Advertisement

Lea’s Turn

Matthew Murphy/Polk & Co.

Lea Michele as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, 2022

“Style, then, gets you the things it fools you into thinking you don’t want, but only, finally, by being abandoned for the Person, which makes you know you want them…. The heroine no more sees her exercise of style as a means of social ambition than she recognizes her eventual choice of the Person over style as an advanced moment in the same process.”

—D.A. Miller, “No One Is Alone,” Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style

I have not followed Lea Michele’s career especially carefully, but I know the same things about her that everyone else seems to: that thirteen years ago she commenced a six-year audition for Funny Girl on the TV show Glee, an audition the theater world seemed to grow more and more dead-set against with each passing year, as rumors of a Michele-led revival repeatedly failed to materialize into anything substantial. This meant that when news of Michele replacing Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice became public earlier this summer, she was in the thematically resonant position of getting what she wanted a decade late and long after everyone else stopped caring whether she got it. This is a highly promising psychic foundation for a Broadway lead, and greatly increased my interest in seeing her performance. (And of course it’s not really true that “everyone” was against Michele’s casting. The Wednesday-night crowd I saw her with was seething with goodwill and as ready to be won over as humanly possible. Not even the “And I hadn’t read many books, see?” line, newly resonant in light of memetic allusions about Michele’s supposed illiteracy, drew so much as a titter.)

One feels an impulse to refer to the lead of Funny Girl as “Funny Girl” rather than Fanny, as the show has always taken the life and work of turn-of-the-century comedian and singer Fanny Brice as no more than a gentle suggestion upon which to build a semi-related “Funny Girl” persona. This is a wise decision. Brice had a few good songs, and real stage presence, but have you ever tried to sit through an episode of Brice’s 1940s radio series, The Baby Snooks Show? I’ve listened to all eight minutes and fifty-two seconds of the segment “Daddy Makes a Glass of Water,” in which the titular Daddy produces a glass of water in his basement chemistry lab while Snooks asks a series of obstructionist questions like “Why didn’t you get it fwom d’sink?,” and can’t recommend anyone else do the same, even if you pride yourself on the strength of your constitution.

As long as Barbra Streisand lives, and for possibly some time after, it will be very difficult for an actress to distinguish herself in Funny Girl. Post-Streisand Fannies Brice can either embarrass themselves or fail to embarrass themselves, but little more than that is feasible. Funny Girl has never been infected with psychoanalysis or subtext—Fanny is in full awareness of her powers from the very start of “I’m the Greatest Star,” and aside from a brief rejection by Mr. Keeney and a momentary attempt at restraint from Florenz Ziegfeld, she meets very little in the way of opposition either externally or internally. The show’s drama hinges entirely on her relationship with Nick Arnstein and his resentment at her financial success; one of the most straightforward reasons Funny Girl, which opened on Broadway in 1964, hasn’t been revived anywhere near as often as contemporaries like Gypsy is that, even by the time of its film adaptation in 1968, that storyline struck viewers as worn and old-fashioned.

Matthew Murphy/Polk & Co.

Lea Michele and Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl, 2022

A Star Is Born shares the general outline of Funny Girl’s plot, wherein a magnetic-yet-troubled older man romantically superintends the burgeoning career of an undeniable talent before poignantly driving her away to succeed without him, but it has managed to reinvent itself for each new generation (1937, 1954, 1976, 2018), in part because the male lead’s fecklessness can be rerouted through alcoholic self-loathing rather than seen as a direct result of his wife’s financial independence, and in part because melodrama is easier to repackage than burlesque. The husband in A Star Is Born dies semi-nobly to secure his wife’s release, granting her the dignity of widowhood; in Funny Girl he dances offstage.

This puts any actress playing Fanny in the rather tricky position of trying to portray a relentless, undeniable force rather like an anthropomorphized bellow, who is at the same time an acutely sensitive knight of infinite resignation, desperate to sacrifice herself for love, only to be informed by love that such a sacrifice won’t be necessary after all. Streisand’s meticulous and seamless captaincy of her own stately face, her magnetic adherence to poise during a pratfall, and her shameless self-consciousness made her Fanny Brice captivating, rather than merely alternatingly abject and heroic.  

Advertisement

Lea Michele did not find a way to reinvent the role of Fanny Brice, but she does not embarrass herself in the least. It is not damning anyone with faint praise to say they failed to outdo Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, even if they happen to be starring in Funny Girl. I myself am not capable of doing anything that Barbra Streisand has done, for example. Michele was in fine voice, with a well-controlled exhibition of physical restlessness that was a pleasure to watch, and she brought a charmingly wry, Tex Avery Howlin’ Wolf energy to her many chummy asides about love interest Nicky Arnstein’s babeliness.

*

Some of the show’s weaker scenes involve Brice’s up-and-coming years, when Michele is draped in a sailor suit and forced to pantomime turn-of-the-century “gee-whiz, watch-me-roller-skate” adolescent enthusiasm, but these pass quickly and relatively painlessly. The production seems wary of letting a joke land without hammering it in; after a conspicuous introduction to Arnstein, Brice walks off with a heavily ironic line about how she’ll probably never see him again. Immediately after this exit, another character walks center stage to declare “Sure, she’ll probably never see him again,” with all the conviction of “A talking picture? It’ll never amount to a thing,” which was tired as long ago as Singin’ in the Rain.

But Ramin Karimloo as Arnstein is very handsome, and with a restrained suavity that pairs quite well with Michele’s omnidirectional intensity. His dimples are visible from the back row and his abs (presented en déshabillé at the top of the second act) do him real credit. I do wish I had waited to read his Playbill biography until after the show, because he uses it to promote his leisurewear line, and while I recognize the importance of cultivating multiple sources of income these days, it did make mentally placing him in the 1910s a trifle more complicated, although it did nothing to lessen the potency of his abs. That being said, I would happily buy the “Erik” Acid Washed Sweatshirt in Grey/Black if it ever comes back in stock; it looks attractive and comfortable and is very reasonably priced.

Part of the little joke the audience permits Funny Girl to make is that Lea Michele is not extremely beautiful. This is a longstanding Funny Girl tradition, as the script for both play and musical contain numerous reminders to that effect and this bit has even extended to include the marketing and promotion departments. Omar Sharif used to give quaint little interviews where he pretended to be puzzled about how he came to have an on-set affair with Barbra Streisand, suggesting that her intensity and charisma “gradually cast a spell” over him even though he “thought she was not very attractive at first”—as if Barbra Streisand in 1968 was not possessed of one of the most luminously exquisite profiles since the bust of Nefertiti. The role that “beauty” plays in Funny Girl has more to do with an ongoing negotiation with enforced WASPishness on Broadway, but there’s still something distractingly layered about a woman as lushly gorgeous as Lea Michele, who looks as if God ordered her eyelashes in bulk, singing “To tell the truth, it hurt my pride/The groom was prettier than the bride.”

Matthew Murphy/Polk & Co.

Ramin Karimloo, as Nick Arnstein, and the cast of Funny Girl, 2022

It was during the second act, which is primarily concerned with the Brice-Arnstein marriage, that I found myself wishing the show adhered a little more closely to reality. After his career as a professional gambler takes a permanent nosedive, Nick bristles with thwarted manly self-sufficiency whenever he has to accept money from his wife to fund his next investment, when in life he took her money as cheerfully and as regularly as a cuckoo clock. Funny Girl, like Gypsy, is interested in that great theatrical triptych of domineering mother (Tovah Feldshuh is delightfully clipped yet expansive as Mrs. Brice), feckless male love interest, and female star, and biographical details must be subordinated to greater truths. It is not necessarily true that a man must experience his wife’s professional success as a personal psychic wound, but it is true that in the onstage battle between the theater and the heterosexual couple over which institution gets to articulate a suffering, glamorous woman’s interiority, only one can claim the prize—and it’s not going to be heterosexuality. By the end of Funny Girl, romance has no room to encompass Fanny Brice; the only place in the world big enough to hold her is the theater. The collapse of their marriage leads into Funny Girl’s torch song, “The Music That Makes Me Dance.” It’s an oddly positioned song, not least because Fanny Brice isn’t a dancer, and particularly because of lines like:

Advertisement

He’ll sleep and he’ll rise, in the light of two eyes that adore him
Bore him it might, but he won’t leave my sight for a glance
In every way, every day, I need less of myself and need more him, more him
’Cause his is the only music that makes me dance

Those lines (lyrics by Bob Merrill) don’t belong in this show; this is a “Man That Got Away” pastiche. Fanny Brice wants more of herself and more of Nick Arnstein, not less of anything. But it’s certainly better than what Ramin Karimloo is given to work with for his big solo, the generically Jazz Age–inflected “Temporary Arrangement,” which features a lot of dizzily spinning men dancing with briefcases in order to drive home the increasing shadiness of his financial deals, and which was wisely cut from the film.

“Don’t Rain on My Parade,” which closes the first act, is an aggressive renunciation—of good sense, of the community, of the world—concerned with the glory of an easily anticipated failure. This is the sort of moment where unrequited love turns into something either vicious or life-affirming. Since there is scarcely a question of whether Fanny will fail at love within the show (“If someone takes a spill/It’s me and not you;” “If I’m fanned out/Your turn at bat, sir”), this means the appeal of any given Fanny Brice has to do, at least in part, with how she handles failure. It is Fanny’s inability to fail as a star that leads to the collapse of her romantic life; at the level of plot, at least, Fanny is too good to be lovable. This in part mirrors Michele’s long, tortured, seemingly inevitable arrival in the role. Her rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” first aired on Glee in 2009; her ability to pull the role off had been a matter of public record for thirteen years, and still she got passed over, only to get called in later as a replacement.

*

Funny Girl is a show about three people that is really about one person, which means the rest of the cast seems scarcely to be there. Jared Grimes as Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s friend and early champion, gets several opportunities to demonstrate his immaculate tap dancing, allowing the audience to forget his indifferent acting, and Peter Francis James occasionally walks onstage with irreproachably ramrod posture and delivers lines like “As Florenz Ziegfeld, I don’t like to be argued with” before gliding back into the wings, but the rest of the roles are intermittent and interchangeable. Almost everything else during the nearly three-hour run time hangs on the Funny Girl.

John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, 1968

One of Streisand’s signatures is the immensity of her vocal reserves, which stood in for her Fanny’s reserves of tenacity, of resourcefulness, of strength. Just when the end seems near, she can unleash unforeseeable endurance and precision of sound from some hidden archive. Michele too has endurance to spare and gives no sign of needing to husband her voice at the end of a relentless two-hour-and-fifty-minute show. She’s as closely attuned to her audience without deferring or seeming to depend upon it as any lead I’ve seen. The connection is seamless, ever-present, and seemingly no source of anxiety or restraint. She builds her sound relentlessly in “I’m the Greatest Star,” matching speed with clarity until it sounds like she might ascend out of the crown of her own head. After this point the audience, including me, was perfectly happy to forgive a slightly inconsistent “youse guys” old-school Brooklyn accent during the spoken scenes.

It does feel almost churlish to bring the accent up, except that it speaks to this production’s careless attitude toward non-Fanny, non-musical elements. The sound is the draw here, not the staging; it’s no wonder the show was in such trouble before an appropriate voice arrived. It would surprise me if this led to a rash of future Funny Girl revivals. One every thirty or forty years seems like enough, especially since so much of the show must be carried by a single performer. But if Funny Girl hasn’t exactly proved to be an unjustly neglected gem languishing in the back catalog, there’s at least a great deal of fun to be wrung out of Michele’s playful relentlessness here in the meantime.


Funny Girl is on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre.

Various formats of the Review and a calendar

Give the gift they'll open all year

Save 55% off the regular rate and over 75% off the cover price and receive a free 2023 calendar!