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Jim McDermottAugust 26, 2022
Jared Grimes and Julie Benko in "Funny Girl." (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade).

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to see a Broadway show. And as I sat there before it began, taking in the buzz of the crowd, the crimson hue of the curtains, I found myself unexpectedly feeling a kid-going-to-the-theater-for-the-first-time kind of giddiness. Every time we slide into seats before an empty stage, we are preparing to witness one of the world’s great magic tricks. A group of strangers are going to build a whole universe in front of us. And even though we know that it’s all just made up, it still may have such an impact that we will carry it with us when we leave, perhaps even for the rest of our lives.

Over time, the experience of going to the theater can become so familiar that the wonder of it slips away (or is consumed by the social media that I usually waste those precious moments before a show reading). But the promise of that moment, and the audacity, is always the same. Somehow I am about to be transported away.

What was really surprising on this particular night, though, was that I was feeling excitement when the show I was about to see was “Funny Girl.”

As celebrated as the original musical of "Funny Girl" became—eight Tony nominations, 1,348 performances—for years beforehand it was a disaster.

One roll for the whole shebang

You may have heard about what’s been going on with “Funny Girl,” the revival of the 1964 musical about a hilarious young New Yorker who doesn’t behave or look like your typical leading lady but just knows that she has the talent to be a star. Conversation about the show has been the hot topic all summer long among theatergoers here in New York, along with “Have you seen ‘Into the Woods’ yet?”

In order to fully appreciate the present situation, it’s useful to remember the drama that surrounded the show’s original production. As celebrated as the original musical became—eight Tony nominations, 1,348 performances, a feature film that was the highest grossing film of the year in 1968 and had eight Oscar nominations and one win of its own—for years beforehand it was a disaster.

“Funny Girl” was the 1960s musical theater version of a biopic. Fanny Brice was a legend of early 20th century theater, the daughter of European immigrants who dropped out of school to be in a burlesque revue and ended up becoming one of the enduring luminaries of the Ziegfeld Follies and early radio. She was known for her screwball sense of comedy. But in 1920 Florenz Ziegfeld heard the French torch song “Mon Homme” while visiting Paris and bought the rights specifically for Brice. He insisted she do it straight instead of for laughs. Standing still upon the stage and singing with a quiet, haunting simplicity, her performance of “My Man” electrified the audience. It became her signature.

A few years before her death in 1951, Brice’s son-in-law Ray Stark had the idea to turn her life into a movie. He went through 11 different screenwriters over 12 years before he found one that he liked. (It took 12 years. This is not normal.) When the script was shown to the actress Mary Martin, she agreed to do it, but only if it was a stage musical. But then after they committed to that, Martin dropped out.

The next four years would see directors, producers and lead actresses come and go. Anne Bancroft seemed like a sure thing for Brice, but then didn’t like the music (or the lyricist). Eydie Gormé said she’d do it, but only do it if her husband Steve Lawrence could play Nick Arnstein, Fanny’s debonair ne’er-do-well husband. Carol Burnett loved the idea but thought they needed someone Jewish, like Fanny herself.

Stark, his wife (and Brice’s daughter) Fran and “Funny Girl” composer Jule Styne went to see the 21-year-old Barbra Streisand perform in a club in the Village, but they were left cold. “She looked awful,” Styne recalled in a biography of his life. “All her clothes were out of thrift shops. I saw Fran Stark staring at her, obvious distaste on her face.” But by this point Streisand had already won a Tony at age 19 for her work in her Broadway debut, the musical “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.” She had also performed on various late-night shows and had a contract with Columbia Records and a following. Stark hired her.

Even with their Fanny in hand, problems continued. The script was a disaster. Even today, pretty much everyone agrees that the second act of “Funny Girl” doesn’t work. What was a story about a woman with big dreams and a lot of joy reaching for her star becomes the story of her gambling addict/con artist husband Nick losing his way, with Fanny mostly reduced to being the sad and loving wife wishing he could get better, as the two of them sing a semi-relentless series of sad and wistful songs.

And that’s where the show ended up. Prior to opening, 30 minutes of material were cut from the script on two separate occasions during their out-of-town tryouts. (This is not a good sign.) Their Broadway debut ended up being delayed five times. At one point Streisand had to fight to keep what would become one of her most iconic songs, “People,” in the show.

Today it’s hard not to imagine Streisand as the self-possessed, outspoken megastar she has become, or the show as anything but a hit. But the Streisand of “Funny Girl” is sweetly wide-eyed and chimerical, the delight of childhood given form. And behind the show’s effervescence and charm, there had been a lot of pretty messy business.

The Streisand of “Funny Girl” is sweetly wide-eyed and chimerical, the delight of childhood given form.

At least I didn’t fake it

It took 50 years for “Funny Girl” to return to Broadway, an astonishing length of time for a show that had been so successful. It wasn’t for a lack of desire; for decades “Funny Girl” has been the Great White Whale of the Great White Way—the revival everyone has wanted to do and no one could crack.

Then in 2018, producers announced a new production starring the very funny young film star Beanie Feldstein. As an actress who seems to naturally engender laughter and delight in her performances, Feldstein appeared a perfect fit for the role. But the part of Fanny Brice is deceptive. She may often lead with a pratfall or comic line, but she’s also a tremendous singer. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” alone is the kind of showstopper that only a real belter can pull off. And it turns out that Feldstein, for all her many talents, just does not have that kind of voice. Her difficulty with the music also seemed to undermine her comic timing; as one friend told me, “You can see her thinking the whole time.”

The revival of “Funny Girl” was a massive financial undertaking, $15 million for a show meant to last years. But just three months and a week after its opening, Feldstein was gone and the part given to the TV actress Lea Michele, whose own history with the part of Fanny Brice is very long and very weird. After starring in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, Michele spent six years on the television show “Glee” playing Rachel Berry, an intense and over-achieving high school student whose dream is to play Fanny Brice in the first-ever revival of “Funny Girl” on Broadway. The second-to-last season of the show actually involves her going to Broadway to do just that, and having to compete for the part against her former glee club classmate Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera).

So in a blurring of fiction and reality, we now have a musical about an aspiring stage star who wills her dream of stardom into reality, based upon the true story of the aspiring stage star who did just that, being performed by a woman who for six years played a character who chased that very role, all while also wanting to give that performance herself. I’d call it a Broadway ouroboros, except in a way it’s the story of pretty much every actor everywhere and always.

At this point, the big question is: Can Lea Michele save “Funny Girl”?

At this point, the big question is: Can Lea Michele save “Funny Girl”? And also, should she be allowed to try? In 2020, castmates from “Glee” took Michele to task after she expressed support for #BlackLivesMatter, saying she had made the lives of people of color on set “a living hell.” The fact that two years later all of that has been put aside because a big budget show is in trouble is viewed by some as yet another example of the cancer that underlies show business. “The show must go on” is often trumpeted here, the rallying cry of the often hundreds of people whose dedication is needed to keep a show going over a run. But there is an uglier aspect to that idea, too. Sometimes the show must go on, ethics be damned.

Maybe the Gleeks will in fact turn out for their gal-pal Rachel and enable the investors of “Funny Girl” to recoup their investment. Personally, I’d say it’s more likely Michele will temporarily slow the bleeding. She is a talented and confident performer, someone with experience and pipes (a.k.a. a voice). But the role of Fanny requires something Michele does not naturally show, and that is vulnerability. “Funny Girl” is not the story of a shrewd and calculating performer who climbs her way to the top, but that of a sweet kid who is so unabashedly herself—even (or especially) when she looks ridiculous, that the world just cannot help but fall in love with her.

Ironically, that is exactly the kind of performance that Feldstein’s former understudy Julie Benko has been delivering every night this month, playing Fanny while Michele gets ready. (Benko will also perform on Thursday evenings once Michele begins.) The night I spent at “Funny Girl” was one of the most unexpectedly entertaining evenings I’ve had at a Broadway musical all year. Benko was such a natural as Fanny she almost seemed to be improvising the role.

Her delivery made actor Ramin Karmiloo (Nick) break character and laugh in their very first scene together, then seemed to do the same to the entire cast, in the iconic scene in which Fanny does a Follies number wearing a wedding gown but also a pillow to look pregnant. At some point it was impossible to tell whether the constant pinball collisions of Fanny’s belly with the other folly girls was just great choreography or Benko fooling around. Either way, there was a tremendous amount of laughter in the room, and also relief, past and future forgotten, cast and audience together just in the moment, having fun.

It’s very unlikely that Benko could carry the show if Michele’s performance founders. She has all of the talent, but she isn’t a name that will get tens of thousands of tourists in the door. But then again, at first, neither was the real Fanny Brice.

Live theater exists in an impossibly delicate space between the promise of dreams and the compromises of reality.

Don’t tell me not to live

Live theater exists in an impossibly delicate space between the promise of dreams and the compromises of reality. And even when everything goes right, it only lives for a moment, though if we’re lucky that moment may somehow live on in us forever.

A few days after I saw “Funny Girl” I was sitting at a singalong piano bar in lower Manhattan. It was early in the evening, so the crowd was still just the handful of regulars who love a chance to sing some Broadway deep cuts before the “play ‘Wicked’” mobs take over.

At one point, the piano player started “My Man,” which was in the film version of “Funny Girl” but not the stage version. In fact, though it was the definitive Fanny Brice song, the only time Streisand ever sang “My Man” in the original production was at the end of the show on closing night. She performed it as a homage to Fanny. One can only imagine how it brought down the house.

When the pianist got to the first verse of the song, one of the regulars began to sing. Her voice was so pure and strong, the entire bar went quiet. She sang the song mostly seated at her cheap bar stool, just letting the sound and feeling of the music carry her and us along. But as the tune rose to its climax it was like it literally pulled her to her feet. Suddenly she stood before us belting like she was on a Broadway stage. As she let fly the song’s final words, “forever more,” she stretched back and extended her arms, as though releasing the song like a blessing into the universe.

And then the moment was over, as unexpectedly as it came.

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