Thursday, April 16, 2015
Funny Girl has been dismissed by several critics as a rickety vehicle for a star turn. Without Barbra Streisand is there reason to revive it? People love the big songs but how many are longing to hear "Henry Street" or "Rat-tat-tat-tat" again?
I mentioned earlier this week that the show has similarities to the often revived Gypsy. Let's compare two key moments in the musicals Funny Girl and Gypsy.
The awkward young performer makes her big debut:
Louise's Let Me Entertain You strip is full of tension. She's terrified to be on that stage but once she stops listening to her mother and starts talking to the audience her confidence grows. We segue into a fabulous montage as Louise Hovick transforms herself into Gypsy Rose Lee. We are late into act two and building towards the shows climax.
Meanwhile Fanny Brice is desperate to be on stage. She surprises her boss by leaping out of the chorus to belt the solo Cornet Man. Fanny can't keep up with the dancers but the crowd loves her voice. There's no consequence for sabotaging the number and Fanny is quickly hired for the Ziegfeld Follies. She repeats her tactics for the Ziegfeld debut, making an ensemble number all about her by wearing a fake pregnancy pad. We're only halfway through act one and Fanny has achieved stardom.
The long suffering leading man says goodbye:
Rose broke Herbie's trust when she forced her daughter to strip. Rose has shown Herbie the ugliness of her ambitions and proven she'll never be a "wife" to him. We've seen his arc resolve through two acts. He leaves her alone to sing a sad reprise.
Fanny broke Nick's trust when she offered him a job through her connections... huh? Instead he sells illegal bonds, goes to prison, then asks for a divorce. Most of his arc leading to this was off stage. He leaves her alone to sing a sad reprise.
Roses' showbiz ambitions in Gypsy propel the show destroying family and romantic relationships in their path. Stakes are high. Fanny's showbiz ambitions in Funny Girl are quickly achieved learning her to pine for her cipher of a leading man for the rest of the night. Stakes are low.
In Ethan Mordden's book Open A New Window he points out two reasons for Nicky's lack of character. First the real Arnstein was "alive and litigious." Second the role was cut down during the shows disastrous out of town tryout. Streisand was the only part audiences liked so replacement director Jerome Robbins focused the show on her. This is even more apparent in the movie where nearly everyone elses songs are cut.
If you bring Funny Girl back to Broadway you're bringing back the songs for Eddie Ryan, Mama Brice, Ms. Strakosh and the blander than bland Nicky Arnstein. You better have a Fanny who can distract you from them.