Michael Mayer had one eye on his “Funny Girl” cast and one eye on his phone. The cast was rehearsing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” a comic song from the musical’s first act. And the phone was humming with texts from Harvey Fierstein, on board to fine-tune the script, under Mayer’s direction.
Fanny Brice, the title role, is getting her big shot. She leaves behind a small music hall to play a prominent part in the Ziegfeld Follies. She’s there as the butt of the joke, surrounded by leggy showgirls, each a bride-to-be staring admiringly into a hand mirror.
But Fanny turns the joke inside out, secretly stuffing her bridal gown so that when the audience and the dancers see her, she’s hugely pregnant.
Eight days into rehearsal, Beanie Feldstein, who will star as Fanny in the first Broadway production of “Funny Girl” since Barbra Streisand originated the role in 1964, was angling for laughs. She scurried among the dancers in a white mask, stuffed black sweater, and two-tone leggings.
“Oy! Oy! I’m falling,” she improvised. Later: “I’m shvitzing.”
She clutched her baby bump as she lean against a thin male dancer. “Oy, he’s kicking.”
What name would be appropriate for the Jewish boy-tobe? Mayer and a texting Fierstein had their thoughts.
Milty? Marvin? Arnold? Moishe? Mayer shouted them.
“Moishe? Or Moishy?” Feldstein, a little breathless, yelled back.
Moishy was it, at least during this rehearsal.
For Feldstein, 28, rehearsing to play Fanny Brice was the culmination of a lifelong dream that began as a Los Angeles girl infatuated — no, obsessed — with musical theater. A girl who, for her third birthday, dressed as Fanny, wearing a leopard-print jacket and hat that echoed a costume Streisand wore in the 1968 film of “Funny Girl,” which won her a best actress Oscar.
In her bones: Feldstein, center, rehearsing “His Love Makes You Beautiful” with members of the cast. Credit… George Etheredge for The New York Times
It was also a culmination that any actress was rehearsing Fanny Brice. The matchless pairing of performer and part — both Fanny and Barbra were self-deprecating singers with outsize dreams — sent Streisand into the showbiz stratosphere. But “Funny Girl” disappeared from the Broadway stage.
“Having had Barbra Streisand in that role almost froze the musical,” said Barbara Hogenson, the literary agent representing the show’s librettist, who over two decades has attended many a meeting to talk about revivals. “People were very cautious because of the possibility of comparison.”
There have been many lists over the years. There have been campaigners for the part and slow decision makers. Backstage chatter about who could sing the enormous role — and did she have to be, like Brice and Streisand, Jewish?
For a glimpse at an earlier Broadway revival, take a look to the casting call:
“The woman who will play Fanny Brice must have an unforgettably thrilling voice with a big range (E below middle C to a high F; Mezzo with a high mix or belt) and great comic skill, masking deep insecurity and pain. She is a once-in-a-generation talent, and must have excellent comedic timing.”
This production never took place. It’s one of many bumps along a nearly six-decade path that winds from New York to London and back; that involves at various points the “Glee” co-creator Ryan Murphy, the television actress Lauren Ambrose and the pop singer Debbie Gibson; and that features a triumphant stop in Paris and a bleak reckoning in Green Bay, Wis.
But now, on March 26 — 58 years to the day that it opened on Broadway — “Funny Girl” is scheduled to begin performances at the August Wilson Theater, with Feldstein, in her stuffed bridal gown, joined by Ramin Karimloo, Jane Lynch and Jared Grimes in a cast of 28.
It’s a $15 million production in a very anxious Broadway season, but Feldstein seems remarkably calm. “It’s so in my bones,” she said during a break in rehearsal. “I used to run around the house in my pajamas screaming ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade,’ pretending my dog was the tugboat.”
Telling the Fanny Brice Story
The producer Ray Stark was married to Frances Arnstein, the daughter of the stage and radio star Fanny Brice, and in the late 1950s he set out to make a film of his mother-in-law’s life story. Born Fania Borach in 1891 to Jewish immigrants, Brice began performing as a…