstein doesn’t pull it off. She’s not showing us star power. And she certainly didn’t make me believe for a second that she thought she’s the greatest star. She sang it nicely, you know. She has a pleasant voice. (I’m sure there are plenty of less-demanding roles she would be just fine for.) And when she was done singing “I’m the Greatest Star,” she gave off of a vibe that was like: “Did I do OK? I really hope you like the way I sing.” When the vibe should have been: “I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. I know what I’ve got, and nothing’s going to stop me”! In performing that number, you have to show you’ve got Moxie, and plenty of it. Feldstein didn’t.
And this isn’t an issue of, “Is Feldstein as good as Streisand?” It’s simply: “Is Feldstein giving us what the song calls for?” And she is not. You don’t have to be Streisand to make “I’m the Greatest Star” work. The wisely-cast Leslie Kritzer, who starred in Funny Girl some years back at Paper Mill Playhouse, sang the hell out of this number. And had the audience in the palm of her hand by the time she was through with it. Kritzer was a virtual “unknown” at the time, but she knew how to sell “I’m the Greatest Star.” She took everyone by surprise with her strength on that number. And the audience was with her wholeheartedly from that moment on.
In song after song in the current revival of Funny Girl, Feldstein fell short. I was appalled by her rendition of “Cornet Man.” She simply could not get the feel of that song. She did not connect with it. It just did not feel natural for her. And she could not make it work. It seemed so obvious to me, right then and there, that she is not the right person for this role, I began wondering if I should even stay for the rest of the show.
If a singer came to the recording studio to record a number for me and failed to get the hang of it the way Feldstein so thoroughly failed to get the hang of “Cornet Man”—and that has happened from time to time–I’d politely thank the singer for coming in, pay him or her the agreed-upon fee, and know that I now had a recording that could never be released; it just wasn’t up to par.
If I were directing a show and someone couldn’t get the feel of a song the way Feldstein so clearly couldn’t get the feel of “Cornet Man,” I’d replace them without hesitation. I’d try to fire them in as kindly and gentle a way as possible, telling them they’re just not right for this particular role. But if you can’t deliver the goods, you’re out. It’s got to be that way. Standards must be maintained. And “Cornet Man” is such a good number, it deserves a singer who can make it work.
Feldstein made the biggest, best-known songs in Funny Girl seem smaller and less satisfying than they actually are.
Here’s what I noticed as Feldstein got close to the point in the show where she has to sing “People”—the show’s most famous song, a big pop hit for Streisand, and the one number in which Feldstein is most likely to be compared by listeners to Streisand.
First, I heard Feldstein’s speaking voice begin to sound drier. Then she coughed, which she had not done previously in the show. Then she made a point of thoroughly clearing her throat, as if there were some phlegm she had to deal with before she could sing…. I’ve occasionally seen these same sorts of symptoms in singers who’ve come to record for me (and I’ve produced more than 1,000 individual recordings). And if a singer’s voice starts to sound drier, and they cough, and they make a point of clearing their throat like it’s bothering them, I read that as nerves—I sense that the singer is nervous, is experiencing a degree of stage fright, and is probably not going to do a very good job on whatever they have to sing. And that’s usually what happens.
And I listened to Feldstein’s speaking voice start to sound drier, and I heard her cough, and I heard her clear her throat. And then she began to sing “People” very carefully, very cautiously, as if she was trying so hard not to make any mistakes. You could sense the effort on her part; she was consciously trying to make sure she did not mess up. And every word she sang was correct, every note was correct, every bit of intonation was correct. She got through it OK.
What was sacrificed, though, was the beauty and naturalness that makes a song a song. Feldstein was working so hard at performing “People” correctly, it was uncomfortable for me to listen to her. That song—like most any song in a musical–should sound like a natural expression of one’s inner feelings. It took on, instead, a studied quality that ruined it for me.
That’s not the way a star performs. A star has to own the material, and take charge with such confidence that the audience is carried along. I could sense Feldstein worrying if she was going to get through the song OK, and I found myself sharing that concern. Not a good feeling. (Carol Channing used to tell me that if a star performed with complete confidence and conviction, they’d hold the audience completely whether they were feeling well or ill, or were in good voice or poor voice, And I witnessed enough performances by Channing—who had tremendous stage presence–to see the truth in that.)
Throughout a fair amount of her performance, Feldstein impressed me as being afraid—appearing to be intimidated by the role. Her co-star, Ramin Karimloo, playing Nicky Arnstein, sometimes seemed intimidated by the challenge as well. Their characters too often seemed weak, rudderless, victims of circumstances – which doesn’t make for good drama.
And there was almost no chemistry between them. He’s supposed to be this dashing man-of-the-world, sweeping the comparatively naïve Brice off her feet. We hear him sing how she is smaller than him and he is taller than her, but the words don’t ring true as he sings them. He seems like a slight, nice-enough fellow (Arnstein, in real life, was 6’ 6”), singing a song that he’s been asked to sing, not a man passionately attracted to Fanny Brice. The two acted more like young teens awkwardly out on their first date. Or maybe more like the guy and the girl in the high-school drama club whom you just know are meant to be best friends forever. But there was none of the smoldering connection that you felt when, say, the perfectly-cast Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand gazed at each other in the film of Funny Girl.
Sometimes, if I’m directing a play in which someone seems insecure, I can simply compliment them and buck them up, and help bring out the best in them. Sometimes, it’s just that easy. Sometimes, in the recording studio, I can tell a singer, “That take was fine, but let’s do one more take with a little more confidence and we’ll have it,” and somehow they perform with more confidence and it works. Other times, of course, ou can’t make an insecure performer feel more confident, and you wind up having to replace them.
Feldstein’s performance, more often than not, didn’t really work for me. And her insecurity bothered me. Even her laughter, at times in the show, felt forced and off-putting. And I thought: “She doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself up there.”
Clips of Streisand in Funny Girl on Broadway periodically turn upon YouTube, and Streisand has such a strong life force, you can’t help but be won over. I loved the great gusto with which Mimi Hines (who played Fanny Brice on Broadway for almost a year and a half after Streisand left) performed; after seeing Mimi Hines in Funny Girl, I became a fan of hers for life.
Marilyn Michaels had a great time starring in the national tour of Funny Girl in the ‘60’s; she knew she had what it took to be a great Fanny Brice, and audiences responded. Nearly 50 years after she played Fanny Brice in that first national tour, Marilyn Michaels came to see my Off-Broadway show One Night with Fanny Brice at the St. Luke’s Theatre on 46th Street. It made me very happy to see her in the house, enjoying the new show that I’d written and directed. After the performance, I mentioned to her that I’d been invited to plug One Night with Fanny Brice on Joey Reynolds’ nationally syndicated television talk show. On a whim, I asked Marilyn if she’d come on Joey’s TV show with me; we could both talk a bit about Fanny Brice. I could bring Richard Danley, the music director/pianist from my show, and if Marilyn felt like it, maybe she could sing a Fanny Brice number or two. Well, she got to the TV studio just moments before Joey Reynolds’ talk show started. Joey and I chatted; Marilyn Michaels joined us. I asked her if she wanted to sing a Fanny Brice number. She suggested, “Second Hand Rose.” Richard Danley began playing it. She’d never met him before that night. She’d never rehearsed it with him. And she just knocked it out of the park. I’ve never heard it sung better. He went into “My Man,” and again—nerves of steel, this Marilyn Michaels—she tore our hearts out. She hadn’t sung either of these songs in ages, she’d had no chance to rehearse them; she just went out and did them, on Joey Reynolds’ nationally syndicated TV show, with total conviction. Like she owned those songs. I told her afterwards, “You could play Fanny Brice right now. If we ever get to make a movie of my play, you’d be perfect.” That’s a pro.
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One number I was very much looking forward to in the current revival of Funny Girl was “His is the Only Music that Makes Me Dance.” I’ve always liked that number. Streisand did it well. So did Mimi Hines; in fact, Hines recorded it during the run of Funny Girl and I loved listening to her recording, as well.
It begins with just the singer and a piano—an intimate moment. But when the piano began playing in this revival and Feldstein began singing, the sound quality was so mechanical, so over-processed and unnatural, I was stunned. I never heard anything that sounded so fake in a theater. I was looking at her, but hearing through the theater’s speakers what sounded more like an over-produced CD than an actual human singing “live,” accompanied by an actual pianist.
The sound design on this production bothered me. The original Broadway production of Funny Girl used subtle, minimal miking. The sound did not seem obviously amplified. If Fanny’s mother and her friends were playing cards at a table, downstage right, you heard their voices from where they were sitting, just as if you were overhearing your next-door neighbors in their backyard. I leaned forward in my seat for much of the original production; I had to listen very carefully to catch every word, because the voices sounded utterly natural.
If a trumpet player in the orchestra pit played the notes corresponding to “Nick-y Arn-stein, Nick-y Arn-stein,” you heard the plaintive, pure notes of that one trumpet, coming from a very specific spot in the orchestra pit. You knew there was one talented individual in that spot, creating that music on his horn. If the well-matched saxes came in, you heard them from where the reed players were seated—distinct sounds coming from distinct places in the vastness of the theater. And from time to time the lovely strings would swell, so beautifully cushioning the ballads.
But as an audience member at the current revival of Funny Girl, I never had that sense of individual sounds coming from individual players, in different parts of an orchestra pit. The sound of all of the players seemed compressed and combined into one highly amplified clump of sound coming from the speakers above the stage. And when Feldstein began singing “His is the Only Music that Makes Me Dance,” with just a piano accompanying her, what I heard was this oddly artificial, overly processed clump of sound. Not the vulnerable human sound of one woman, accompanied by one piano that we should have heard. I just shook my head.
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There are assorted other little problems with this Funny Girl revival. When are the events supposed to be occurring? They feel oddly untethered in time. In real life, Fanny broke through to fame in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1910. She divorced Nick Arnstein in 1927. But the Playbill for the current revival says the musical, which concludes with Fanny divorcing Nick takes place in 1924, and shows “memories prior” to that time. But a couple of times, in scenes set prior to World War One, dancers are shown doing “Charleston” moves—which immediately conjures up the Roaring Twenties. (“The Charleston” was a hit song and hit dance in 1925.) The choreographer is not evoking the right period.
When Brice employs a Yiddish accent on stage, someone in the show remarks that they like her “old-time accent.” But no one would have called it an “old-time” accent back at that time. When Brice broke through to fame in 1910, plenty of Jewish immigrants, having recently arrived from Eastern Europe, spoke with such accents. Brice was speaking with an accent that was certainly familiar to audiences of the time; it was very much a part of that time.
The current revival of Funny Girl refers at one point to Fanny appearing on the radio. But she never appeared on the radio in the years covered by this musical; her radio work came later. And network radio did not even exist yet in the period covered by this musical.
Where is “Henry Street” where Fanny supposedly lives? In the film of Funny Girl, “Henry Street” is on the Lower East Side. Here it’s supposed to be in Brooklyn.
In Funny Girl, Nick Arnstein does the noble thing and turns himself in when he’s accused of criminal behavior. In real life, he went on the lam for four months, passing messages to Fanny through their friend W. C. Fields. And the authorities questioned Fanny, suspecting her of aiding and abetting a fugitive.
For those who care about the facts, Fanny actually had two children. Funny Girl only mentions her having a daughter (Frances). In reality, Fanny also had a son, William, but—valuing his privacy–he asked that he not be mentioned in Funny Girl.
These are just some historical tidbits, for those who care about such things.
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Producer Ray Stark knew Fanny Brice well for the last dozen years of Fanny’s life. He devoted years of his life, and considerable sums of money, to memorializing her in print (via a book about her that he commissioned), on stage and on screen. Telling her story well was important to him, and to his wife, Frances (Fanny’s daughter).
When Funny Girl opened on Broadway in 1964, there were plenty of people still living who’d worked with Fanny. If anyone involved in the 1964 production wanted to know what Fanny Brice was like, or what Flo Ziegfeld was like, they didn’t have to look far. For example, Joseph Macaulay, who played Tom Keeney in the original Broadway production of Funny Girl, had worked with Fanny Brice in Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue in 1924, and he still proudly carried the five-year-contract that Ziegfeld gave him in 1928. That fascinated me, when I read that in the Playbill, which I still have. (I’ve saved every Playbill from every show I’ve ever seen in six decades of theater-going.)
And composer Jule Styne had accompanied Brice on piano in some personal appearances of hers around 1930. He wanted Funny Girl, despite artistic liberties taken in the storyline, to capture the essence of Brice. And many people felt it did.
For me, the current Broadway revival of Funny Girl only intermittently worked. There were some scenes that charmed me. (The “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows” number put a big smile on my face.)
But there were far too many others that didn’t grab me: scenes where I felt I had to listen to Fanny and Nick whine about how their lives weren’t working, when I would have liked to have seen some growth in them instead. Feldstein’s characterization was hit-or-miss, giving the production an air of mediocrity.
She was surprisingly strong and effective in the finale; she was giving 100% there. And I was glad to see her finally showing what she was capable of. But for me, it seemed like too little, too late to save the night.
Broadway deserves better.