This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.
Fanny Brice got there first. Born on the Lower East Side to Jewish immigrants, she entered show business at nineteen through the only portal that would admit her: burlesque. Within a few years she graduated to the Ziegfeld Follies, where she was typecast as the comedienne, though she had other aspirations. She had a comedienne’s expressive face with large eyes and a wide mouth and a long Semitic nose—a nose that she eventually fixed, claiming that she was “tired of being a sight gag,” a pronouncement that prompted wit Dorothy Parker to opine that she “cut off her nose to spite her race.” “Flo” Ziegfeld did permit her to sing a torch song, “My Man,” a song of slavish devotion that would become her signature and allow her, briefly, to escape her comic persona. But only briefly. In time, she would be best known for playing a character she originated in the Follies, a precocious child named Baby Snooks. She would perform in Snooks’s romper even after she brought the character to a popular radio program where the audience obviously couldn’t see her, but in her personal life she was elegant, stylish, and refined, the opposite of her broad stage characters. That may have been the whole point. Though she didn’t suffer quite the same abuse for her looks as Streisand had, she apparently did see herself as the homely girl without a beau, which sent her into the arms of a suave gambler and swindler named Nicky Arnstein, whom she married and whose defense she bankrolled when he was arrested and tried for securities fraud.
Brice died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of fifty-nine. But she had left behind a memoir, and her daughter, Frances Arnstein, every bit as refined as her mother, was determined to bring that story to the musical stage. In this, she was abetted by her husband, the film producer Ray Stark. Stark had no stage experience, so he teamed with David Merrick, who did. They hired Isobel Lennart, a veteran screenwriter, to adapt the book, and the composer Jule Styne (Gypsy) and lyricist Bob Merrill (Carnival!) to write the score. Everyone involved fully realized that the show would rise or fall on the actress who played Brice. It was the role of a lifetime, navigating from comedy to tragedy and from the silly to the glamorous. It was the story of a woman’s desire to be loved as a woman and, not incidentally, of a Jew’s desire to be accepted as a star. And it was the story of intrepid will to survive the professional and the romantic difficulties. It was Brice’s story, but it was Streisand’s story, too. “This play is really about me,” Streisand would say. “It simply happened to happen before to Fanny Brice.”
Though Streisand was only twenty-one and had only Miss Marmelstein on her Broadway résumé, as soon as word of the show leaked, her name was being floated as a possibility. Groucho Marx even mentioned it during Streisand’s Tonight Show appearance. In addition to the similarities of their personal stories and, of course, their unmistakable Jewishness, Streisand looked like Brice, had some of Brice’s mannerisms, and shared her outsized kooky stage personality. Streisand just seemed to summon Brice. According to Streisand biographer William Mann, whose chronicle of this period in her career is the most authoritative, the assistant stage manager on I Can Get It for You Wholesale asked the veteran actress Lillian Roth, who was featured in the show, whom Streisand reminded her of. Roth immediately thought of Brice. Streisand felt the same affinity. She would tell Playboy, “I read conversations [of Brice’s] that have never been published, and it was very peculiar, we were very much alike in a very deep area, in spirit. … Her essence and my essence were very similar.”
The timing for the casting couldn’t have been better since Streisand’s star was rising. When she had played Marmelstein she was, like Marmelstein, a strange, lonely girl, lamenting her neglect. The role was a fit—character and life intertwined. Now she was opting, as Brice had, for a breakthrough as a leading lady, and again, there was a fit. She desperately wanted the role, but there were many candidates. Jerome Robbins, who had been signed to direct the show, was lobbying for Anne Bancroft. Other names included Mary Martin, Mimi Hines, Kaye Stevens, Carol Burnett, Suzanne Pleshette, Paula Prentiss, and Kaye Ballard. Certainly, others could have played Brice. But only Streisand had lived Brice.
Of all the contenders, Streisand had an internal cheerleader: Jule Styne. And Styne had a motive. After seeing her at the Bon Soir, where, by one account, he attended every one of her performances, he began thinking of the songs he could write for her—for that voice. “I was writing the score for someone with that range, that dynamism, that sense of fun,” he would say. So he dragged Ray Stark to see Wholesale, and according to Mann, when Stark said that his Brice had to be more than funny, Styne dragged him to the Bon Soir to see her in torchy mode. Meanwhile, the play’s writer, Isobel Lennart, asked her friend Doris Vidor, the wife of film director Charles Vidor and the daughter of Harry Warner of Warner Bros., to see Streisand at the Blue Angel and report back. Vidor wrote her: “There is a sadness and a deep emotional impact this girl projects to the audience that is very unique.” She concluded that Streisand was a young Fanny Brice.
But Streisand understood that the person she really had to convince was Brice’s daughter and Stark’s wife, Frances. When she flew to California for her appearance on The Dinah Shore Show in May 1963, Streisand made a point of meeting Fran Stark. Stark was not impressed. She asserted that Streisand would never play her mother. Another Streisand biographer, Anne Edwards, adduced a reason for Fran Stark’s hostility, and it was a deeply ironic one, though one that certainly resonated with her mother’s aspirations: She thought that Streisand looked and acted too Jewish to be Brice. Streisand certainly would have appreciated that irony in regard to Brice and even more in regard to herself. The girl who was always called too Jewish to play anyone but Jews was herself too Jewish to play a Jew who sought to temper her Jewishness.
Still, the congruencies between Brice and Streisand were so powerful and Streisand’s show business march that year so triumphant that she landed the part. It didn’t take her long to assert herself. During the preproduction, David Merrick, with whom she had signed her contract, left the show to concentrate on Hello, Dolly! and sold his Funny Girl rights to Stark. Since Stark didn’t have her under contract, Streisand now had bargaining power, which she exercised. Her agent and attorney renegotiated her contract up from $3,500 a week to $7,500 and added perks like a personal hairdresser and driver. Once again, it was Streisand flexing her muscles and avenging the years of mistreatment. And it was her first real diva moment—the first of many to come.
Stark paid because, like everyone attached to the production, he had come to the conclusion that Funny Girl needed Streisand, not just because she was the talented engine of the show, but because she was living the performance in a way no other actress possibly could. In a show that was narratively meta, there were a number of meta moments: Streisand singing “People,” a wistful valentine to interdependence from a woman who seemed to need no one and may have regretted it; “Sadie, Sadie,” in which she crows how lucky she was to have landed her handsome hubby; “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” a comic number with a less-than-comic subtext about beauty as a reflection of affection; and, perhaps above all, “I’m the Greatest Star,” Brice’s assertion of her unrecognized super-talent, which was also Streisand’s assertion of her once-unrecognized super-talent.
The meta-ness of Streisand playing the lead in a story that could have been (and was) her own would be matched by the meta-ness of the difficulties of mounting a play about the difficulties of mounting a career. After staging the show, Robbins quit and then, when Stark berated him, demanded that nothing he devised could be used in the production, which meant they essentially had to go back to square one. Stark tried to engage choreographer-turned-director Bob Fosse to direct, but he declined. Finally, he wound up with Garson Kanin, the screenwriter and playwright who was married to actress Ruth Gordon. It was not the best choice for a young actress embarking on a potentially star-making role in a massive musical. Kanin, by his own admission, was passive. He said it was by design. He wanted to give Streisand the room to find herself. Streisand, for her part, took the passivity to be ineffectuality. Lost, looking for direction, she was thrown back on her own devices and forced to take control of her own performance. She was also forced to demand changes in the script. According to Mann, she called it “artistic responsibility.” Others weren’t as charitable.
She was confused. She told Merrill and Styne that she didn’t want to sing “People” or “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” the two songs that would become the show’s classics. Merrill was enraged. Styne, who still loved her, asked her to reconsider. And if she was confused, she was also determined. When, during the show’s Boston tryout, Kanin found her belting “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in between the matinee and evening performances and advised she rest her voice, Streisand snapped, “Goddammit! … I gotta get this fucking thing right.” She later apologized but discovered that the conductor had not hit the right tempo, throwing her off. She knew her performance wasn’t perfect, that she wasn’t quite getting it, and that she couldn’t direct herself. So she asked Alan Miller, her old acting teacher, if he would watch her and coach her, keeping his presence a secret from Kanin. “Barbra was in real trouble,” Miller would remember. “She was behaving like a rank amateur up there on stage. It was appalling.” And no matter what Streisand did, everyone realized that the second act, the act in which her career rise gave way to her marital entanglement with Arnstein, was a mess, lacking energy and drama.
When the play opened in Boston, critics were unkind, calling the show overlong and unshapely, and hammering at the second act. But another thing on which they all agreed was that they loved Streisand. Now the issue was whether the show could be improved as a vehicle for its star. In the event, this would require massive rewriting and a new director. Kanin left. Succumbing to Stark’s pleas, Robbins returned for the next stop in Philadelphia. Now the real razing and renovation began, basically reconstructing everything around Streisand. Robbins seemed intoxicated by her, even as he recognized her bullheadedness. “She reads [new pages] and like an instantaneous translator, she calculates how all the myriad changes will affect the emotional and physical patterns,” he later wrote. “When she finishes reading, her reactions are immediate and violent—loving or hating them—and she will not change her mind. Not that day. During the rehearsal, in her untidy, exploratory, meteoric fashion, she goes way out, never afraid to let herself go anywhere or try anything. … That night onstage, in place of the messy, grubby girl, a sorceress sails through every change without hesitation, leaving wallowing fellow players in her wake.” It was obviously her show, now even more so, but leaving “fellow players in her wake” was a problem. Most of them resented it. In the original book, Nora, the beautiful showgirl, tells Fanny that she is braced for the day when she has lost her looks—to which Fanny says that she herself has no looks to lose, a typical Streisand line. Nora counters that Fanny likes being around the beautiful girls so that she can entice men away from them, proving that her own beauty is more than skin deep—another typical Streisand line. But Streisand was evidently so threatened that she apparently had Nora’s role trimmed—more meta.
That was the least of it, however. In yet another meta touch, Elliott Gould, Streisand’s former Wholesale star, whom she had married during that high-flying summer of 1963, was playing in real life Arnstein to her Brice. The two Jews were perfectly compatible so long as Streisand, like Brice, wasn’t a star. They were less compatible when the solar eclipse began. Gould fell into gambling, drugs, and psychoanalysis very much as Arnstein, feeling emasculated by his wife, fell into his financial shenanigans, at least as the play told it. But there was one more fillip. Streisand and her costar, Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie, who played Arnstein, had begun an affair. Just as Brice won Arnstein on the force of her personality and her talent, Streisand won Chaplin. Chaplin said as much. On meeting her, he realized that “she didn’t find herself attractive and was compensating with this enormous drive to succeed,” which apparently he did find attractive.
But it was far less attractive as Streisand’s role expanded and Chaplin’s was whittled—whittled until he had only a single song while Streisand was singing the entire score. (On opening night she would be onstage for 111 out of 132 minutes.) Now there was tension not only between Streisand and Gould but between Streisand and Chaplin. This was added to the tension of the show itself, which was still very much a work in progress. New scenes, new songs, lost scenes, lost songs—this became a daily occurrence once the show moved to its previews in New York. Streisand admitted to the New York Times that she was a “little tired” as the opening approached and she had to absorb the multitude of changes, though many marveled, as Robbins did, at how quickly she adapted. (By one account, she and Chaplin rehearsed a new version of the last scene the day before opening, the forty-first version, and never played it onstage until that night.) But for all the changes, one thing remained. Audiences loved Streisand. Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen said she so milked the curtain calls that they were “like rituals performed in a Buddhist temple.” But it wasn’t Buddha audiences were worshipping.
On opening night, March 26, 1964, at the Winter Garden Theatre, after five postponements as Robbins wrestled the show into shape, Barbra Streisand stepped from entertainment into history, and from a stage into the American imagination. Streisand had been a popular singer—a very popular singer. In New York she had also been an icon for the marginalized and minorities. But that night, delivering what many believed was one of the greatest performances ever on Broadway, she became an institution. In a Time cover story the next week aptly titled “The Girl,” as if there were no other, Ray Kennedy described her entrance: “In the moment’s pause before she disappears as quickly as she came, she leaves an image in the eye—of a carelessly stacked girl with a long nose and bones awry, wearing a lumpy brown leopard-trimmed coat and looking like the star of nothing. But there is something in her clear, elliptical gaze that is beyond resistance. It invites too much sympathy to be as aggressive as it seems. People watching it can almost hear the last few ticks before Barbra Streisand explodes.”
And what a detonation. “She establishes more than a well-recollected Fanny Brice. She establishes Barbra Streisand,” who “turns the air around her into a cloud of tired ions.” Her voice “pushes the walls out, and it pulls them in.” Kennedy cited what others had seen in Streisand beyond her talent, her “bravery” as well as her vulnerability, and he repeated what was now also becoming a commonplace: “People start to nudge one another and say, ‘This girl is beautiful.’ ” Cue magazine called her “Magnificent, sublime, radiant, extraordinary, electric—what puny adjectives to describe Barbra Streisand.” In the Times, drama critic Walter Kerr wrote, “Everybody knew that Barbra Streisand would be a star, and so she is.” Life exulted that the “entire gorgeous, rattletrap show-business Establishment blew sky high” for Streisand, and it called her “Cinderella at the ball, every hopeless kid’s hopeless dream come true.” When, at show’s end that opening night, she sang a reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” surely an anthem for all the things for which Streisand had stood, the audience erupted and she received twenty-three curtain calls.
The reception testified to just how far Streisand had extended the Jewish metaphor—so far that the metaphor disappeared into the thing it signified. Though just about everyone involved with the show, from Stark to Robbins to Lennart to Styne to Streisand, was Jewish, and though it was about a Jewish entertainer, and though it starred the most overtly Jewish of singers outside of the Yiddish theater, the one word that no reviewer wrote in commending the show was “Jewish,” even though without its Jewish underpinnings, the show was emotionally incomprehensible. Rather, Funny Girl became, as Times critic Howard Taubman stressed in his daily review, a show business story of a rising star wrapped around the story of a doomed romance, and not, as it so patently was, a Jewish story of an outsider trying to win acceptance in a world of beauty and glamour wrapped around the story of romance doomed by a driven Jewish woman’s success. As he put it, “Funny Girl is most fun when it is reveling in Fanny’s preoccupation with show business,” which missed completely the show’s real fun, Fanny (and Streisand) wooing the entertainment gods, and the real pathos, Fanny (and Streisand) striving to be loved.
Loved she would be. Amid the accolades, only two people seemed unimpressed. One was Diana Streisand, who told a reporter on opening night that Barbra got her talent from her mother, but who prompted Streisand to complain during Funny Girl’s run, “Even today she calls me and says, ‘So-and-so in the office says he read something nice about you in the papers.’ But it never seems to mean anything to her personally.” The other person was Streisand herself, still negotiating between superiority and inferiority. Even the smallest criticism would elicit her to ask: “So am I great or am I lousy? I gotta know.” And she would still, even now, recall to a reporter the casting directors who had dismissed her in favor of prettier girls and say, “There are people who tell me I’m beautiful this way,” meaning with her unfixed nose, adding, “Well, they’re wrong. Beautiful I’m not and never will be.”
And yet she made her triumph seem inevitable. Speaking to the same Times reporter the day after the opening, Streisand talked about the sense of anticlimax after all the previews and her fear of getting bored with the show, but she also spoke of her destiny. “I always knew I hadda be famous and rich—the best,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t live just being medium.” And then she spoke of the responsibility of being a success: “People will no longer come to see a new talent they’ve heard about. I now have to live up to their concept of a great success. I’m not the underdog, the homely kid from Brooklyn they can root for anymore. I’m fair game.”
Excerpted from Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, by Neal Gabler. Copyright © 2016 by Neal Gabler. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Neal Gabler is the author of four previous books. Both An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.