Winter Garden Theatre
1634 Broadway (at West 50th Street)
New York, New York
March 26, 1964 — December 26, 1965 *
* Streisand performing as Fanny Brice (not counting after she left the show)
The Original Funny Girl
Before Streisand starred on stage and screen as Fanny Brice, there was the real Fanny Brice — the great stage comedienne and torch singer who headlined the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920’s and on the radio in the 1930’s as “Baby Snooks.” [more on Fanny Brice]
Fanny appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921. Her husband, Nick Arnstein, was arrested for being part of a gang that stole five million dollars worth of Wall Street securities. With Nick's trial imminent, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld gave Fanny the song “My Man” to sing. It was an English-language version of “Mon Homme” which was introduced in Paris. The audience empathized with Fanny, and understood that the words of the song mirrored her real-life situation. It's said she never sang the song without closing her eyes and thinking of Nick.
Ray Stark, the producer of Funny Girl, was married to Fanny Brice's daughter, Frances (or Fran). It was his dream to make a musical about his mother-in-law’s life story. “We used to discuss doing a motion picture about her career,” Stark said. “We'd bring up various names of film actresses who could play her role. One suggestion in those years was Judy Garland. So, you can see this has been a long-range proposition with me; more than 10 years. After Fanny's death [in 1951], I kept on planning to do a film about her some day, and finally I got Isobel Lennart, one of the top screenwriters, to undertake the script.”
Stark went on to explain (in a 1964 interview): “[Lennart's] script was wonderful. But as the years passed and the motion picture business changed, I became interested in the stage, and I proved to myself with a couple of ventures that doing something first in the theater was a wonderful testing ground of material for an eventual film. That is why we are here now, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, direction by Garson Kanin and choreography by Carol Haney. I hired the best.”
Art Isn't Easy (Creating “Funny Girl”) in Date Order
Irene Sharaff (who designed the costumes for the Broadway and film versions of Funny Girl) described the show's journey succinctly: “With the tenacity of barracudas both Ray [Stark] and Barbra hung on to this potential hit for months on the road, through changes in the script, juggling of songs, two directors, and five postponements of the opening night in New York. For their hard work and determination, Ray was well rewarded. This musical, based on his mother-in-law Fanny Brice's earlier years and first successes, was a sensation. Barbra deservedly leapt to stardom and became the new idol of the adolescents.”
- In the early 1960's, Ray Stark hired Ben Hecht, then later three-time Academy Award nominee Isobel Lennart to write screenplays about Fanny Brice's life. After producing the stage-to-screen adaptation of The World of Suzie Wong, Stark believed his Fanny Brice film should take the same route. Stark asked Lennart to write the Broadway book and Stark aligned himself with Broadway producer David Merrick to bring the story to the stage first, as a musical.
- February 1962: Stark hired the Gypsy songwriting team: Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. Stark asked Jerome Robbins to direct.
- Jerome Robbins, according to his papers (Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library) wrote: “... I collaborated on the script and the music and lyrics from March 26, 1962, when I went to the coast and spent a week there until September 20, 1962 [...] Over this period some of the time was spent very continuously from day to day working with Isobel Lennart or with Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, and sometimes even in consultation with Ray Stark.”
- Also from the Robbins papers, an early list (circa 1962) of possible Fannys: Chita Rivera, Tammy Grimes, Judy Holliday, Paula Prentiss, Suzanne Pleshette, Mimi Hines, Kaye Stevens, Eydie Gormé/Steve Lawrence (assuming they came as a pair, i.e. Fanny/Nick). Third on Robbins' list: “Barbra Streisman.”
- David Merrick sent a June 12, 1962 memo to Robbins titled SUGGESTIONS FOR FANNY BRICE STORY. On his list were actors for the part of Nick Arnstein: Christopher Plummer, Anthony Franciosa, Robert Goulet, Gene Barry, George Chakiris, Farley Granger, Arthur Hill (“who sings well, I am told”), Jason Robards, and Rock Hudson (“people insists he wants to be in a Broadway musical; sounds unlikely, doesn't it?” wrote Merick).
- Mary Martin was an early choice for the role of Fanny; Jule Styne told writer James Spada: “Well, Mary Martin, number one star, it's money in the bank, so Stark arranged a meeting for Mary, her director, myself, and Stephen Sondheim, who was to do the lyrics, but Steve said he was bowing out if Mary played the role. ‘You've gotta have a Jewish girl,’ he said, ‘and if she's not Jewish she at least has to have a nose.’ I said, ‘Steve, we're not going to find any girl with a nose. Now, come on!’ [Also important to note: Martin was 49 years old in 1962! The early scenes featured Fanny Brice as a teenager.]
- After Sondheim drops out, Bob Merrill joined the production as lyricist. Styne & Merrill write some songs for the show.
- Jerome Robbins wanted Anne Bancroft as Brice although Ray Stark felt “she may have a completely different concept of the kind of play we all desire.” Bancroft ultimately declined after hearing some of the new Styne/Merrill songs.
- Playwright John Patrick came in for rewrites, concurrently with Lennart.
- Eydie Gorme and Carol Burnett were approached to play Fanny.
- The Fanny Brice musical had several titles before Funny Girl is settled on. At various points the show was called Fanny, My Man, The Fanny Brice Story, and A Very Special Person.
- August 30, 1962: At the Imperial Theatre, a day of Funny Girl auditions for Jerome Robbins. Larry Hagman and George Segal audition for the part of “Dave” (which later becomes the “Eddie Ryan” part.) Robert Loggia, John Cullum, and Jerry Orbach read for “Nick.” Actress Lee Becker (“Anybody” in West Side Story) auditioned that day for “Fanny.”
- October—November 1962: Margaret Brown Styne (Jule's widow) recalled, “We went to see [Streisand] at the Bon Soir, and Jule was immediately enthusiastic. We went back four or five nights in a row. Even Jerry Robbins applauded when she did her audition. But Fran Stark — Fanny's Brice daughter — said, ‘That girl play my mother? I wouldn't hire her as my maid!’ She never liked her, even through the success. But I've since realized that the world is split into those who love Barbra and those who don't.”
- Summer 1963: Streisand called back several times to audition for Robbins, Merrick, Styne, Lennart, and Stark.
- July 1963: Barbra is announced as the star of Funny Girl.
- August 1963: Jerome Robbins quits the production, frustrated with the lack of progress getting the script ready for production, and rumored to be miffed that Stark will not replace writer Lennart. Through his lawyers he submitted an itemized list and stipulated that none of his contributions to the show could be used by Stark, causing Lennart to fundamentally start over.
- August-September 1963: Bob Fosse was hired to direct Funny Girl and worked on the show for approximately one month (August to September 1963). Jule Styne elaborated: “We worked together for quite a while and Bob made some tremendous contributions that we kept in the show.” It was Fosse's idea to stage “Who Are You Now?” with Nicky behind Fanny, gambling. It's said that Fosse also wanted to cut “People.” Fosse, too, reportedly added the now-famous “Hello, gorgeous” opening scene. Carol Haney was hired as choreographer under Fosse. Fosse eventually quit the show, reportedly because he distrusted Ray Stark, and went to work on I Picked A Daisy—later retitled On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, and directed by Robert Lewis. Fosse allowed the production to keep his contributions, unlike Robbins.
- Director Sidney Lumet considered Funny Girl but declined because of the messy script.
- October, 1963: Garson Kanin replaced Fosse and Robbins as director of Funny Girl. With Streisand on the West coast for television and concert appearances, David Merrick and Ray Stark have a falling out; Merrick sold his share of the show back to Stark. Streisand's manager took advantage of this. Jule Styne's diary entry for this date reads: “Oct. 20, 1963: Barbra's lawyers found loopholes. She made large demands, Ray said he couldn't afford it. Ray and Barbra agreed. All seems well.”
- December 6, 1963: First rehearsal for Funny Girl.
- Jan. 13, 1964: Funny Girl “tried out” at Shubert Theatre in Boston. Second act and over-length problems. Bad reviews.
- Streisand's acting coach from the Cherry Lane Theatre, Alan Miller, began working with her surreptitiously on Funny Girl scenes, strengthening her performance.
- Feb. 4, 1964: Funny Girl previewed in Philadelphia at the Forrest Theater.
- Playwright John Patrick left the show.
- Feb, 19, 1964: Garson Kanin left the production. Jerome Robbins was rehired to direct with the official credit “Production Supervised By...”
- Choreographer Carol Haney was fired but retained her choreography credit. (Haney died in May 1964 of pneumonia. Her ex-husband, by the way, was Larry Blyden, who starred as Warren with Streisand in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever).
- Stark postponed the Broadway opening five times in order to allow Robbins time to fix the show.
- March 26, 1964: Funny Girl opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. Reportedly, there was a standing ovation and 23 curtain calls. The opening night gala took place at the Rainbow Room atop the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center.
In the evening's program for Barbra's 1969 salute at the Friar's Club, Funny Girl's writer Isobel Lennart (pictured below) composed a full-page tribute to the star of Funny Girl. Here's what she wrote about working with Barbra on the play:
Did I have trouble with Barbra? Don’t ask!
How would you like to write a libretto about a homely little girl, have what seemed to be a homely little girl engaged for the part —and then, the ﬁrst time she has an audience — on opening night in Boston — have her turn beautiful in front of your eyes? And get more beautiful at every performance, so that — by opening time in New York — she’s obviously one of the great beauties of all time.
What do you think that did to all my ‘homely little girl’ jokes? And what about all the scenes explaining why the leading man fell in love with a homely little girl — how do you think they played to an audience in love with Barbra from the moment the curtain went up?
You’re right! I had to snip and shneid like a manic tailor! And that wasn’t all.
My other troubles with Barbra started quite soon after I met her — about ten minutes after.
It was my ﬁrst show, so I was expecting trouble —from everyone but Barbra. A twenty-year-old kid, in her ﬁrst starring part? Why, she’d be so happy to have it, so grateful, so overawed — there wouldn’t be a peep out of her that wasn’t thank you!
And here she was — pointing one of those mile-long ﬁngers at a page in the libretto and saying “I liked your ﬁrst version of this scene much better.”
Stalling while I thought up something devastating to say back, I glanced at the page. A minute later I put back the earlier version. Meekly. The twenty-year-old kid was right. And continued to be right, most of the time.
I was disarmed, and I don’t mean enchanted — I mean, without any armor. Without defences.
You can argue when an actor says “I hate this scene — it stinks.” But Barbra never did that. She just looked at the page and turned a delicate almond-green. And you can’t argue with green.
With some actors you can say: “You want a new scene? You don’t even know the old one, and you’ve had it for two months!” But how can you say that to Barbra? Get a new scene to her at two in the morning, and she’ll perform it perfectly the next night. I know. I did it for thirty nights in a row.
And then there’s the greatest of all writer gambits: “You don’t like that line? Fine! Write one yourself!”
I hate admitting publicly that I’m a coward, but I never — not once — dared say that to Barbra. I was too afraid that she could, that she would, and that it might — might, mind you — be a better line than mine.
Well — there it is. That’s the kind of trouble I had with Barbra. And if you’re a writer, it should only happen to you!
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