Not Barbra Streisand nor the real Fanny Brice can get in the way of this ‘Funny Girl’
by Seth Rogovoy
(SHEFFIELD, Mass., June 26, 2003) – The two most common questions artistic director Julianne Boyd has been asked over the last few months about Barrington Stage Company’s upcoming production of “Funny Girl” are “Who is playing Barbra Streisand?” and “Are you casting an Egyptian as Nick Arnstein?”
Never mind that the musical isn’t about Streisand, and that the real-life Arnstein was an American Jew. In the public mind, at least, “Funny Girl” is forever associated with Streisand – who created the lead role of Fanny Brice on Broadway, and who went on to superstardom in the Hollywood film version in which Omar Sharif played her wayward husband, Arnstein.
The challenge that anyone faces in staging “Funny Girl” today is how to get past these audience preconceptions and veritable cultural icons. For Boyd and for actress Jeanne Goodman, who has the near-thankless task of assuming the “Streisand” role in Barrington Stage Company’s production of the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill musical -- which opened BSC’s summer season on Wednesday and runs through July 19 at the Consolati Performing Arts Center – the answer was to look at the real-life story of comedienne Fanny Brice on which the musical is based.
“First you pick up a biography of Fanny Brice and go back to her,” said Goodman about her approach to preparing the role. “Since she was performing in the Teens and Twenties, there wasn’t a lot of film footage of her, so for Barbra Streisand to recreate a role that people had no image of allowed her to do her thing and be appreciated for it. You don’t need to copy something people already know. But you do need to play that woman and not Barbra Streisand.”
For Goodman, 26, this meant reading the available biographies of Brice, renting the few movies in which she appeared, and listening to tapes of Brice’s “Baby Snooks” radio character – the precursor to Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann – at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.
“I got a sense of her comedy and brought my sense of comedy to the role,” said Goodman, who, like Brice but unlike Streisand, thinks of herself primarily as a comic actress more than a comedienne or singer.
The musical, which opened on Broadway in 1964, and the subsequent films, “Funny Girl” (1968) and the sequel, “Funny Lady” (1975), loosely adhere to the outlines of Fanny Brice’s real-life story. The talented, precocious Brice, born Fania Borach in 1891, displayed a flair and a zeal for entertaining from an early age, and by her mid-teens she was appearing in burlesque shows in Brooklyn.
By the age of 20, Brice was a headliner in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Follies,” where she broke ground as a dialect comedian mostly parodying Yiddish speakers, one of which she was not. Typecast as a Jewish comedienne, she sang novelty numbers like “Sadie Salome, Go Home,” reportedly written expressly for her by Irving Berlin.
Eventually, Brice broke out of the Jewish comedy ghetto to become something of a mainstream star, singing songs like “My Man,” “Second Hand Rose,” and “Rose of Washington Square,” and appearing alongside such major Broadway and film stars as W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers.
Along with her growing fame grew her troubled, complex romantic life, particularly her relationship with Nick Arnstein, which provides the dramatic backbone for “Funny Girl.” Portrayed as a dashing, romantic gambler, the real-life Arnstein was an ambitious but inept con man whose failed attempts at securities fraud prefigured today’s corporate criminals as much as Brice’s steadfast, blind loyalty could have provided the raw material for Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” That the musical and film gloss over some of the seamier aspects of the relationship is undoubtedly due to the fact that they were produced by Brice’s son-in-law, Ray Stark.
In researching the real-life Brice and Arnstein, Boyd became enthralled.
“I read all the different biographies on Fanny Brice and stuff on Nick Arnstein, and I got really caught up in her life,” said Boyd. “She was on tour all the time to support her man and her family, and eventually she just kind of wore herself out. Her health started suffering.
“As I’m reading all this, it’s really interesting. But then I finally said to myself, that’s research, that’s not what’s going on. I’m doing the script by Isobel Lennert and songs by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne. Anything that can inform the script I can use, but the rest I have to put away because I’m not doing a docudrama.”
Although Goodman, a Yale University-graduate who attended Belvoir Terrace arts camp in Lenox as a teen-ager, also clearly sympathizes strongly with Fanny Brice – even perhaps identifying with her as an actress who already is being typecast for ethnic, comic roles in shows like “Crossing Delancey” and “Yiddisher Teddy Bears” -- she too reconciled herself to the liberties with which Brice is portrayed in the script.
“I think dramatically the way they’ve written it, it works better than real life,” she said. “It’s less dark. In the musical Fanny Brice gets the hint that Nick Arnstein isn’t all she might think he is at least twice. But in real life all the time, over and over again, he disappointed her, and she stayed with him. In the musical he doesn’t disappoint that way from the beginning -- he’s more charming and means well.
“I guess I would say I’ve trusted the script. There aren’t that many things in the script that are wrong. It works for what it is. It’s a musical.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 27, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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