The Menier Chocolate Factory production of Funny Girl, since transferred to the Savoy, is probably about as good a Funny Girl as you can hope to see staged. The musical chronicles the rise and rise of vaudeville star Fanny Brice’s career and the rise and fall of her relationship with entrepreneur and gambler Nicky Arnstein.
Funny Girl has historically hung on its female lead. Barbara Streisand created the role for the stage and starred in the film, and she is considered definitive in it. Sheridan Smith (who I’ve enjoyed immensely as Lucie Miller in the BFA range, in the West End Legally Blonde and in the Old Vic’s recent Hedda Gabler), who my sister saw a month ago in the same production my partner and I saw this week, apparently held down Streisand’s fort while doing a lot of jolly fourth-wall-breaking cheats to the audience and imbuing Fanny Brice with the personable appeal I’ve come to expect from Smith.
Unfortunately Smith has since suffered a serious health breakdown. Her understudy has been saddled with not just the burden of taking centre-stage for some weeks now, but with the additional chores of doing the role essentially as Smith in a production designed around the actress rather than getting to put her own stamp on the part, and with shouldering people who came to see Smith’s expectations and disappointment. Apparently (says the gossip in the aisles) the first night the understudy stepped in, the poor woman was actually booed. Obviously cruel and pointless—it’s one thing to boo a bad show. Even that I’d hesitate to do, a cool reception being so detectable as it is, and so disheartening to the performers. To an extent, you pays your money and you takes your chances, and it’s rare that anything produced in the West End will surprise you by being an out and out insult in terms of quality. Which is not to say some of it isn’t utter bollocks, merely that if you chose to see Thriller Live, chances are you intended to make this error of judgment. But it’s another thing again to loathe an understudy for something she can’t help, for doing her job. It’s like screaming at fate/into the storm, which is ridiculous when Lear does it and more so if you’re not a deposed mad king. That said, guiltily I have to confess that I do think I would have enjoyed the show more with Smith herself, rather than with someone stuck in the unenviable position of having to hit her beats. Though the understudy did a fair job with the comedic timing/lovability that are Smith’s hallmarks, and was if anything the better singer.
Funny Girl strikes me as having an unusual shape for a musical. I do like the lively, sympathetic female lead, even as it’s a bit tough to believe a series of hot women cast in the role as Unattractive Oddballs who fit the bill for songs like “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” (if you don’t think Barbara was hot as fuck circa that film you are a gay man without taste, a terminally and tragically straight woman, lying, or I have no wish to know you). The book has what, two great songs? “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, and maybe I know a few bars of “I’m the Greatest Star”. And they are Great Songs, but as a whole the musical feels rather bitty, rather than smooth and enveloping. I like “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and “I Want to Be Seen With You Tonight”, but I don’t know them outside of this.
That said, Funny Girl never feels like a patchwork of decentish independent songs woven loosely together into a narrative, like some mid-century musicals I could mention. “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” came over a little bizarre in this staging (and I wasn’t that into the staging generally: I disliked the set for doing almost no work and not being particularly attractive, and I tired of the Meaningful Use of Mirrors at the sides of the stage before the night finished–they only really justify themselves in the poster above), but I can see how the number would present a challenge to production teams. This number could have done a lot of work conveying Brice’s power on stage, and it didn’t sell this to me because the number was somewhat incomprehensible and not ultimately that funny (the sketch comes across as awkwardly bloodthirsty now, to boot). We see Brice performing throughout her off-stage life, true, but overall the focus is on her relationship with her dull husband rather than her more interesting relationships with her collaborators/co-workers and herself. It’s sad to see Brice’s art getting a little lost in Brice’s story: to be told she’s good at what she does, but almost never to see that speak for itself. It does diminish Brice somewhat, and I wonder whether you’d see anything similar in the biopic of a male artist (even one focused chiefly on his personal life).
Incidentally, you can tell how much the popular vision of Jewish Otherness has changed since the 60s by how comfortable people are now casting Fanny as some shiksa. This was one of the many points of conflict in the troubled course of the original production, with several actresses demurring or being dismissed from consideration in favor of a Jewish lead.
Funny Girl is in some ways a story about toxic masculinity. Nicky Arnstein, Brice’s macho fuckboi husband, is obsessed with and needs to prove his masculinity or even just his personhood by having and spending flash cash. If Nicky’s unable to do so, he wilts. If he feels himself a subordinate or even an equal partner in his marriage, he droops. And Nicky’s incapable of or unwilling to measure his contributions by a metric other than not just having money, but pulling it in and pushing it out like a deranged machine. He gambles not out of addiction or a love of gambling, but seemingly because he feels he has no distinct self without relentless success in this activity and others like it. And perhaps he doesn’t? Fanny Brice is devoted to him, despite his setbacks, but it can be difficult to see why, when in a sense Nicky’s paranoia is justified right: all he is is flash, you get no sense of substance.
Yet even the fact that the fears driving him to make mistakes might be valid doesn’t make me particularly sympathetic to Arnstein, who takes no steps to grow into a more substantive person and makes any temporary cross into a crushing burden. Just get over her making more than you, this is not a problem. OH NOOOO WE HAVE LOST SOME MONEY we still have some moneyyy: A Nonproblem. Oy. Gambling and poor decisions worsen Arnstein’s position, and on the whole his wounds to seem mostly self-inflicted. At so many points Nicky might well make matters better for himself and the wife the story tells me he loves by simply staying home and taking care of his child, or just not touching anything. Or if he wanted to do more, if he needed more of a sense of agency than that, given his position and connections he might have had any one of several steady Some Money jobs. Yes, Fanny overstepped herself by fake-creating a make-work position her husband could occupy, but he was being intractable and on the road to personal ruin and the dissolution of their marriage, and besides the job could easily have suited him well, had it not been fake!
When Arnstein calls their marriage quits right before the big finale, I’m simultaneously pleased to see an end to this and at a loss as to this risk-loving, Big Business man’s total inability to handle varied eventualities and personal arrangements of any scale. I was bemused and annoyed when Fanny’s mother told her this situation was in any way her fault for ‘clinging too hard’ and not letting Arnstein Man Manfully. Look Mrs. Brice, you called it earlier when you said Arnstein was handsome trouble, don’t fuck up your good record.
I’m glad I saw this musical (and would watch the film and see the Smith version), but despite its several virtues I don’t think I can see it becoming a particular favorite of mine in any incarnation. That’s largely because Arnstein shapes the whole narrative. And Arnstein is, as I have suggested, at best a tragedy—a loving and energetic man twisted up by internalized, gendered expectations—and at worst a vacuous fuckboi bore.