ON THE RECORD: Barbra Streisand as That Funny Girl

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11 May 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column looks at the 50th anniversary digital remastering of the Funny Girl cast recording.

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Fifty years ago, the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill Funny Girl opened on Broadway. Fifty years ago, Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! and Bock and Harnick's Fiddler on the Roof also came to town, as did Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle; but none of the latter three has been celebrated with a digitally remastered 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition boxed set retailing for well over one hundred dollars. But then, it's not the score of Funny Girl that's the attraction. It's the funny girl.

The "People" musical and Barbra Streisand are intrinsically linked, of course; the thought of one without the other has made the prospect of a big-time revival problematic, and not without reason.

The Funny Girl story starts with an aspiring film producer called Ray Stark, whose first major movie was "The World of Suzie Wong" in 1960. Two years earlier, his production company — Seven Arts Productions — had served as associate producer of the hit Broadway version of Suzie Wong, produced by David Merrick. (Most likely this means either that that Seven Arts funded the Merrick production in exchange for the film rights, or that Seven Arts already had an option on the underlying novel when Merrick came along.) Just after the play opened, Merrick went into production with a musical biography of Gypsy Rose Lee.



Stark apparently watched with close interest; his mother-in-law, Fanny Brice, had been a considerably bigger star than Gypsy. When the prospect of a Fanny Brice musical came along — Mary Martin was announced to star, in 1960 — Stark invited Merrick to co-produce the show. (They called their joint venture "The F B Company.")

Merrick brought in Gypsy songwriters Styne and Sondheim, and Gypsy director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. Sondheim quickly withdrew; he didn't much want to write lyrics to someone else's music, anyway. The new lyricist was Bob Merrill, who had written Take Me Along and Carnival for Merrick. When Robbins withdrew, they eventually wound up with Garson Kanin, who had directed The Good Soup and Do Re Mi for Merrick. The stars, too, came from Merrick musicals: Streisand from I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Sydney Chaplin from Subways Are For Sleeping. So this was something of an all-Merrick production.

Funny Girl was delayed and delayed, finally going into production in December 1963. At the end of the first week of rehearsal, Merrick — foreseeing severe battles between the director and the star, fed up with Stark, and watching Dolly! build into a major hit during its Washington tryout — allowed himself to be bought out. Merrick didn't mind backstage turmoil, not in the least, but he was used to himself being the center of the turmoil. Here, Stark — as husband of Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein's daughter Frances — had control.

Funny Girl endured a difficult path to Broadway, with the six-week tryout being extended by a month as they tried to fix the show. Along the way, book doctor John Patrick was hired and fired, after which Kanin himself was fired and replaced by Jerome Robbins. Kanin retained contractual billing as director, with Robbins deemed "production supervisor." Choreographer Carol Haney — who danced "Steam Heat" for Robbins in The Pajama Game in 1954 — was fired, too.

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