During the time when rock was dominating the charts, a little 20-something from Brooklyn managed to make her way to the top of the list with the explosive popularity of the Broadway musical Funny Girl.
Barbra Streisand so perfectly embodied the role of Fanny Brice, the vaudeville comedian, it was if it was tailor-made for her. The show and subsequent movie made Streisand a cultural icon; a status that, over 50 years later, she is not letting go of anytime soon.
While the 1964 Broadway stage production of Funny Girl ran for 39 months in New York, kicked off a hit movie and launched the biggest star in showbiz history, it almost didn’t make it past the previews. Getting Funny Girl off the ground was almost has dramatic as the source material itself, passing through many famous hands until it became the Tony-nominated and Grammy-winning classic album it is today.
Producer Ray Stark had been developing a musical based on the life of the late Broadway and film actress and his mother-in-law, Fanny Brice, and Streisand had found her star vehicle. By 1964, Streisand was on the rise. With a Tony nomination and two Grammy awards under her belt for her solo album debut, The Barbra Streisand Album, she was looking for her ticket to Hollywood and found a kindred spirit playing the stage-struck, Brice.
In the expert hands of Broadway veterans Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who co-wrote the score, Funny Girl is more than just an assembly of songs. It boasts a rich score and, while set in the 1910s, it never feels like a period piece, with all of its numbers maintaining a modern sensibility. Like the rest of the cultural zeitgeist, Broadway was transforming as well. The 60s formed the decade in which the Rodgers & Hammerstein era ended and the next era of modern concept musicals began.
As one of the most prolific composers of American musical theatre, Jule Styne made a name for himself co-writing romantic ballads for Frank Sinatra during the 40s and 50s before he created Broadway classics such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Gypsy. While his name was always less familiar than his music, he called himself “the greatest collaborator there is”. Thanks to Merrill and Styne, Streisand got herself a calling card with the two signature songs: the sublime ‘People’ and the showstopper ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’.
On 26 March 1964, Funny Girl opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, A 22 year-old kid in her ﬁrst starring part, Barbra bypassed the rookie stage and graduated to Broadway veteran faster than you can say ‘Hello Gorgeous’.
Playwright and Funny Girl book writer, Isobel Lennart recalled having to constantly tweak and tailor her lyrics as Streisand started to win over her audience night after night; all the former lines and lyrics about the homely girl didn’t match up with the intense charisma Streisand displayed each night before curtain fall.
Streisand was supported by a who’s-who of stage talent, including the scene-stealing Kay Medford, who played her mother in both the stage and film production, Danny Meehan and her dashing co-star Sydney Chaplin. Chaplin holds his own opposite Streisand as Nicky Arnstein, the gambler who woos Fanny Brice. Originally, ‘I Am Man’ was originally going to be Chaplin’s solo but it eventually turned into the delightful countermelody duet ‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’ between Fanny and Nick. His performance was rewarded with a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a musical in 1964.
Funny Girl’s original Broadway cast recording album was recorded in one session, just 10 days into the show’s run. Released one week later, the album climbed to No.2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, just behind The Beatles’ second album, and won the year’s Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album. It was also the first Broadway cast album to receive an Album Of The Year nomination, and in all the years since, only one other cast album, Jesus Christ Superstar, has equalled the feat.
Funny Girl (Original Broadway Cast) is one of 75 classic albums picked to celebrate the milestone that is Capitol Records’ 75th birthday. Join the celebrations with the Through The Decades playlist, and purchase Funny Girl here: