Broadway Blip: Funny Girl
The composing team of Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) was never more potent than when they teamed for Funny Girl. The semi-autobiographical musical about the rise to fame and ill-fated romance of vaudevillian Fanny Brice crackled and sparkled, thanks particularly to the electric score and the indelible performance of Barbra Streisand. Isobel Lennart crafted the musical’s book, mostly an episodic tale of the ins-and-outs of Fanny’s struggle to be taken seriously as a female comedienne in a time where that was taboo, and her star-crossed romance with (and marriage to) professional gambler and con-artist Nicky Arnstein.
Funny Girl opened at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre on March 26, 1964 and ran an impressive 1,348 performances. It was nominated for a slew of Tony Awards, but lost in all categories to the season’s juggernaut Hello, Dolly! Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were nominated for Best Composer and Lyricist, a fitting honor since the original cast album was so popular that that it went on to be inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004. A Broadway revival has yet to materialize for Funny Girl, perhaps because Barbra Streisand’s association with the role is iconic. The specter of her performance would loom over any proposed revival. Still, a popular 2015 revival starring Sheridan Smith at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory inspired whisperings that a Broadway revival is imminent. The London revival featured tweaks to the book by Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein.
Funny Girl’s success in the face of Hello, Dolly! is a bit of a surprise. Not many musicals can boast winning zero Tony Awards and yet managed to run over 1,000 performances. Barbra Streisand was of course part of its success, but the show ran long after she had departed the production. Time hasn’t been kind to Isobel Lennart’s book which was never the strongest aspect of the production to begin with. It has always been the score of Funny Girl, above and beyond all other aspects of the show, that has remained evergreen. It is impossible to thin about the show without breaking into “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, “I’m the Greatest Star”, “People” or “The Music That Makes Me Dance.” Bob Merriil was an effective collaborator and he was never more on his game than when he was paired with Jule Styne.