Why ‘Funny Girl’ Is as Important as ‘Fiddler’
The publication of Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” has seemed to reassert the prominence of “Fiddler” as the Jewish musical to end all Jewish musicals. “Fiddler,” Eileen Reynolds wrote in herreview of Solomon’s book, “has achieved something like folklore status in the American imagination, and grapples, as any history of this musical must, with fundamental questions about Jewish identity.”
The same year that “Fiddler” premiered on Broadway, however, another American musical brought not only Jewish themes and narratives to forefront but also a new star to the stage. That was “Funny Girl,” a fast-and-loose biographical telling of the life of entertainer Fanny Brice, played by Barbra Streisand. But unlike “Fiddler,” “Funny Girl” remains undervalued, and is not generally considered to be as important a musical.
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the American Jewish audience was able see something of itself. This not only had to do with the musical’s presentation of shtetl life, with the spectre of expulsion and pogrom looming over everything, but also with the struggle between tradition and modernity. New political and cultural ideas like Marxism and intermarriage challenge longstanding belief and Tevye, as the embodiment of this antagonism between past and present, seeks to preserve his relationships with his wife and daughters as the shtetl disintegrates around him.
At “Fiddler’s” conclusion, Tevye and Golde depart for America, and from here “Funny Girl” could and should be seen as a continuation of this narrative, the next phase in the Jewish American story. Moving forward to the interwar years, the life of Fanny Brice (and indeed the story of Streisand) is one in which a kooky and ostensibly unglamorous young girl from the Lower East Side ascends to become one of the most famous people in the United States by virtue of her talent and perseverance.
The shtetl has been superseded by Brooklyn and Henry Street, the desire for Broadway fame is the aspiration to leave the shtetl behind. The clash between the past and future is seen in the challenge to the family structure. In this case it is the mother who is afraid that “now she belongs to the ages, my work is done” — “I lost a daughter but I gained a star.” But even if the celebrity aspect gives “Funny Girl” some remove, to see Streisand and Brice, their triumphs and their tribulations, is to see something of the 20th-century American Jewish experience.