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From Fanny to Barbra to Beanie: 'Funny Girl' comes back to Broadway

Jared Grimes (l) as Eddie Ryan and Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice in <em>Funny Girl</em>
Matthew Murphy
Funny Girl
Jared Grimes (l) as Eddie Ryan and Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl

In 1964, Funny Girl debuted on Broadway, making a star out of 21-year-old Barbra Streisand. On Sunday, the show, a fictionalized account of the life of comedian Fanny Brice, opens in a new production starring Beanie Feldstein.

"I don't think there's another musical that is as well-known and also as unknown than Funny Girl," said Michael Mayer, the new production's director.

Many of the songs are well known,, including "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade." But it hasn't been revived on Broadway, likely because the original production, and the much better-known movie, were centered around Streisand's singular talent.

Interestingly, she was far from the first choice for the role. Lots of names were bandied about to play Fanny Brice in the original production – Mary Martin, Anne Bancroft, Carol Burnett – but the late composer Jule Styne went down to a nightclub in Greenwich Village and became enchanted with Streisand, he recounted in a radio interview in 1970. "I think I went there 14 nights in a row, just knocked me out," the songwriter recalled. "And here I am in the middle of writing this score. And I hear this voice and I said, 'I must have this voice.'"

Barbra Streisand in <em>Funny Girl</em>
/ ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild via Getty Images
Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl

"It was an alchemical thing that while they were making it, they were also creating with Barbra, the Barbra of legend," said Mayer. "So, the show was continually becoming more and more about Barbra's own personal story and less and less about Fanny Brice."

Mayer grew up with grandparents who regaled him with stories about seeing Fanny Brice perform in the Ziegfeld Follies, doing unapologetically Jewish humor. "She knew she didn't look like the other girls. She knew she didn't sound like them," Mayer said.

"She sort of made herself into a character that could accommodate both low comedy, high comedy, very hilarious songs and shtick." Everything she did, he said, came out of character. "And these characters were all facets of her experience growing up as a kid in the Jewish part of Brooklyn."

Brice became one of the highest-paid and most popular Broadway entertainers of her time. Mayer said he believes that without Fanny Brice having lead the way, there'd be no Joan Rivers or Sarah Silverman or...Barbra Streisand.

CBS Radio talent and comedienne Fanny Brice, at home, on August 15, 1944.
/ CBS via Getty Images
CBS via Getty Images
CBS Radio talent and comedienne Fanny Brice, at home, on August 15, 1944.

So, while Michael Mayer was familiar with Fanny Brice, he'd only seen Funny Girl once and thought it fell apart in the second act. When he was asked to direct a revival in London seven years ago, he enlisted playwright Harvey Fierstein to do revisions.

"The point of my job was to give you the Funny Girl of your memory," Fierstein said, "even though it's almost got nothing to do with it."

Fierstein's hand is present throughout the show, but he particularly provides more focus in the second act to the disintegrating marriage between Fanny Brice and con artist Nick Arnstein, giving their relationship more heft. "We put back in two songs from elsewhere," he said, "and we took out a little here and reused something else and gave it more modern motivations."

Fanny is played by Beanie Feldstein in this new production; she's best known for the well-regarded film Booksmart and for playing Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story.

Mayer said she was cast because she has a sensibility for the times: "She felt very modern and fresh and Jewish and hilariously funny and a brilliant actress and a lovely singer and an unlikely but fantastic dancer."

Beanie Feldstein (center) and the cast of <em>Funny Girl</em>
Matthew Murphy / Funny Girl
Funny Girl
Beanie Feldstein (center) and the cast of Funny Girl

"I mean it quite genuinely when I say this is like my dreams coming true, this is my lifelong dream," said the 28-year-old Feldstein. She said she watched Funny Girl on a continuous loop when she was a small child – so much so that she begged her mother for a Funny Girl-themed birthday party when she was 3. And she's all in for the revised version, which was changing even a week before opening night.

"Those songs are in your soul," Feldstein said, "but as far as the character and the story and the script . . . I wanted to approach it with brand new eyes, and as if we were creating a brand-new story."

But even with a revised script, Feldstein said she noticed something as soon as the music starts. "We have a group of people that sing along, know every word, have loved it for almost 60 years," she said. Which makes her feel like one of the luckiest people in the world.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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