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Funny Girl: A History of the Hit Musical 50 years on

Dom O'Hanlon
Dom O'Hanlon

This week another piece of West End history is made as the first revival of the 1964 musical Funny Girl opens in the West End at the Savoy Theatre for the first time since 1966. Whilst this may not seem on the surface to be a remarkable achievement, it's extremely rare for a show that has such hit appeal has not been exploited in the previous four decades, considering the hit potential, and commercial goldmine, that the property offers.

Last year the Savoy Theatre was home to a similar achievement - the first London revival of Jule Styne's earlier musical Gypsy that hadn't been seen in the West End since 1979 in a production which starred Angela Lansbury at the Piccadilly Theatre. Both shows share a lot more than just a composer, namely the ghosts that have haunted the original productions and have in many ways stifled any earlier attempt to remount various productions. Whilst Gypsy has become a regular property for revival on Broadway, it took Imelda Staunton's star power to bring the show to London, for which she was met with unanimously impeccable reviews and recently took home her third Olivier Award.

Although Gypsy has a history of revivals, Funny Girl has not been afforded the same level of success, and many put that down to the original star Barbra Striesand's formidable presence in creating the role of Fanny Brice. After recent plans for Broadway productions have fallen at the first hurdle, eyebrows were certainly raised when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced a new production starring British darling Sheridan Smith in the iconic and highly coveted role. Smelling a hit from the off, the small but highly successful venue announced its long-term commercial prospects before opening night, announcing a West End transfer and collaboration with producer Sonia Friedman. Whilst many Menier shows have transferred to the West End, and indeed Broadway, it was a risky move to pre-announce something that in many ways is a pre-ordained mark of critical success, but it was a risk that paid off in dividends.

Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Sheridan Smith's star power broke box office records at the Menier, selling out almost instantly and reporting healthy advances for the Savoy run. Whilst she is not perhaps the biggest musical theatre 'star' in London, her credentials tally up with her universal appeal that draws in audiences from a cross section of Britain. On paper, Smith is a producer's dream. Having won two Olivier Awards for her work on stage she has proven her metal in musicals and straight plays, checking the box for the West End elite. Television fans up and down the country are enamoured with Smith, whose career includes one of the broadest set of credits imaginable - from comedies such as 'Gavin and Stacey' to gritty original dramas. Her effervescent personality connects in living rooms around Britain, and her affable charm on social media helps her feel accessible to fans. Overall, her appeal is palpable, and it's no surprise that Funny Girl is already one of London's most successful shows of the year.

The weight of the show firmly rests on Smith's shoulders, and every review seemed to comment on her labouring under a somewhat creaky book and some cramped staging. Reports from previews at the Savoy suggest that director Michael Mayer has taken this on board with members of his creative team, expanding the show to bring every aspect up to Sheridan's level. Elongated set pieces and some more elaborate choreography have reportedly boosted the show overall, and critics will pass judgement on these changes later this week.

These changes may seem somewhat dramatic for a show that's already reporting excellent advances and has proven its critical credentials. Overall, they will be a footnote in the history of Funny Girl's journey to the stage which practically reads as a handbook of backstage dramas involved in putting on a musical. The original production went through multiple producers, numerous directors and five postponements of opening night on Broadway before becoming a hit. Whilst the London run was cut short after just 14 weeks, the public interest in the title has never gone away.

Fanny Brice

The idea for a musical based on the life of Fanny Brice originally came from producer Ray Stark who was married to Brice's daughter Fran. The pair constantly spoke about writing a screenplay for Brice's story, and in the 1960s Isobel Lennart, a three-time Oscar nominee was brought on board to write the project. Following in the footsteps of legendary producer David Merrick, Stark decided that the show first needed to be a stage musical. In 1962 the writing team behind the hit 'Gypsy' were hired - Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, with Jerome Robbins originally on board to direct. From the early days, most of the talk was about which star would play Brice, with names such as Chita Rivera, Judy Holliday and Mary Martin high up the list. This created tensions amongst the creative team, and Sondheim ended up leaving the project after protesting the casting of 49 year old Martin, arguing "you've gotta have a Jewish girl...and if she's not Jewish she at least has to have a nose."

Bob Merrill was brought on board and worked with Styne to begin work on the score. Early titles of the musical included 'Fanny', 'My Man', 'The Fanny Brice Story', and 'A Very Special Person' before they eventually decided on Funny Girl. With a title under their belt, Styne's wife Margaret first discovered Streisand singing at the Bon Soir, and convinced the creative team to watch her. Whilst Jule and Robbins were easily sold on Streisand, Brice's daughter was less convinced, commenting "That girl play my mother? I wouldn't hire her as my maid!" Six months and multiple auditions later, Barbra Streisand was announced as the star of Funny Girl, but the production wouldn't begin rehearsals until 6 December 1963 - allowing plenty of time for the project to hit multiple road blocks along the way.

Ray Stark, Isobel Lennart, Barbra Streisand
Jule Styne, Jerome Robbins, Bob Merrill

One of the biggest casualties early on was director Jerome Robbins who quit the production citing frustrations with the progress. He was initially replaced by Bob Fosse who worked with the show for one month, suggesting vital contributions that were later kept into the show. He later quit following issues with Stark, and Garson Kanin took on the position ahead of rehearsals. With a director finally in place, it was the turn of the Producers to fall out, with David Merrick selling his half of the production back to Stark.

Funny Girl began its out of town try out at Boston's Schubert Theatre and was received with poor notices citing fundamental second act problems and issues with the overall length. Reception was cool for Streisand, and she begun acting coaching behind the scenes to pull up her performance. One review said the score was a "major disappointment" and "generally banal", although it did hint that the stand out numbers "I'm The Greatest Star" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" had the ability to "electrify" fans. Problems with the book were levelled at the character of Nicky Arnstein, which is a problem no production has quite managed to fix. In re-writing material for the London revival, Harvey Fierstein has sharpened the focus of Arnstein, reinstating a song from many that were lost during the numerous try-out performances.

One of the most significant songs to be lost was the number "I Did it On Rollerskates" which had inspired the original artwork for the production. As the show opened in its final version, the poster may have shown Brice on wheels, but the moment never occurred on stage, although this was rectified for the film version.

Funny Girl Broadway Opening

Transferring to the Forrest Theater in Philadelphia the show claimed two more victims, with playwright John Patrick bowing out along with director Garson Kanin. Jerry Robbins was rehired as 'Production Supervisor' and choreographer Carol Haney was fired, although she kept her credit for her work on the show. At this point the knives were out for the production, and Stark postponed the Broadway opening six times to allow Robbins the time he needed to correct the show.

The curtain went up at the Winter Garden Theatre for the official opening night of Funny Girl on 26 March 1964 where it was met with 23 curtain calls. The production was attended by some of the industry's biggest stars including Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury and Sophie Tucker who were entertained at a gala reception in the Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Centre. Whilst the press made a huge deal of the production and Streisand's star quality, the show opened in a crowded year of new musicals that stunted the production's success at the 1964 Tony Awards. Rival David Merrick's production of Hello, Dolly! swept the boards, with Funny Girl losing out in every category in which it was nominated. Streisand failed to win the award for Best Actress, which instead went to Dolly's Carol Channing.

Funny Girl, Prince of Wales 1966

Fast forward to 13 April 1966, and Funny Girl opens at the Prince Edward Theatre in London's West End where it ran for a lucrative 14-week season, grossing £225,000 ($630,000), playing to capacity houses and maximum standing room. Despite the success, the production was forced to close shop following the news that Streisand, now 24, was expecting a baby and would have to leave the production. A spokesperson for the show said they "couldn't sell one ticket" for performances after Streisand's departure, and the show didn't carry on with Lisa Shane, her understudy, in the role. The press reported that 400 people 'walked out' upon hearing that Streisand was ill and would not be performing one evening, although Lisa Shane went on to please audiences and receive strong reviews.

History repeated itself somewhat towards the end of the Menier run, as Sheridan Smith was forced to withdraw following the news that her father was unwell. Played out over social media, it was a modern example where the star became bigger than the show itself, and audiences were only expecting to see Smith in the role. Producers made an unprecedented decision to refund audiences who wanted to specifically see Smith, and because of the later run being announced, were able to exchange tickets, despite glowing reports from understudy Natasha J Barnes.

As the show prepares to open at the Savoy theatre later this week, almost fifty years to the day of the original London production, the West End seems delighted to have this show back. An entire generation have grown up with just the cast album and film version for reference, but to see the show live in a West End production is an important moment of theatre history. Like Streisand before her, Smith brings a new selection of theatregoers who will form the next chapter in this musical's story.

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