"I'm the Greatest Star" - a Robbie Rozelle Recommendation
Musical theatre scholars know that the introduction of a character's dreams, wishes, hopes and goals are summed up in the "I Am" song, a character number that appears early in the show as a way of eliciting empathy for the story's catalyst. There are many fine examples of "I Am" songs including "Some People" in Gypsy, "Chief Cook and Bottle Washer" from The Rink, and "Corner of the Sky" from Pippin. Arguably, the finest among these musical monologues is "I'm the Greatest Star," introducing the world to would-be vaudeville star Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl (1964). Per the request of my dear friend and fellow musical theatre enthusiast Robbie Rozelle, I will dissect "I'm the Greatest Star" and look at why it sets up Brice and her dreams so perfectly.
Funny Girl is not a great musical. It has a mediocre story that fizzles out in the second act, but it also has a supremely divine score that elevates the audience to the stratosphere. It's overture rivals Gypsy and Promises, Promises as the most electric, energy igniting instrumental ever written for an orchestra to spontaneously combust the footlights. In that overture, we first hear the strains of "I'm the Greatest Star," an insistant melody from the pen of composer Jule Styne. Just from it's rhythmic drive, we are already set up to know that Fanny Brice is a force to be reckoned with. Musically, the piece climbs and soars, just as the title character hopes to do.
Fanny Brice was an awkward, somewhat unattractive girl from New York City who had big aspirations to be a vaudeville star. A clown with great confidence in her talents, but also with great vulnerability about her relationships and self-image, her "I Am" song would need to capture all aspects of this complicated character. "I'm the Greatest Star" does this through the precision lyrics of Bob Merrill. Designed to show off her multiple facets as she makes an unrelenting appeal to be given a break into show business, the song allows Fanny to lay it all on the line. Her desperation, passion, humor, fragility and spunk are all revealed. We even catch glimpses of her dillusions, which will come back to haunt her later in the story in her romance and marriage with troubled sophisticate Nicky Arnstein. Marry Merrill lyrics like "Who is the pip with pizazz? Who is all ginger and jazz?" to the jolting surges of Jule Styne's music, and the song captures everything that Brice wants to be.
You cannot discuss the greatness of "I'm the Greatest Star" without mentioning the performance of Barbra Streisand who introduced the song to the world as the original Fanny in Funny Girl. Described as a "Force of Nature," Streisand navigated the song skillfully, highlighting the many components and contradictions that come together to make this character breathe life. It is, however, the material that gave her the platform to shine and it's brilliance should not be underestimated.