Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Hello, Gorgeous

In 1964, my father was working his way up the management ladder at Lockheed, but traveled rarely for the company (he was later to circle the globe a couple of times as head of their commercial aircraft program, but that was a decade in the future). He was excited to be sent to New York by the company, and even more excited when Lockheed invited my mother to join him. They had never been to the Big Apple. Neither of them were big theatre-goers at the time, but they knew that, as first-time visitors, they needed to see a Broadway show. They had no idea what was playing, and wouldn't recognize any of the shows if they did, so they asked the hotel doorman what they should see. He pointed down the street to the Winter Garden Theatre, and my parents walked down the block and bought tickets.

It was years later that I first heard from my father that he and my mother had wandered into the original production of Funny Girl, and had seen the young Barbra Streisand in her career-making role.

As for me, I only became aware of Streisand after Funny Girl,the film, had been in the theaters for many months. My best friend Robert was a huge fan, and insisted we ride the bus from the suburbs all the way downtown to see the movie. I had not heard of the woman (give me a break, I was barely a teenager). The film was one of those "roadshow" events, with an intermission and reserved seating and such. We attended a Saturday matinee, in a huge theatre, with about 8 other people. I was hooked.

During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Streisand was one of those galvanizing personalities whom people either loved or hated, there didn't seem to be much in-between. For most of that period, I would count myself as a lover. I was not slavishly devoted; I disliked many of her recordings of the 70s, though she topped the charts several times with items such as Stoney End, Enough is Enough, and The Way We Were. In fact, she has achieved a most phenomenal feat: she has delivered at least one #1 album in each of the past five decades. She remains the most successful female solo vocalist in recording history.

While she undoubtedly has had her greatest success in the recording industry (nobody can deny that hers is one of the great voices of the 20th century), she conquered the stage and screen as well. She has only two Broadway projects to her credit, but she was a standout in both. She was first noticed in a supporting role in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, a role which was beefed up musically when her vocal talents became apparent. And Funny Girl, of course, sealed the deal. The show itself is not one of Broadway's classics, and the fact that there has been no high-profile revival indicates that the piece is now inexorably tied to Streisand. But she was not the first choice to play Fanny Brice in this stage biography; during much of its development, Mary Martin was attached to the project (Mary Martin as Fanny Brice? ACK!!) The ultra-goy Martin ultimately withdrew, and the show was offered to Anne Bancroft, of all people, who wisely declined. Carol Burnett was approached; she quite astutely replied, "You need a Jewish girl." Edie Gorme was courted, but her insistence that her husband Steve Lawrence play leading man Nick Arnstein sank that deal. Finally somebody remembered Streisand, and dragged the producers to the Bon Soir cabaret in the Village, where Babs was performing, and a star was born.

Funny Girl had a very healthy run of well over 1300 performances, and was nominated for 8 Tony awards, losing them all. Though Streisand was awarded a Special Tony in 1970, she never won the award in competition. She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for I Can Get it For You Wholesale, but lost to Phyllis Newman in the giant flop Subways Are For Sleeping, and she lost her Best Actress award (for Funny Girl, of course) to the juggernaut which was Hello, Dolly!

Throughout most of the 60s, Streisand delivered a series of television specials which won multiple Emmys, but it was still a surprise when her film debut snagged an Oscar. Her performance in the film version of Funny Girl ranks as one of the most dynamic film debuts in the history of the movies. The film itself was the top grosser of 1969, and is probably responsible for the failure of all attempts to revive Funny Girl on stage. With Streisand's definitive portrayal of Fanny Brice available for all to see, who would want to see Sutton Foster tackle the part?

This week's Dance Party celebrates not only Streisand's vocal ability, but her screwball comic chops as well. Her comic ability can be overshadowed by her musical accomplishments, but just check out What's Up, Doc? or Meet the Fockers if you have any doubt about her comic timing. Or just enjoy the clip below, which showcases her comedic and musical skills simultaneously. It's from Funny Girl, and illustrates Streisand's ability to be dynamic and endearing at the same time.

Barbra Streisand turns 68 tomorrow.