In his seminal and comprehensive book on the Musical Theatre “Broadway Babies Say Goodnight” Mark Steyn makes only a couple of references to Funny Girl. By comparison one of Jule Styne’s other great works, Gypsy, gets over twenty mentions and a full analysis. And whereas Gypsy has been revived countless times since 1959, Funny Girl has received no major revivals at all since its West End run in 1966.
The success of the production at the Menier Chocolate Factory (sold out) and the certain success once in transfers to the major venue of the Savoy Theatre in April raises the question as to why it has been ignored for so long. My guess is this – the part of Fanny Brice is very difficult to cast. Although not actually created for Barbra Streisand she of course made it her own on Broadway, in the West End and on film. I remember it well. The song “People” from the musical, which first drew many of us to her, was really part of the extended launch of the astonishing phenomenon that was and is Streisand. Like hordes of others I bought the single, Barbra’s first LPs and I also saw her at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1966 in a run that was cut short by her pregnancy. The show could not exist without her. On one occasion early in the run Barbra had “gastric influenza” and the audience (or some of them) walked out when they heard she wasn’t appearing.
Funny Girl was Barbra and she was it. Indeed The Times critics back in 1966 said “… it is hard to decide whether she is acting the role or merely being herself… she projects the same force of personality that must have carried Fanny Brice to the top.” Streisand is Brice, Brice is Streisand. The same critic said that Funny Girl has “… one of the most nonsensical plots in the history of the American musical”. Well there’s plenty of competition for that “accolade” and I’m not sure that it is dafter than, say, Gypsy (which it slightly resembles) or the fantasy worlds of much of Rodgers and Hammerstein. But no matter it certainly is not the Theatre of Reality.
The above is by way of an attempt to explain why we have had to wait fifty years to see Funny Girl again in the West End. The part of “Fanny Brice” is not one for any old Diva. You cannot imagine any of the great Roses (“Gypsy”) – from Ethyl Merman to Imelda Staunton for example – in the role. And the idea that Mary Martin could have played Fanny (an early suggestion) is just preposterous! No if you can’t get Barbra you don’t do it – until now that is.
Sheridan Smith is so perfect as Fanny and her performance so good that it is inspirational. Let’s be clear here, by the way, that in no way is she impersonating Barbra Streisand. For example the strong Jewishness that was inherent in the role with Streisand is not present here at all. This is clearly a directorial decision (Smith could, I’m sure, “do Jewish” if she was asked to!). Director Michael Mayer clearly took the decision that “Funny Girl” doesn’t need the Jewish jokes – and I’m sure that he was right. The revised book is tighter than I remember it and the “Big numbers” – “People”, “Don’t rain on my Parade”, and “You are Woman” sound terrific in Sheridan Smith’s talented hands. As a Streisand nut I have always of course associated these songs with Barbra. Now Ms Smith has every right to claim them also for herself – not as an ersatz Barbra Streisand but as a real Sheridan Smith!
Nobody rains on Sheridan Smith’s parade in Funny Girl, she is sublime. There are some good performances alongside her – I enjoyed the three ladies of a certain age played by Marilyn Cutts, Natasha Barnes and Gay Soper who act as a sort of commentary on the action. Darius Campbell didn’t convince as Nicky Arnstein – a rather stiff performance in a role which, to be fair, will always be in the shadow of the charismatic Fanny.
I have a strong antipathy to the American habit of standing to applaud theatrical performance. I prefer our rather more restrained British way of enthusiastic applause and the odd cry of “Bravo” or “Brava” – but perhaps when something truly exceptional occurs standing is justified. Last Tuesday David Walliams was sitting in front of me at the Chocolate Factory and at the end of “Funny Girl” he shot to his feet as if there was an explosive charge under his seat. He was right to do so for once.
This Funny Girl was worth waiting for. I’ll borrow David Zippel’s lyrics from “A Star is Born” in the Disney musical “Hercules” to say how I felt – on my feet with Walliams and the rest:
Gonna shout it from the mountaintops
A star is born
It’s a time for pulling out the stops
A star is born
Honey, hit us with a hallelujah
The kid came shining through
Girl, sing the song
Come blow your horn
A star is born.
Review by Paddy Briggs
The sold out run at the Menier Chocolate Factory began on 20th November, 2015. Michael Mayer’s production, starring Olivier and BAFTA award-winning actress Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice and with the cast from the Menier Chocolate Factory, will begin performances at the Savoy Theatre on 9th April 2016 and the musical will now run until 10th September 2016.