Barbra Streisand's Golden Debut In "Funny Girl"

Fifty years ago, Barbra Streisand garnered accolades and critical acclaim for her role as Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" on Broadway
  • Photo: Mondadori/Getty Images
    Barbra Streisand in the 1968 film adaptation of "Funny Girl"
March 26, 2014 -- 12:31 pm PDT
By Paul Grein / GRAMMY.com

It was 50 years ago today that Barbra Streisand opened on Broadway in "Funny Girl." None of the opening-night reviewers actually said "She's like buttah" (to borrow Linda Richman's [aka Mike Myers'] famous line from SNL's "Coffee Talk" sketch), but that's definitely the impression they left.

Time raved, "Some stars merely brighten up a marquee; Barbra Streisand sets an entire theater ablaze. … Actress, songstress, dancer, comedienne, mimic, clown — she is the theater's new girl for all seasons."

In his column in the Daily News, Ed Sullivan wrote, "Barbra Streisand in 'Funny Girl' is the greatest thing to hit Broadway in too many seasons."

Writing in the New York Journal-American, society columnist Suzy Knickerbocker flatly said, "Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice is the star of the decade."

Celebrities who attended the opening night party at the Rainbow Room also sang Streisand's praises. Lauren Bacall raved, "I absolutely saw the best thing I ever saw in my life in that girl. She can act. She can sing. She has an electric personality. Which is what makes a star."

Sophie Tucker, who was a peer of Brice's in the '20s and '30s, enthused, "She has everything that I will call a star. She is star material from now on. Nothing will stop Barbra Streisand."

Fred Robbins, who hosted the "Robbins Nest" radio show on WNEW-FM in New York, interviewed Streisand in her dressing room at the Winter Garden Theatre on opening night. "In your wildest dreams, did you think it would happen to this dimension?" he asked her.

"Of course," Streisand quickly replied. "I always wanted to be famous and rich and [a] star. And I'm not that rich yet, and I'm not that famous, so I still have more to go."

Streisand was already a star by the time "Funny Girl" opened on Broadway on March 26, 1964. Each of her first three albums had made the Top 10 on the Billboard 200. Her second album had climbed all the way to No. 2.

But "Funny Girl" took Streisand to an even higher level. On April 10 she appeared on the cover of Time. On May 12 she won her first two GRAMMY Awards: Album Of The Year and Best Vocal Performance, Female, both for her debut album, The Barbra Streisand Album. That spring, Streisand was also nominated for an Emmy (for her legendary 1963 appearance on "The Judy Garland Show") and a Tony (for "Funny Girl"). Streisand was nominated for three of the four major show business awards in the space of just a few months — an astonishing degree of success for any performer, much less one so young: Streisand was just 22.

Producer Ray Stark had worked on developing a musical based on the life of Fanny Brice (who was his mother-in-law) for a decade. "It's been a long pull," he told The New York Times in December 1963, when the show was in rehearsals prior to its out-of-town opening in Boston. "And I can't deny that there were times when I was ready to give up. But the idea wouldn't let me rest. Casting always was a problem. But I'm happy now. Whom else could you want for Fanny than Barbra Streisand? From the moment you saw her in [1962's] 'I Can Get It For You Wholesale,' you knew she was it."

Streisand told WNEW's Robbins that she intentionally didn't research Brice's life, or listen to her recordings. "I didn't want to approach it as an imitation or anything like that," she said. "They hired me because [of] whatever organic things we had similar. … I'm not singing 'My Man.' And this is not really truthful, the story, I mean it's based on the truth, but it's a writer's play, it's not a biography. … I'm approaching it as a character in a play who could have been any woman who was torn between a career [and] marriage and has problems of her own."

Broadway veterans Jule Styne and Bob Merrill co-wrote the score, which yielded two of Streisand's signature songs: the exquisite "People" and the exhilarating "Don't Rain On My Parade."

Nonetheless, the show had a bumpy road on its way to its Broadway opening. Previews in Boston drew tepid reviews (though the critics all praised Streisand). The headline for Billboard's review of the Boston opening lacked poetry, but got the point across. "Barbra Great As Fanny, But Show Tedious Stuff."

With the Broadway opening looming, the company regrouped. The show's director, Garson Kanin, left the production. Jerome Robbins was brought in to oversee the show (his credit was production supervisor). The Broadway opening was pushed back a month as the show, especially the second act, was reworked and tightened.

The show went on to receive eight Tony nominations — second only that season to "Hello, Dolly!," which amassed 11. But "Funny Girl" went 0 for 8. It lost to "Hello, Dolly!" in five categories, including Best Musical and Best Score (Composer and Lyricist).

Interestingly, the "Funny Girl" original cast album fared better than the "Dolly" caster at the GRAMMYs, probably because of Streisand's recording pedigree. Funny Girl was nominated for Album Of The Year at the 7th GRAMMY Awards. ("Hello, Dolly!" wasn't.) And it beat "Hello, Dolly!" for Best Score From An Original Cast Show Album.

"Funny Girl" was the first Broadway cast album to receive an Album Of The Year nomination. In all the years since, only one other cast album — Jesus Christ Superstar — has equaled the feat. (The original cast album is slated for release April 29 as a special 50th anniversary deluxe edition on CD and vinyl LP, with a 48-page booklet of exclusive photos.)

The show's standout song, "People," was nominated for both Record and Song Of The Year. Streisand's performance of the ballad brought her another GRAMMY for Best Vocal Performance, Female.

"People" was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1998. Funny Girl was inducted six years later.

Streisand remained with the show until Dec. 26, 1965. (Her replacement was Mimi Hines, who played the role until the show concluded its Broadway run on July 1, 1967.) In spring 1966, Streisand took the show to London for a 14-week run.

In 1968 Streisand starred in the film adaptation of "Funny Girl." The movie (unlike the stage show) included some of Brice's old hits: "My Man," "Second Hand Rose" and "I'd Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Happy With Somebody Else)." The movie received eight Academy Award nominations. Only one movie got more that year — "Oliver!" led with 11.

On April 14, 1969, Streisand won the best actress Oscar in a tie with Katharine Hepburn. It was the first (and remains the only) time that an actress has won an Oscar for playing a role that she had originated in a Broadway musical.

In accepting the award, Streisand noted, "Sitting there tonight, I was thinking that the first script of 'Funny Girl' was written when I was only 11 years old. Thank God it took so long to get it right!"

(Paul Grein, a veteran music journalist and historian, writes regularly for Yahoo Music.)

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