The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: The Last Five Years

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Funny Girl

September 18, 1968   Columbia   155 minutes

You could argue that it all started with Mary Martin. She was the one who suggested Ray Stark turn his long-aborning screen project--the story of his wife's famous mother--into a stage musical. As a novice to Bway, producer Stark brought the idea to David Merrick (who had produced The World of Suzie Wong on stage--which became Stark's first Hlwd film) and Merrick assembled the creative team, beginning with Jule Styne (who was then his go-to composer) and, wishfully, Stephen Sondheim--who balked at the idea of Texan Mary Martin as the Jewish Fanny Brice. He was gone before Martin, who ankled before Jerome Robbins. The idea was to regroup the team from Gypsy, for another unique stage bio. After Sondheim, lyricist Dorothy Fields was briefly considered (presumably Comden & Green were busy with A Girl to Remember or What a Way to Go!) until Styne met up with Bob Merrill in Palm Beach and they hit it off right away. Up to then, Merrill had written his own music, tho, hilariously, he was compositionally illiterate, and pecked out melodies on his toy piano--no lie. Meanwhile Robbins had sold Anne Bancroft on the role, (no mean feat given that she was red-hot at the time having just won two Tonys and an Oscar in quick succession); but when she heard the complexities of Styne and Merrill's score-in-progress, she realized it was beyond her capabilities and bowed out. Eydie Gorme seemed like a good fit: great voice, funny-natured, Jewish. But could she act? She couldn't commit. Kaye Ballard was one who lobbied hard. And Carol Burnett would have loved to, but was just as ethnically deficient as Martin. (Instead, Styne would concurrently write Burnett another show.) And so the planets lined up to pave the way for you know who.

The supernova that would blast Barbra into show-biz legend was fraught with problems, arguments, resignations, firings, delays -- a proverbial nightmare. After Robbins dropped out, Merrick hired Bob Fosse, who soon also resigned, and lastly Garson Kanin, before bowing out himself, leaving Ray Stark as sole producer. Creating her first Bway part since Miss Liberty, Allyn Ann McLerie was let go when her role was excised in rehearsals. Despite her youth and relative inexperience, Streisand was headstrong and in frequent conflict with Kanin. Eventually he too would be replaced (tho retain director credit) by no less than Robbins who heroically returned at the eleventh hour and managed to work his miracle cure in time, and voila! another Bway smash. 1964 was a bounty year for musicals, as Sondheim's lyric for "It's a Hit" in Merrily testifies: "Folks, it's Funny Girl, Fiddler and Dolly combined." The show was Jule Styne's biggest career hit--his only show to run over a thousand performances. The same for Bob Merrill, tho he was only the lyricist here. The book was screenwriter Isobel Lennart's sole Bway venture and the musical's biggest liability--suffering from a classic case of second act trouble. Robbins did what he could to camouflage the longeurs, including suggesting a comic retort from Brice against Arnstein's seduction song, "You are Woman, I Am Man." The role of Arnstein was given to Sydney Chaplin, who aside from a trio of Jule Styne musicals was seemingly unemployable. By the show's opening he had but two songs, both in duet with his leading lady--who had eight more on her own. The conjunction of the show, the star, and the music was a publicist's wet dream. Bway had already noted Streisand in an unconventional ingenue role, a neglected Jewish secretary in Harold Rome's sadly underrated I Can Get It For You Wholesale, where she was given more vocal score than most of the leads--and got the show's sole Tony nomination. (She lost to Phyllis Newman for her puzzlingly over-praised pageant re-enactment, "I Was a Shoo-In" from the otherwise lively Subways are for Sleeping score.) She didn't win for Funny Girl either, losing to the steamroller momentum of Hello, Dolly! which owed as much to the public's need for joy following the nation's mourning of JFK, as to Carol Channing's cotton-candy-from-Mars personality--a torch to re-light the Great White Way. Babs got no less rave notices, but in the short term personality trumped talent, and Channing swept every accolade handed out. Streisand was already a top-selling vocalist, with three albums and two Grammys before the show opened, and a 4th album a few months later, to compete with her OCR on different versions of "People"--which in turn earned her another Grammy.  In her 22 month run, aside from refunds for the eleven shows she missed (only two of which were subbed by understudy Lainie Kazan) Babs sold out every show; yet was notoriously inconsistent over her 716 performances; on or off depending on mood. Six months after opening, Variety ran a front page headline:
Femme stars nix legit long runs
citing Streisand for boredom (among other gals with stage fatigue: Carol Burnett, Kim Stanley, Elizabeth Ashley). 

Given her bent for "perfection" you'd think she'd be more of a professional--perhaps that only came later. After a three month hiatus she opened in London in April '66 for a sellout 14 week run. A replacement for Streisand on Bway might have seemed suicidal, but kudos to Stark for making the effort. Surely no one would have taken bets that a Canadian night-club act, would pilot the show thru another 18 months and a move to the Majestic, across the street from the St. James where Ginger Rogers was by then kicking her heels up as Dolly. Yet Mimi Hines, with her husband/partner Phil Ford (not as Nick, but as consort Eddie Ryan) kept the show running. It was also widely toured and done in strawhat tents over the next few years, with such comic/singers as Marilyn Michaels, Edie Adams and, if you can believe it, Barbara Cook. All of which belies the myth that the show is undoable without Streisand.

The problem with it, however, and inevitably the movie as well, is the second act. The first moves at a smart clip with plenty of variety in the score. Admittedly there isn't much conflict--Fanny's rise to fame is virtually without obstacle--the suffering comes later. As a backstager it's a bit cliched, but so what? The rise to stardom, the bumpy path to romance, is an easy ride. In the end she has to choose (temporarily) between sex or stage, and tears off for her Man. In itself, it's almost a perfect one-act musical. But then we have nowhere to go but down; a series of unhappy and unhappier moments, until the cathartic eleven o'clock number: the torch song. Where did all the fun go? Yes, there's another big Follies number, a comic WWI salute; Eddie and Mrs. Strakosh urge Mrs. Brice to "Find Yourself a Man," but the movie dispensed with both. All's the pity as "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" is a much better number than the lame Swan Lake parody in the film-- featuring the nearly-forgotten Tommy Rall, who seemed so promising in Kiss Me Kate and 7 Brides for 7 Bros., now reduced to this silent cameo as the Prince. (Tho he does make his signature leap in the movie--choreographed by Herbert Ross.) But a doomed and crumbling marriage falls short of either tragic stature or entertainment value. To say nothing of giving lie to the show's title. Where Gypsy builds to a shattering climax, Funny Girl builds to a. . . divorce. Still, it was Streisand clowning and singing Styne that sold the show. Whoever designed the graphic logo perfectly captured the play's intention, its colors, its modern construction. Columbia adapted it for the movie as well--where the roller skates now make some sense (a similar number was cut early from Bway). The logo was a rare feat of branding carried over from Bway--the only other I can think of is the executive chair from How to Succeed, slightly modernized for the film.

Of course, there was little question who else would play Brice in the movie (tho allegedly Columbia executives absurdly wanted Shirley MacLaine--Stark would have none of it). The film was to be directed by Sidney Lumet, who--in a repeat of the stage revolving door--left during pre-production and in came William Wyler, who had never done a musical before. The 65 year-old Wyler, who had three Oscars and 12 nominations (a record for a director to this day) had steered Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Greer Garson and Audrey Hepburn to Oscars as well, but Babs wasn't one to sit back and rely on her experienced elders. She had reached the top echelon of show-biz: Hlwd, and had no intention ever of returning to 8 shows a week. Early in '68 long before Funny Girl was released, Fox signed her (to universal astonishment) for Hello, Dolly! and soon after Paramount for On a Clear Day--at $1 million a pop, making her Hlwd's premier musical star, on the heels of Julie Andrews, who all too soon would tumble from her seemingly fail-safe perch. But first and foremost, Streisand was preserving her legend on celluloid, and no one--including Wyler--was going to rain on her parade. Sydney Chaplin may have set the bluehaired matinee crowd aflutter, but Babs didn't like him and there was little thought of putting him in the movie. So Nicky Arnstein was up for grabs. Here again the list began with Sinatra, who naturally wanted more songs and focus. Other names were bandied about: Sean Connery, James Garner, Brando, Peck. Ultimately the choice of Omar Sharif was rather inspired. His musical demands were minimal; his primary function to dazzle with soft-spoken lighlty-accented dolce far niente and look stunningly beautiful. His kohl-enhanced Egyptian features played daringly well against Babs classic Jewishness--a scandal in some quarters coming so soon on the heels of a bitter six day war between Egypt & Israel--and great publicity. To play Zeigfeld, Wyler chose Walter Pidgeon--who is stiff and imperious, lacking any of the glamor William Powell brought to the man in MGM's Oscar-winning bio-pic. I've never understood Pidgeon's wooden appeal, but here he hasn't much to do, let alone sing--unlike his turn on Bway in Take Me Along. Anne Francis plays a showgirl in the role presumably intended for Allyn Ann McLerie that was cut in rehearsal. She seems much too contemporary as does Mittie Lawrence as Fanny's black maid, who looks one good dress away from being a Paris fashion model from No Strings--a blatant '60s course correction from years of Jemima domestics. Kay Medford, the only other cast member from Bway is barely more than the cliche Jewish mother; her Oscar nomination a bit of a mystery. Even more so considering both her song numbers were omitted from the film. She's not much of a physical match to Babs either--looking more Irish than Yid. Her sidekick, Mrs. Strakosh is Mae Questel, the once & always voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, now old and rotund but still vocally unmistakeable--as was Jean Stapleton (the future Edith Bunker) who played the role on Bway--her fourth and final musical; all hits but Juno.

On screen Funny Girl dwells in a curious timelessness. Aside from the period costumes and settings there are few clues to particular dates, no defining historical references. Brice joined the Follies in 1910 for two additions, but her glory days began a decade later. By necessity Zeigfeld is a key character, but there's nary a mention of any other contemporary figures--Brice is isolated from his galaxy of stars: Bert Williams, Marilyn Miller, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields and dozens of others. From this you'd think she ruled over the Follies as Streisand did Funny Girl, when at most Brice appeared in half a dozen spots over an evening-long revue with a slew of other acts. Funny Girl rose or fell entirely on Barbra's shoulders. The musical's librettist and screenwriter, Isobel Lennart, took the usual major liberties with the facts for a stage bio, making Fanny a virgin seduced by Nick, when in life she'd already been married. To be fair, Lennart was constrained by the fact Arnstein was still alive and litigious, having previously won a suit over a thinly veiled Brice bio, Rose of Washington Square, made by Fox in 1939, with the characters renamed, but using Brice's signature numbers, and "My Man" as the theme song for the decidedly waspy Alice Faye. But in truth Funny Girl is just as much Streisand's story--or at least her early career in period wrapping. The hardscrabble hunger, the comic assertiveness, the ugly-duckling awkwardness, that voice: it's all Miss Barbra cloaked in a fantasy character purported to be Fanny Brice. To wit: the pregnant bride in "His Love Makes Me Beautiful," not a page from history, but an action in the spirit of Brice--now Streisand's moment entirely. Is this how fame mutates? For all we know, Jesus might have been a troubador.

Nor was the score much suggestive of the period. This was Jule Styne in full '60s mode with complex harmonies, staccato rhythms and daringly little pastiche. He was on fire this decade--but aside from Funny Girl none of his other shows caught interest in Hlwd. This one begins in silence: Fanny the Star enters and regards her image: "Hello, gorgeous," a line with equal resonance for the offbeat beauty of Streisand. There's no music until we begin the flashback, starting in her mother's parlor (another momma Rose!) where Fanny's prospects are debated, "If a Girl Isn't Pretty (Like a Miss Atlantic City)" On stage the song plays across several locales, the message pounding thru from all sides, but Wyler lets it peter out in the movie, turning it mid-song into scoring as she marches down the lower east side. Fanny's Wanting Song is more a declaration of Self, and Styne--who loved unique vocal talent and was inspired by it--tailored this one for Streisand, with Merrill providing the prescient announcement: "I'm the Greatest Star." "Cornet Man" is a terrific wailing blues number, but it doesn't sound like a song Brice would've performed. Stark cut it for the movie, subbing "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You" (co-written by Brice's 3rd husband, Billy Rose), which followed a new Styne/Merrill tune, "The Roller Skate Rag"--a throwaway designed to showcase Fanny's comic credentials. Such an old trope--the single chorus girl whose fumbles destroy the number--and yet, again, it works (despite the illogic; wouldn't her inexperience on skates be noticed in the rehearsal she'd just been invited to in the scene before?) Both of Kay Medford's comic numbers (which aren't all that funny) are also cut as is the jaunty "I Want to Be Seen with You Tonight" duet with Fanny & Nick. "Henry Street" is heard only as background music in the saloon. Bob Merrill's lyrics are sometimes sloppy: I still don't know what "I'll blow my own horn till someone blows it," means. Does she want someone to come take over and blow her horn for her? Is she metaphorically conjuring a publicist? And I can't believe the entire world has given a pass to the very first line in the verse of "People," We travel single-oh" "Oh," what? Oh, I need a rhyme with "I don't know?" And yet the song is a deservedly famous ballad with, in my opinion, one fatal musical flaw. Styne seals the deal over the phrase: "are the luckiest people in the world," but then he gets lost in the weeds at "acting more like children then children," bringing the song to a dead halt. Fortunately his melodic sense kicks in immediately after, but its such an awkward little thud that it always disrupts what's otherwise one of his greatest ballads. And yet again, even with a hit this big, Styne is given less respect in Hlwd than almost any other Bway composer. Except for "Sadie, Sadie" the entire second act score is scrapped for the screen. "Who Are You Now," a pensive little ballad in the same vein as Gypsy's "Little Lamb" was replaced by a new title tune by Styne & Merrill. They got an Oscar nod out of it, but it didn't make much impact, and isn't put into new stage productions like the movie songs from Sound of Music are. The decision to not use Brice's songs, gave Styne & Merrill the challenge of creating something as memorable as "My Man"; and to their credit they entirely avoid pastiche. "The Music That Makes Me Dance," was a very modern song in structure and harmony, with lyrics far more sophisticated. Yet it suits the moment called for. Its not easily sung which may be why it never had more traction. But for the film's climax, Stark insisted on using "My Man." Streisand had no problem putting her own mark on the song--as she was doubtless introducing it to most everyone under 50. She also insisted and was allowed to film the number singing live, and not to pre-recorded playback. Contrary to the publicity for the recent Les Miz movie, this practice has been done occasionally in the past. Babs hadn't made a movie before, but during and after her Bway stint, she made several CBS TV specials that were a crash course in film image--and she knew how to make impact on screen, at least as far the musical numbers went.

The movie manages to suggest an epic sweep despite the vast majority of screen time set inside theaters, dressing rooms and salons. Columbia sprung for a large Henry Street set for the immigrant ghetto, and later absurdly-deserted moonlit alley for "People." Ziegfeld's stage is in line with traditional Hlwd exaggeration, entire structures suddenly appearing where they weren't a moment before. Of course the ne plus ultra is the first act climax, "Don't Rain on My Parade," taking what on stage was a dynamic, if stationary, performance, and turning it into a journey by train, taxi, & tugboat--proving the helicopter shot wasn't entirely spent by The Sound of Music. "Sadie, Sadie," too, is given free cinematic reign, each line a new scene; a clever way to illustrate the passage of time while filling in details of their marriage. Lennart's screenplay follows her libretto closely, the biggest change being the neutering of Eddie Ryan. On stage he appears more often than Arnstein; teaching Fanny routines, making a play for her, hanging with her mother & cronies, even showing up (needlessly) in Baltimore in the lead up to "Parade." He does none of that on screen, but merely helps Fanny into her first break, then disappears backstage in Ziegfeld's ranks. Lennart adds a few scenes: Fanny's audition for Ziegfeld (singing "Second Hand Rose"), a train station run-in with Nick, a lobster dinner in Baltimore, a new second act opener aboard ship; the start of a gambling honeymoon. And later Nick's downward spiral, the details of which are so boring they  induce instant amnesia. The climatic reunion of Nick and Fanny really doesn't have the emotional impact it aspires to, but it does setup the moment for a rousing power ballad. Wyler frames Streisand in black, putting her talent front & center, ending the film as a passing of torch: from Fanny (now packaged neatly for history) to Barbra--the birth of a new film star. Ray Stark couldn't have asked for a higher profile introduction (from which he had most to benefit, having signed Streisand to a four film contract prior to making Funny Girl.)

The movie premiered at the Criterion theater in Times Square on Sept 18th, and two days later in Hlwd at Grauman's Chinese. It was a tremendous success, lasting a whopping 72 weeks in its initial Roadshow engagement--longer than The Ten Commandments; and only topped by My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music among musicals, racking up $25,600,000 in film rentals. Oscar smiled on the film as well, bestowing 8 nominations, including the all-important Best Picture; but oddly not for director Wyler (who was nominated for practically everything else, including his previous, undeserved movie, The Collector in '65. It seems odd, too, that costumes and art direction were also passed over; but not cinematography (by Harry Stradling); film editing, sound, scoring (by Walter Scharf--which Styne hated for typical Hlwd overproduction); and the song, "Funny Girl." Kay Medford was something of a surprise but indication of the sweep the film was making, and of course la' Streisand, who rode this bespoke vehicle to Hlwd like a magic carpet ride. And in the end, as if it were manifest destiny, she was the only one to win an Oscar. (Not to mention winning in a tie with Academy-fave, Katharine Hepburn, who had just won another one the year before!) Her memorable trip up the stair in her see-thru pantsuit, to coo the words,"Hello, Gorgeous" is the stuff of legend. A girl at the top of the heap. Columbia had a smash on their hands, and they promoted the hell out of it, successfully getting into the tight slot of five Best Pics, in a year that squeezed out such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary's Baby, and The Battle of Algiers. It was up against two period pics, Zefferelli's Romeo & Juliet and The Lion in Winter, a lowkey character study, Rachel, Rachel, and another Roadshow musical (in a year crowded with bigscreen tuners) also from Columbia--which made a happy conundrum for the studio. But we'll get to Oliver! soon enuf.

The last week of the summer of '68, after the deaths of King and Kennedy, after the Tet offensive and My Lai massacre in Vietnam, while the Democratic Convention in Chicago was exploding into chaos, I took my first plane trip, along with my mother, from LAX to San Jose on the (now defunct) mod-designed and stewardessed PSA Airlines, to meet my father and settle on a house for our upcoming relocation. He was already living there in a trailer where we three endured the week while shopping for the new Casa Penn. The future Silicon Valley was still patched with apricot groves, one of which was destined to come down for our tract home. I wasn't any too happy to leave Canoga Park, especially not in the middle of high school--a time when I was well settled with life and friends (which in retrospect seems rather surprising) and the metro-adjacent feel of Hlwd in my backyard. But that week in late August I discovered a few upsides: proximity to San Francisco for one (which I'd not seen since it blew my mind 6 years earlier), and on a more local level, a newfound access to a trio of Cinerama-domed movie theaters in nearby Santa Clara, that featured movie Roadshows. As I'd already seen The Sound of Music, I saw 2001: that first time, but over the next few years they became my haunts for the movie musicals coming out of Hlwd. Our move north coincided with my drivers license, but I don't know why it took me until July 19th of '69 to get to Century 22 to see Funny Girl. By then I had been thru my first semester in a new high school, had my first few new friends (so different from the ones in SoCal), and two months into my first job, as usher/ concessionaire/marquee changer for a matchbox cinema in Los Altos (where I'd first see Camelot). Funny Girl was only my third time in the mammoth geodesic mound, where 50 people (sold reserved seats) grouped together in the center of a house that holds no less than 900. But the screen is Cinerama-wide, and the Overture and exit music lend a stature that announces an event (whether the movie merits it or not). I vividly remember walking out of Funny Girl feeling transported. I wasn't a rabid Barbra fan, tho I was surely aware of her, had seen her TV specials, knew both her cast recordings. But by summer of '69, my new best friend, Bill--from an Italian orchard growing family in Cupertino--had furthered my interest with a number of Babs' studio albums. Bill was the first friend I ever had who played and listened to music with me (and to this day no one else has come close in the way we really listened.) Up to then I owned virtually nothing outside of Bway OCRs or their soundtracks, but Bill had a more eclectic collection. He liked Janis Joplin--whose screeching vocals were like chalk on blackboard to me; but also The Mamas & The Papas, making Cass Eliot a quick favorite, and then, most mysteriously, and without any precedent: Jefferson Airplane, because of Grace Slick--my true gateway into rock. Not the Beatles. Bill also converted me to Streisand fandom, which we followed thru the first eight years of her film career--before her bourgeois sensibilities took over and killed my interest. Still, undeniably she is a Star in the most extraordinary, impactful way: an unlikely looker; unique of voice, adept at comedy, and standard-bearer for her meteoric rise from the flats of Brooklyn to Hlwd star, via clubs, concerts, TV, and Bway. All bracingly exciting and jet fuel for countless dreams. At the apex of that story is the film of Funny Girl. It doesn't get more iconic than that. And for that reason alone, the musical--tho still mounted now & then on the fringes, doesn't risk Bway again--for who could hope to duplicate that level of fame catching fire? Gyspy outgrew Merman's hold on Rose, in no small part by the material itself. Funny Girl hasn't as solid a script, nor score, nor has it crawled out from under the shadow of Streisand. It's not likely to for a long time--if ever.

Next Up: Finian's Rainbow

Report Card:    Funny Girl
Overall Film:    B+
Bway Fidelity:  A-
Songs from Bway:  7
Songs Cut from Bway:  8
New Songs:  (by Styne & Merrill)
    "Funny Girl," "Roller Skate Rag" "The Swan"
Interpolated Songs:  3   "I'd Rather Be Blue"
         "Second Hand Rose" "My Man"
Standout Numbers: "I'm the Greatest Star"
               “Don't Rain on My Parade” "People"
               “I'd Rather Be Blue” "My Man"
Worst Omissions:  “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”
               “The Music That Makes Me Dance”
               “I Want To Be Seen With You”
Casting: No complaints.     
Standout Cast: Barbra, Omar
Cast from Bway:  Barbra, Kay Medford
Direction:  Stately, professional
Choreography:  confined to stage numbers
Ballets:    B-   “Swan Lake" parody
Scenic Design:  Tasteful, elaborate
Costumes: Wilsonian-era couture from
               Irene Sharaff
Standout Sets: Keeney's music hall
               red velvet restaurant    
Titles: Period photos saturated in psychadelic
    colored negatives, over celebrated overture
Oscar Noms:  8: Best Picture, Supporting   
    Actress (Medford) Cinematography, Sound,  
    Film Editing, Scoring, Song: "Funny Girl";
    I win, Best Actress: Streisand.


EDZup said...

Enjoyed the "fame catching fire" aspect of the piece, which is inseparable from Funny Girl. And I too tend to skip the downer second act on TV. (Rat-a-Tat would have helped.)

Also liked the busting of "single-o". I always assumed it was something slangy akin to "daddio", and never questioned it. (Even if that's true, it's probably anachronistic.)

However, I'll defend the lyric "acting more like children than children". It's set up that the "lucky people" express their need for others instead of hiding it because of their "grown-up pride".

As a kid, I saw Dr. Joyce Brothers (RIP) on TV having issues with the sentiment that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. She thought quite the opposite. I couldn't address her, but here's my chance to counter-argue... Independence may be a good thing, but one frequently real consequence is loneliness. Whether you buy that as a universal truth or not... in the play's context, what's the issue? Fanny wants to connect to Nick, but her vulnerability and defensiveness force her to act not so needy. She can't do it... especially when intimidated by a cool sophisticate like Nick. She envies the "lucky" ones who can.

Rather than seeing the lyrics as a "fatal flaw", I've grown to admire the un-PC-ness of the song.

So be needy already. Or as someone says to Bobby in Company during "Being Alive"... "want SOMEthing".

Jim Van Buskirk said...

I too was always intrigued by the "single-0" lyric. Turns out there's a song called "Single-O" by Donald Kahn & Johnny Mercer and sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

Single-o is American slang for alone, without an accomplice.
Found op: