On Oct. 1, Pittsburgh will get the first major production of Funny Girl since the 1964 original took New York by storm. Members of the New York press were given a sneak preview of the show Sept. 19, featuring an introduction by director Sammy Dallas Bayes, four songs from the production, and interview sessions with the show's star, 26-year-old pop singer Debbie Gibson.
Press agent Peter Cromarty shmoozed with writers and photographers on sunny West 42nd Street, outside the door of the aptly named "Raw Space" rehearsal hall. The production, set to tour the U.S. For over a year, began rehearsals Labor Day.
Upon entering the industrial-looking building -- after scarfing a danish and coffee in a side room -- the world that greeted the spectator was one of a controlled chaos that only exists in rehearsals of good old fashioned American musicals.
The rehearsal space was nothing unfamiliar -- black, shiny tap floor, scuffed white walls, a huge mirrored wall to the rear. The only unusual sight being a pyramid-shaped, all-sided staircase painted blue at the center of the room. Even more absurd was the sight of roughly two dozen young singers and dancers in rehearsal togs, tapping away as they carried very imposing-looking rifles. Of course, those would be used in the show's production number, "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat."
For those unfamiliar with the show that made Barbra Streisand a legend (I Can Get It For You Wholesale simply made her a star), it's about the life of vaudeville superstar Fanny Brice. A girl who rises in show business through sheer moxie -- and sensational talent -- Fanny falls in love with suave gambler, Nick Arnstein. The role was originated by Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's son) but is most closely associated with Omar Sharif, who played Arnstein opposite Streisand in William Wyler's 1968 film. Isobel Lennart wrote the original book, while Bob Merrill (lyrics) and Jule Styne (music) composed the songs. Merrill is the only one of the three still living, and he's adding new material to keep things fresh. According to musical director Sheila Walker, Merrill and Styne originally wrote more than a hundred songs for the show. "We were like painters who never wanted to quit," Merrill is quoted as saying. "Before Jule passed away, we rewrote two of the songs and added a completely new song to the score, and I did a rewrite of the book. I maintained everything that was in the show but tried to strengthen the character development."
Walker told Playbill On-Line that the toughest part of the new material was finding the time to work it into the show before the Oct. 1 launch. "The new songs need to be orchestrated," she said, "although they did cut `Who Are You Now.'"
Soon, director Sammy Dallas Bayes called the assembled to order and announced what we were going to see during this half-hour preview. Dressed charmingly down in a baseball cap, blue jeans and New York Mets uniform (#17), Bayes made clear the major change in this Funny Girl's structure: "In the original, you started in the present, then went to flashback, then back to the present. Now it's in flashback from the opening moment. You always see the New Amsterdam theatre backstage -- except during the two major production numbers."
Earlier, the amiable Casper Roos, who plays Flo Ziegfeld, had told Playbill that the production was staying current with the 90s by eliminating the "cross-in-ones" -- a necessary evil of Broadway's pre-mechanized days. "Cross-in-ones are when two characters would walk slowly across the stage, talking, and setting the scene for what's to come," Ross said. "What's really going on is the scenery is changing behind the curtain."
Director Bayes added, "We've eliminated the drops between scenes. Audiences don't want to see that; now everything is fast fast fast. That's why this is more a 'revisal' than a revival."
Bayes then set up each song for the rehearsal and begged our indulgence for the imposing staircase, a set design element that had just been incorporated the day before. Before the show opens in Pittsburgh, the cast will spend a week in Richmond, VA, getting comfortable with the production's technical elements.
As choristers put away their guns and readied for the first number, Playbill asked Mamie Bensinger, who plays Mrs. Strakosh, how she felt to be part of this huge touring event. "I was doing Hortense in Zorba at the Bristol Riverside Theatre," Bensinger said, "and they called me in to read for Emma the dresser. Then the part was cut, with the lines given to the stage manager. But two weeks later they called again and gave me Mrs. Strakosh." The role was originally played on Broadway by Jean Stapleton.
Before he brought on Debbie Gibson and her co-star, Robert Westenberg, Bayes praised Gibson's approach to the character of Fanny: "A lot of actresses try to do Fanny Brice by going through Barbra Streisand. But this is Miss Deborah Gibson, and it's got to be her Fanny Brice, from her point of view."
With that, Gibson and Westenberg came out as the piano and drums struck up the first tune. Gibson looked as sweet as the teeny-bopper world remembered her, in a white, terri-cloth robe with "Debbie" in gold letters over the breast-pocket, moppy pink slippers, and a blue hat. Westenberg looked starchly commanding in his white shirt and pressed black pants. They dueted on wooden stools on "I Wanna Be Seen With You," Westenberg handing her a floral bouquet which she later used as an oar to mime paddling in a canoe.
Everyone in the room knew the second number would be the test. There are two legendary songs in Funny Girl; one of them is "People." The other is "Don't Rain On My Parade," which Gibson, now in a black and white checkerboard coat, sold with much acting savvy and a lovely, if light, belting voice. Without a microphone, it was difficult to understand her words, but judging by reactions around the room, she was able to sell the song. (By the time Gibson reached her final held note, the appreciative Bensinger was in tears.)
The next number was supposed to be Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat, but one cast member was missing and another was having costume trouble, so we were treated to "Sadie Sadie (Married Lady)," a comic number that satirizes Fanny's friends' idea of what it means to be rich, married and living on Long Island. Gibson, looking a lot sexier than a Manhasset matron, wore a see-through lace top with polo shirt underneath and shiny pants.
Through this sequence and the others, musical director Walker stood, hunched, near the band and in front of the cast, guiding them with her ever-tapping pencil. "It's the same size as the baton I use in the pit," she later told Playbill. "But I save the actual baton for the show as a good luck kind of thing."
Finally it was time for the big closer, "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat," the ensemble once again grabbing their guns for what Roos (Ziegfeld) called "a classic military tap number."
There they were, in two lines across the floor (in front of the steps), tapping away and flipping their rifles in and out of position. A momentary glitch occurred when the muscular actor playing Eddie Ryan slipped, but he bounced back up and the number continued in full swing.
After three minutes of solid dancing, Gibson appeared on the steps wearing comic, coke-bottle glasses, rifle in hand, ready to pop the Kaiser -- which she did, literally. Removing a hat-pin from her silly pink chapeau, she grabbed a large white balloon from a garbage can (the Kaiser's face drawn on it in black magic marker) and popped it to end the song and the open rehearsal with a more-than-proverbial bang.
Jimmy Litten, in the ensemble and understudying the role of Eddie, said of the rehearsal process that Bayes directs by letting the cast experiment a lot. He'll put up sketches of what the numbers should be and then goes back and changes what he needs to." Asked what he thought of the star, he said, "Oh, she's just like one of the kids, yet we all respect her."
As Joe Sheridan, the stage manager, tried as politely as possible to rush the press out of the rehearsal room -- every rehearsal schedule operates under huge time pressure -- Debbie Gibson came into the lobby for questions and photos with the press.
Wearing a black t-shirt fronted with the phrase "knownohatred," Gibson joked and smiled a lot, even when fielding the obvious question: how does it feel to be following La Barbra?
"When you have a ten-hour rehearsal day, you're just not thinking about that. I love and admire Barbra Streisand enormously, but I'm not intimidated. I know I'm right for this role."
What about stage fright? "I do vocal exercises and lots of breathing. You can't let it affect you, I mean, you might have had a horrible breakup, a relative passes away, you still have to come onstage and make people happy and laugh."
Asked if the Brice character and the show conveyed a specific message to audiences, Gibson joshed, "Yes, don't rain on my parade!" More seriously, she said the show's moral is, "You're stronger than you think you are. Especially if you use your strength in a positive way. Fanny uses her dramatic flair to get what she wants -- even if it isn't always what's best for her."
Playbill later asked Gibson if Funny Girl's Brice made the right choices. "Fanny probably should have married Eddie," Gibson admits, "but there are things you can't explain. And she's in love."
Gibson, who has also appeared on Broadway in Les Miserables and as Rizzo in Grease, noted that singing for the legit stage isn't that different from making pop music records. "The hard part is going from a beautiful ballad and then having to do a big ensemble number, and then back again."
In praising Robert Westenberg, director Bayes noted that he wanted an Arnstein who was tall, strong, charming and suave -- much like the well remembered Omar Sharif -- but also a go-getter, and more specifically Jewish in tone.
Asked if her own character's Jewishness presented a problem to a decidedly blonde shiksa, Gibson laughed, "I'm Italian. We eat a lot and talk with our hands." She also recalled the embarrassment of going to her first Passover Seder -- and bringing a box of Dunkin' Donuts for dessert. These are sweet times, though, for Gibson, who also has an album coming out on Nov. 15. It'll be a pop-oriented record of original songs, plus two from Funny Girl, "Parade" and "People." After the full day's rehearsal, Gibson will join her mom and her publicists at B. Smith's Restaurant for a launch party of her CD, titled "Deborah."
One wonders where she also finds time to work on the Broadway musical she's writing. Based on a screenplay that almost, but didn't quite, get made, "Skirts" has overtones of West Side Story and many 1980's hip-hop films. It's about girl-gangs settling their differences via a huge dance contest.
But right now Gibson is more concerned with skits than "Skirts," gags over gangs, and -- judging by the reaction to her sweetness and professionalism -- her Fanny won't be landing on her fanny.
-- By David Lefkowitz