Raining on Your Parade: The Challenges of Funny Girl
Funny Girl is a musical that has yet to be revived on Broadway despite having a superior score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill and a fairly faithful film version that has an enormous following. The trick to reviving Funny Girl is finding the right actress to play Fanny Brice, the titular character who has to be over the top funny, quietly sentimental, somewhat gawky, and possessing of a powerful, but nuanced voice. Barbra Streisand was a "Rose of sheer perfection" in both the stage and in the film version. So amazing, in fact, that the specter of her indelible characterization looms over any proposed revival, becoming the “freckle on the complexion” of the piece.
The book for Funny Girl isn't exactly a study in how great musicals are written. It is, at best, adequate in the first half and ambling in the second. The musical also starts out very funny, a musical comedy about an infectious personality who overcomes her perceived shortcomings to become a star. It transitions by Act II into a melancholic heartbreaker that doesn’t quite know what to do with the Act I Fanny Brice when her romance goes down the toilet. This is why it is all the more important that the right performer be cast, to overcome the mediocrity and uncomfortable evolution of the book scenes. Fortunately, the right star with the right mix of comedy and pathos, will be buoyed by the powerhouse score that features "I'm the Greatest Star", "Don't Rain on My Parade", “People” and the utterly top-notch "The Music That Makes Me Dance." The music alone is what makes the best case for a revival and Funny Girl deserves to be seen again.
So where exactly is the start that can overcome the Streisand ghost? If you look around at Broadway today, most of its stars are of a different variety than the ones who used to pepper Broadway in yesteryear. There is an eccentricity and sublime uniqueness that seems lacking. Talented though they are, I have a hard time envisioning any of them as Fanny. Some have suggested Lea Michele is the Fanny-in-waiting. Although her voice is of the powerhouse variety and she has already made her audition tape by singing many of the songs over several episodes of Glee, I have never felt that she was the right comedienne to bring the comedy of the role to life. Oh, she sings the hell out of all the big numbers, but is she going to be able to mine the humor of “His Love Makes Me Beautiful" of “Secondhand Rose” (which is sure to be sandwiched into a revival)? Others who may have pulled it off at one time or another have aged out of the role, and even if they hadn’t, the possibilities present comparison with Streisand before the show even has its first rehearsal. The throngs would have begun complaining as soon as the likes of an Idina Menzel or Kristen Chenoweth had been announced. It’s a no-win situation.
Perhaps the solution to all of this tension that arises around the ghost of Streisand is to pluck a new Fanny from the world of the unknown. Let's find a funny gal who can sing and charm us without any preconceived notions of how this character is burned into our collective brains. Let's remember that Barbra was nothing like the real Fanny Brice, but she was relatively new on the scene when she got the role and she did her own thing. We can find this again, outside the annoyingly over-miked world of today's American Idol power belters who fail to find the aforementioned nuance that has always made Broadway great (Okay, Merman aside).
The Menier Chocolate Factory in London is preparing a revival of Funny Girl and playwright Harvey Fierstein is being brought in to “freshen up” the book. Michael Mayer is directing, and Sheridan Smith is set to play the title character. The limited run is already sold-out which only points to the fact Funny Girl has an interested audience. A Broadway revival is what people are waiting for. We can get past the ghost of Streisand and still celebrate what she accomplished in the role. Embracing one does not have to preclude the embrace of the other. There is a Fanny Brice out there just waiting to be our “Greatest Star”, we just have to find her. With a little flexibility and creativity, the parade can be a lot dryer than once anticipated.