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The shtetl has been superseded by Brooklyn and Henry Street, the desire for Broadway fame is the aspiration to leave the shtetl behind.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.
Conventional musical theatre wisdom has it that the overture to Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy is the finest of its sort ever composed (or compiled, depending on how you look at it.) It’s a fine overture, for sure, to the extent that it draws upon a consistently enjoyable score and introduces the show in a way that catalogues said score in an original and peppy fashion. That said, I’m not why this particular assertion has become theatrical dogma, for evidently it is only one of a number of fine overtures, amongst them the openings to South Pacific, Candide, Merrily We Roll Along, and (my personal favourite) Funny Girl.
Given that it has never been revived, it is perhaps difficult to assert how good a musical Funny Girl actually is. The overture notwithstanding, and the Jule Styne score is worthy of a mention too, its popularity and resilience down the generations is largely due to the performance of its lead actress, one Barbra Streisand. After a featuring role in I Can Get It for You Wholesale as Miss Marmelstein, Funny Girl was the show and subsequent (quite boring) movie that launched her career. The role of Fanny Brice and the music and lyrics granted to Streisand enabled her not only to show off her comic side through songs like “The Greatest Star”, and her amazing instrument in what as become a standard and signature tune, “People”. Streisand is one of the things that makes the musical essential.
But Funny Girl is also important in the way it handles or shapes modern American Jewish identity, even more so it could be argued that the great Fiddler on the Roof. Its central character, Brice, is a strong, assertive, clever, funny, and talented Jewish woman who ascends from a kind of obscurity living and working in the lower East Side of Manhattan, becoming one of the most famous people in the city, and indeed the country, based upon her talent and without necessarily compromising her character or identity. Who’s an American Beauty rose / With an American Beauty nose, Brice sings. In a manner of speaking, then, the American Jewish experience during the twentieth century of elevation from working-class poverty to making remarkable contributions to politics, sciences, and the arts is told, at least in part, through Brice. And indeed, it is reflected in Streisand too, the actress playing her, a star who in her own words “kept her nose to spite her face.”
Barbra packed a Voss water and a cup of berries for our trip. As we headed out to the driveway toward a brand-new Ford C-MAX hybrid I was borrowing, she asked, “Is your car clean?” Then she got inside and—just like my mom—told me it was too warm. Five minutes down the road, as I was shivering, she said, “We have to turn the air down.” When I happily turned the dial up, she said, “No, leave the temperature the same, but turn down the air blowing. For the sound for your recording.” I told her the recording would be fine. “No, there’s too much air.” I began to feel relieved that Barbra hadn’t agreed to stop somewhere to eat, since we would have spent the whole time changing tables.
Hal David, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist who in the 1960s and ’70s gave pop music vernacular the questions “What’s It All About?,” “What’s New, Pussycat?,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and “What Do You Get When You Fall in Love?,” died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 91. The cause was a stroke, according to his wife, Eunice, who said he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. (The New York Times)