Styne, Jule and Bob Merrill
Barbra in Pre-Diva Days
In her hit-making heyday, Barbra Streisand was among the most over-esteemed singers in pop music history, a diva in every unsavory connotation of the term. This Broadway classic of her early career proves she didn't start out that way. As Fanny Brice, unlikely comic star of the Ziegfeld Follies, Streisand offers careful, character-sensitive readings of great songs. She interprets the music with humor and humanity, and though her voice doesn't have the fullness it would develop later, it is supremely believable. That can't be said of many of her recordings of the 1970s and '80s—where she's a sturdy voice whose bombastic and emotionally manipulative gestures place ego-fulfillment above considerations of melody.
With Funny Girl, Streisand appears as a key cog in an overall entertainment machine—not the whole machine. She gets the lion's share of composer Jule Styne's songs—twelve, including several duets and ensemble numbers—and yet never seems to be hogging the spotlight. She actually earns the spotlight. And apparently it didn't come easily: The show had a famously troubled pre-Broadway history, as it took Streisand a year, and help from several acting coaches, to arrive at the characterization that would eventually bring her a Best Actress Oscar for the film version.
Funny Girl is one of the great showbiz musicals. It's an ugly-duckling story about Brice, whose breakthrough moment with the Follies, told through the song "His Love Makes Me Beautiful," comes when she's asked to play a bride. She arrives onstage in a full wedding costume—but with a pillow underneath, ostensibly pregnant. The visual gag makes her a star, and Styne, one of the great melodists among theater composers, provides her with suitably strong material the rest of the way. The gems include "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "The Music That Makes Me Dance," which Streisand interprets with wonderful grace and a light touch. The score requires Streisand to be brash and funny and sympathetic, sometimes within the same verse. She more than manages this hat trick, singing with great timing and indomitable spirit, as though she recognizes it's up to her to make listeners realize how special these melodies are.
Released: 1964, Capitol
Key Tracks: "Sadie Sadie," "Rat Tat Tat," "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Don't Rain on My Parade."
Another Interpretation: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (also starring Streisand).
Buyer Beware: Funny Lady, the sequel, is to be avoided.
Catalog Choice: Gypsy, Original Broadway Cast.
Next Stop: Frank Loesser: Guys and Dolls, 1992 Broadway Revival.
Book Pages: 753–754