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Burnt Fingers. The span from Bon Soir to Funny Girl took only 31 years. But she became well enough known through Wholesale, TV shows and nightclub dates to be asked to Washington to sing for President Kennedy. Her opening line to the President was: "You're a doll." When he inquired politely how long she had been singing, she said: "As long as you've been President."
But she was virtually inexperienced as an actress when she began rehearsals for Funny Girl, and the show turned out to be one of the most fussed-over, reworked, overmanaged, multidirected Broadway productions everimposing expectations on its star that would have broken someone who lacked her will.
Producer Ray Stark was feeling his way and burning his fingers on almost everything he touched. A fabulously successful film producer (Seven Arts Productions), he had never before done a Broadway show. Furthermore his wife Frances is the daughter of Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein. So there were book problems right away. The actual Nicky was considered unacceptable as a leading man. He was a shiftless con man with a column of mercury for a spine, a criminal record, and a cavalier attitude toward Fanny's devotion and fidelity.
But there was more to the old Nick than a Ph.D. from Sing Sing. He was a man of resplendent metaphor. His shoe trees were casts that had been made from his feet, and he described himself as distingue. W. C. Fields modeled his style, his speech and his manner after Nicky Arnstein. Something quite approximate to the real Nicky might have cured the flaws in Funny Girl. Instead, Stark settled for a paraffin prince out of Franz Lehar, who only turns to fraud out of temporary insanity arising from his embarrassment over accepting handouts from Fanny. Hence Barbra Streisand has no competition on the stage. A fight to the death with a more vigorous Nicky, given plenty of songs of his own, might have balanced the night.*
Odd Sounds. While Ray Stark was worrying about these things, Funny Girl opened in Boston and bombed. Writer Isobel Lennart began rewriting, Composer Jule Styne wrote twice as many songs as were finally used, and on the road $30,000 worth of sets were thrown away. Isobel Lennart wrote 42 versions of the last scene alone. The cost of the show eventually climbed beyond $600,000. The date of its New York opening was changed four times. Five weeks before the New York opening, Garson Kanin was no longer directing, and Jerome Robbins was.
The trouble was not all in the second act, although that is what the giant brains were concentrating on. Some of the difficulty was with Barbra Streisand. In Boston she showed no flair for stage comedy, and merely sang the songs as they came along. In the 15 weeks that Funny Girl drifted toward Broadway, she picked up ten years' worth of stage presence and comic sense.