STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Garson Kanin, Funny Girl and Smash


31 Mar 1999

So sorry that Garson Kanin died just a matter of days before we all celebrated the 35th anniversary of Funny Girl's opening on March 26, 1964.

So sorry that Garson Kanin died just a matter of days before we all celebrated the 35th anniversary of Funny Girl's opening on March 26, 1964.

But maybe Kanin wouldn't have wanted to be reminded. For not long after the show opened at the Shubert Theater in Boston on January 11, 1964, word was out that he was out as director, and Jerome Robbins was on his way in.

Kanin did get his revenge, though, 16 years later with his book, Smash. Here, a director named Larry Gabel is staging a musical, not about Fanny Brice, but Nora Bayes, one of vaudeville's biggest stars. The fictitious show is called Shine On, Harvest Moon, named after the star's signature song.

Gabel is described as "ruggedly attractive, intense, lean, and the opposite of flaky ... fastidious, always beautifully groomed and dressed." Well, it is Kanin's book, so he's entitled.



Here are the other characters in Smash, and how they stack up to their real-life counterparts:

Producer Art Clune: Hmmm, a three-letter first name, a five-letter last one -- just like Ray Stark, who produced Funny Girl. On the other hand, Clune makes machinations worthy of David Merrick, for whom Kanin staged Do Re Mi. Still, it's a good bet that Stark is Kanin's prototype, for just as he was married to Brice's daughter, Clune is the husband of Bayes' grand-niece. But was Stark as stupid as Clune? Kanin says the producer "signed a 'no-interpolation' clause because he didn't know what the word meant, and was too ashamed to ask."

Star: Yes, that is the one and only way by which Kanin refers to his leading lady. No manufactured name with six letters in the first name and nine in the last (though, of course, the four letters in Star can all be found in Barbra Streisand's name, which is interesting in itself). About her, he says, "How She got so good in so short a time is her secret." (Yes, he often uses a capital "S" on "She" when referring to her.)

Star never seems to think much of Gabel, which couldn't have been true of Streisand. She often said in early '60s interviews that she has been an usher at the Cort when The Diary of Anne Frank was there, and loved the show -- which had been directed by Kanin. But here when Star faints, Larry says it's an act, and Star slaps him. Could that have happened on Funny Girl?

Anyone hoping to get real dirt on Streisand, though, will be disappointed. Star doesn't even say a single word until page 144, when She exclaims, "I thought I was sensational." Later, She says the all-too-telling words, "Next time I do a show -- if there is a next time." We're still waiting, Barbra.

Who does get a name, though, is Val Belmonte -- "husband of the star, a standard show business canker sore." That probably wasn't true of Elliott Gould, then Streisand's husband, who was much more interested in getting rich and famous himself, which he did for a few years in the early '70s. By the way, not long after Streisand married Gould, she kept touting him as "the American Jean Paul Belmondo," which may have been Kanin's inspiration for this particular surname.

Composer Hy Balaban: "Pablo Picasso with hair" isn't so innacurate a description of Jule Styne. He's also described as a "girl-watcher" -- and Styne did have a thing with Sandra Church, the original Louise of his Gypsy. Gabel's contention that "Although Hy's voice is not much, he performs his songs better than anyone" was certainly true of Styne. Hy does admit, though, "After two years at the Eastman School of Music, I had a painful realization that I would never rival Horowitz" -- which the short-fingered Styne learned early in an aborted piano career. Lucky for us, eh?

Lyricist Fred Monroe: "Lank, languid, and moody ... seems to take little joy in life, or work, or the people around him." How eerie, considering Bob Merrill's suicide last year.

Choreographer Jenny Flagg: "A former leading dancer ... overweight, a trifle blowsy." Alas, that does describe Carol Haney in 1964. Ten years earlier, she was a sensation in The Pajama Game, but bore the indignity of being out the night a Hollywood producer came and was so taken by her understudy Shirley MacLaine he took her to Southern California. Within weeks of Funny Girl's opening, Haney was dead. (Flagg, incidentally, mentions 11 producers by whom she was underpaid. One is Ray Stark.)

Leading man Roger Corman: Yes, that's his name, the same as the movie director who gave us the Little Shop of Horrors movie. He's hardly cited in Smash, just as Sydney Chaplin was barely mentioned during his year with Funny Girl.

Also barely mentioned is the bookwriter, who isn't a woman (as Funny Girl librettist Isobel Lennart was), but a fella -- Christopher Feller, in fact. What he does have in common with Lennart, of course, is that he'll take his lumps for his script. Don't bookwriters always?

Orchestrator Ralph Burns and critic Elliot Norton: The two whom Kanin didn't rename. Indeed, Burns did do Funny Girl's magnificent orchestrations. Norton was for six decades Boston's leading drama critic, and was enthusiastic but not totally impressed when Funny Girl debuted there. Norton, though, was a real friend to try-outs. Neil Simon in Rewrites gives him immense credit for solving the third-act problems of The Odd Couple. "He's the only one up here who means a thing," says Gabel in tribute.

Smash is told from the vantage point of production assistant Midge Maghakian, who left a secure job in publishing just for the fun of working on a show. Who can blame her?

One of the earliest arguments she relates takes place between Balaban Monroe and Clune. Should the standard "Shine On, Harvest Moon" be in the show? The producer insists that audiences expect it, the songwriters forbid it. This refers to the endless debates in 1963 on whether Fanny in Funny Girl should sing Brice's signature song, "My Man" in lieu of "The Music That Makes Me Dance."

Take a look at the earliest Oliver! LPs, and you'll see on the back, in a bio of David Merrick, that he was planning a musical on Fanny Brice called My Man -- which is a logical title for the story Funny Girl had to tell. But My Man would have prepped the public for be hearing that hit.

How well I remember back then arguing with my father, a big Brice fan, who insisted there was "no show" unless "My Man" was included. "They can't!" I screamed. "It's an original musical! It has original songs! What's the matter with you?!" And while I wasn't glad to see my father die a premature death in 1967, I am happy that I never had to endure, a year later, when "My Man" made it into the Funny Girl movie, his taunting and gloating, "You see?"

If Stark ever wanted "My Man" in the show, I hope he didn't pull something like Clune did. He tape recorded Hy's sexual experience with a showgirl (an act, by the way, that until recently, could get a perpetrator life imprisonment in Georgia), and threatened to play the tape for Hy's wife.

And so "Shine on, Harvest Moon" gets into Shine On, Harvest Moon. Art snarls at Hy, "I hope you try producing someday." Styne, of course, did -- most illustriously in sponsoring the 1952 Pal Joey revival, less successfully with Hazel Flagg, Mr. Wonderful, Make a Wish, and Say, Darling.

Could Kanin have not liked the score of Funny Girl? He has Midge say, "Our little Hy's music is slick and catchy but doesn't wear well." Later, Jenny says, "The stuff's facile and not only derivative but repetitive. He's copying himself, a sure sign that a composer's getting tired." Later still, production supervisor Clay Botsford says "Shine On has a good book but the score isn't as good." Considering the strength of Styne's music, this must have been Kanin's way of obfuscating identities.

The plot of Smash, of course, details turning a troubled show into a hit. Kanin writes that in Boston, "a faulty body mike on Star set up an ungodly yowling." That happened at that first Funny Girl Saturday night Boston preview on January 11, 1964, as Streisand's mike picked up the police car dispatcher dispensing cars all over the Hub.

Two supporting players, Sammy and Patti, are stopping the show with "Big Town." Is this a thinly veiled reference to "Who Taught Her Everything?" which got one of the biggest hands the night I saw Funny Girl in Boston (which was, by the way, January 16, 1964 -- the same night Hello, Dolly! was opening to raves in New York).

Eventually, everyone turns against Larry Gabel, except Midge. Art even takes him to court to get him off the show. Larry quits, but returns, in false beard, moustache, and wig, to see the show. That's nothing compared to when he dresses in drag and successfully passes himself off as the new bookwriter's secretary. What he does is then save the show with great suggestions. And that is apparently Kanin's revenge, too.

Meanwhile, Midge is sleeping with new bookwriter Gene Bowman, and describes their adventures in bed with such florid terms as "I coax the nectar from his being." So, okay, Smash isn't great literature. But, like every other book written about a fictitious Broadway musical, it's awfully hard to put down -- in both senses of that expression.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com