On this fiftieth anniversary of the opening night of Funny Girl on Broadway, here's the chapter from my book Streisand: Her Life, detailing the trials and tribulations of getting the show in shape to open. It's an amazing tale!
On the first day of rehearsals for Funny Girl, on the stage of the Winter Garden Theater on December 10, 1963, Barbra came perilously close to being fired. Milton Rosenstock, the show’s musical director, recalled in 1990 that during the initial read-through with the cast a few days earlier, Barbra had sung Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s score so beautifully, “she broke everybody’s heart.” But now, as Barbra struggled with blocking and phrasing and breathing, Rosenstock was amazed at what he saw. Christ, he thought, she can’t even walk across the stage properly. What’s going on with her? And when she sang, Rosenstock felt “it was like some kid out of high school. It was all gone. Something had happened.”
The producer, Ray Stark, and several of his associates watched from a few rows back. Styne and Merrill took notes. The director, Garson Kanin, studied Barbra carefully from beneath furrowed brows as his wife, the actress Ruth Gordon, whispered comments into his ear. Barbra was supposed to end a line of a song with a dismissive “Ecch,” but she was overdoing it. “It’s too much.” Kanin called out.
Barbra froze. “What do you want.” she asked.
“Make it more natural.”
She tried again; Ruth Gordon whispered to Garson Kanin; Kanin asked Barbra to do it once more.
“Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” she pleaded.
“Well, Miss Streizund.”
“My name is Streisand.” Barbra snapped.
At that Ray Stark stood up and started toward the stage. Barbra seemed near tears. “I’m trying to do everything you say. I’ve lost my confidence. I don’t know how to sing anymore because I’m doing what you say, not what I feel!”
“You’re doing okay.” Ray Stark soothed. “You’re doing good!”
“I didn’t take this to be good.” Barbra exploded. “I have to be great or nothing! Either you tell me how to be great—not good, great—or don’t tell me anything.”
Stark called off the rehearsal, and as everyone said perfunctory good-byes, Milt Rosenstock feared the farewells might be final. “I knew they had someone else lined up to replace her if she didn’t work out.” he recalled. The next morning at eleven, everyone regathered “in dead silence.” according to Rosenstock. “It was like a morgue. Barbra seemed unfazed. I asked her if she was okay, and she said, ‘Yeah.’ Kanin announced we’d pick up with ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade,’ then looked at Barbra and said, ‘Are you ready, Miss Streisand?.”
Barbra began to sing, and as Kanin called out directions to her it became clear that nothing had changed. “If she was supposed to stand still, she moved,” Rosenstock said. “If she was supposed to move, she stood still. If she was supposed to breathe this way, she breathed that way.” Finally one of Stark’s partners leaped from his seat and ran toward the stage. “He was going to stop her. That was going to be it. She was out. Jule Styne sees the guy, runs after him, and tackles him. He pushes the guy into a seat and tells him, ‘Leave her alone!’ Streisand’s singing, she doesn’t know any of this is going on. She’s building steam, and the magic is working. Styne whispers to me, ‘She’s on fire! She’s on fire!’ She was burning up the stage, hitting every glorious note, really cooking.
“When she got to the end of the song, there was a point where she had to take a breath or she wouldn’t be able to hold the final note on that great big finish—‘Nobody, no, nobody is gonna rain on my pa-a-a-rade!’ She didn’t take the breath, and when she got to the note she didn’t make it. She stood there and started to cry. She said ‘I’m sorry’ and walked away. She thought for sure she was through.
“But the performance was so brilliant, and in a way not being able to make the final note added to the intensity of the emotion she was conveying. Everybody just burst into applause and cheers and bravos. She came back onstage and she couldn’t believe it. From that moment on, she was the greatest star.”
Well, not quite yet. Over the next three months this roller-coaster ride of Streisand incompetence and near-firing mingled with stunning brilliance would be repeated again and again. And the show itself had so many problems and received such bad reviews out of town that Ray Stark seriously contemplated closing it. The vehicle that Stark had struggled for more than a decade to produce, the show that would make Barbra Streisand an international superstar, almost didn’t come off.
FANNY BRICE, THE beloved Jewish comic and singing Star of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1911 to 1923 and a popular radio personality in the 1930s with her Baby Snooks character, was born Fanny Borach on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1891. By her early teens she was appearing in stage shows in Brooklyn. At eighteen she embarked on a short-lived marriage to a much older barber—“Doesn’t he smell good.” she asked a friend—and later married the suave, charming gambler and con man Nick Arnstein, who was born Julius Arndstein. Plain-looking, with a prominent nose and only an average voice, Fanny built her success around low ethnic humor and heart-tugging torch songs like “My Man.”
It was her volatile, unhappy marriage to Arnstein, one of the great Broadway tragic romances, that was most fascinating about her. The two met while Fanny was on the road with the Follies in Baltimore in 1912. She was twenty-one, he thirty-three. She fell in love with his manicured, mustachioed good looks and his dapper style. He, by most accounts, fell in love with her money. The first thing he did when he saw her apartment in New York was decide to redecorate it. He ordered $10,000 worth of new furniture from Gimbel’s and charged it to Fanny. “He was a suave con merchant who talked about millions,” Jimmy Breslin wrote, “but mostly you found him hanging around the parking lot across from the Forrest Hotel on Forty-ninth Street, with Fanny Brice’s money in his pocket and larceny in his head.”
They lived together for six years, and as Fanny’s success mushroomed, Nick got into trouble. Fanny hocked her jewels to pay for his lawyers when he was arrested for embezzlement, but he went to Sing Sing anyway. They married in 1918, after Nick divorced his first wife, and had two children, Frances and William. A new con landed Arnstein in Leavenworth, and Fanny borrowed $80,000 from another gambler, Arnold Rothstein, to pay his legal bills.
“Why do you stay with the guy.” Rothstein asked her.
“Because I love him.” Fanny replied. But it all became too much for love to conquer, and Fanny divorced Nick in 1927. She went on to marry and divorce the Broadway impresario Billy Rose and, later in life, became an interior decorator and art collector of exquisite taste. She died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
In the late forties, urged on by her friend Goddard Lieberson, Fanny decided to dictate her memories for an autobiography. The galleys for the ghostwritten book had already been sent to reviewers after her death when her son-in-law, Ray Stark, paid $50,000 to have the plates destroyed. Stark’s wife—Fanny and Nick’s daughter, Frances—didn’t like some of the book’s frankness. (“She sat like a queen.” Katharine Hepburn said in its pages, “and could swear like a truck driver.”)
Ray Stark, strawberry-haired, medium built, a hard-driving businessman, became a Hollywood agent with Marilyn Monroe and Richard Burton among his clients. His original plan was to turn his mother-in-law’s story into a movie, but he couldn’t get financing from any of the Hollywood moguls, who were less impressed than Broadway veterans with Fanny Brice’s long-ago stardom.
By early 1961 Stark had decided to tell the Brice-Arnstein story as a Broadway musical, as a sort of out-of-town tryout for the movie. “It seemed wise to open it halfway as a trial.” he said, “before going the whole way with a film.” Only the best would do. Stark enlisted David Merrick as his co-producer and Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, hot off Gypsy, as composer and lyricist. He then sent the script—fashioned by Isobel Lennart from a screenplay she had written—to Mary Martin. The Star indicated her interest, but Sondheim balked. “Mary Martin is going to play Fanny Brice.” he said to Stark. “You’ve gotta have a Jewish girl! And if she’s not Jewish she at least has to have a nose.”
“Oh, c’mon, Steve.” Styne answered. “We’re not going to find any girl with a nose.”
Sondheim withdrew, largely because he didn’t want to do another backstage musical after Gypsy. Mary Martin departed as well after reconsidering the wisdom of playing a famous ethnic comedienne. She also realized that it would be difficult for her, at nearly fifty, to carry off the play’s early scenes of Fanny as a teenager.
Three months went by without Styne hearing a word from Ray Stark, and it was during this period, the spring of 1962, that Styne found the girl with a nose. When Marty Erlichman became aware that Funny Girl was in the works, he began to badger David Merrick to give Barbra the part. “Who would be better as Fanny Brice.” he argued. But Merrick felt that despite her talent, Barbra wasn’t mature or sophisticated enough to play the older, wiser Fanny of the show’s second act. Marty insisted that Merrick catch Barbra’s opening night at the Bon Soir in May, and Merrick sat through both shows. Impressed by her growth as a performer, he turned to Erlichman and said, “Tell Barbra I think she’s aged.”
Merrick urged Styne to catch Barbra’s act, and she excited the composer so much that he attended every night of the engagement save one. Styne had seen Barbra in Wholesale but hadn’t thought of her for Funny Girl: “She was very funny in that show, but it didn’t look like she had the quality for a romantic story like the one Isobel Lennart had written.” Seeing her at the Bon Soir changed his mind. Now he fantasized about this marvelous voice singing his songs, and he found himself writing new tunes with Barbra in mind, even though there was no guarantee she’d get the role. “I was writing the score for someone with that range, that dynamism, that sense of fun.”
When Styne next heard from Ray Stark, the producer told him that he had a director, Jerome Robbins (West Side Story, Gypsy), the most acclaimed director-choreographer on Broadway, and a Star, Anne Bancroft, who had created a sensation on Broadway as Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, in The Miracle Worker in 1959.
Bancroft, a brilliant actress, possessed little more than a fair singing voice. Jule Styne and his new lyricist, Bob Merrill, played her four songs they had written for the show, including “I’m the Greatest Star” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” which Styne had composed with Barbra’s voice in mind. Anne Bancroft blanched. “You’ll never get anyone to sing those songs.” she protested, and bowed out.
Styne conveyed his excitement about Barbra to Ray Stark, but Stark wanted to cast a name Star who would guarantee the show a solid initial box-office take. While the producer sent out feelers to Carol Burnett, Eydie Gormé, Kaye Ballard, Shirley MacLaine, and others, Styne began a public-relations campaign to win the role for Barbra. Column items popped up in the New York papers naming Streisand as the front-runner for the part. When Barbra made her first appearance on Tonight on August 21, 1962, Groucho Marx mentioned that Jule Styne had told him Barbra would be “great for that show he’s doing... the Fanny Brice story.” A few days later an item appeared in a New York paper announcing that Barbra had been “chosen” to play Fanny Brice.
At last, the following October, Ray and Fran Stark went down to the Village to see Barbra at the Bon Soir. Styne was sure that would do the trick. It didn’t. Both Starks thought Barbra “too sloppy,” “not chic.” too undisciplined, to play the refined older Fanny Brice they best remembered. “That girl will never play my mother.” Fran said. “My mother was something special.”
But after Jerry Robbins saw Barbra’s act, he too began to argue for her, and he persuaded Stark to have Barbra come in for an audition. It did not go well. “I can’t tell you how horrible she looked,” Jule Styne recalled. “She wore a Cossack uniform kind of thing she’d picked up at a thrift shop.... In the scene she read, she was supposed to get emotional and weep. She didn’t. Robbins said, ‘Barbra, that’s not what we worked on.’ She sighed and shrank in her chair. Marty Erlichman heard Stark say, ‘She’s terrible. Look at that chin. She’ll never play my mother-in-law.’”
Still, like Allan Miller before him, Robbins found Barbra fascinating despite her apparent dramatic deficiencies, and he understood when she explained that she couldn’t weep where he wanted her to because the words as written hadn’t touched her. With that kind of emotional honesty, he felt, Barbra had the potential to achieve anything with the proper direction. He called her back to read seven times, and with some outside coaching from Allan Miller that helped her convey more maturity in one of the play’s later scenes, she won Robbins over. “As far as I’m concerned,” he told her, “you are Fanny Brice.”
Ray Stark finally saw her potential, too. Despite the enormous risk of casting a relative unknown in such a pivotal role, Barbra clearly had to play Fanny. When her signing was announced in July 1963, her comments to the press gave a clue to why: “We’re very much alike.” she said. “It’s like me talking. Like Miss Brice, I find it hard to take advice from anyone. [She] was a woman who refused to heed her mother, or Florenz Ziegfeld.”
Stark knew that if the Streisand gamble worked, the rewards could be phenomenal. With Anne Bancroft, he had told Marty Erlichman, the show would be guaranteed one million dollars in advance sales. With Carol Burnett, two million. With Barbra, next to nothing. But if the show made Streisand a Broadway sensation—which Stark strongly suspected it would—she could bring in five million over the course of the run. And so, Stark decided, “We go with the kid.”
BY THE TIME Funny Girl went into rehearsals, Barbra’s meteoric rise to stardom as a singer over the prior year had brought the public’s interest in her and the show to a keen pitch, and advance bookings were already in the millions of dollars. Casting had been completed with Sydney Chaplin, the handsome thirty-eight-year-old son of the screen legend Charlie Chaplin, set to play Nick Arnstein, and Kay Medford cast as Fanny’s mother, Rose. By then, too, the show had a new director in Garson Kanin—who stepped in after Jerome Robbins quit over book problems and Bob Fosse had come and gone—and just one producer when David Merrick sold his share of the show to Ray Stark after a bitter disagreement between the two men. “It was a serious falling-out.” Garson Kanin recalled. “They quarreled, had a big row. I don’t know if it was about percentages or the movie rights or what. But David called me one day and said, ‘Just talk to him. Don’t talk to me anymore because I’m out.’”
Merrick’s departure created a potentially disastrous problem because Barbra had signed her contract with him, not with Ray Stark. Without Merrick, Funny Girl had no Streisand, and Stark likely had no show. David Begelman and Freddie Fields, Barbra’s agents, smelled an opportunity, and they upped the ante for her to re-sign with Stark on the theory that she was a far more valuable commodity now than she had been six months earlier when she signed her contract. They told Stark that Barbra wanted an increase in her weekly salary from $1,500 to $7,500, a chauffeured limousine to take her to and from the theater, a personal hairdresser, and free daily meals for her and Elliott.
The demands insulted Stark. “Ray was terribly angry about the whole thing.” Kanin remembered. “He was a very proud man and a shrewd businessman, and he wasn’t going to give in to a lot of pressure. There was a period when we didn’t know what was going to happen, and I was desperately attempting to hold this thing together and not let everything go down the drain.”
Stark finally agreed to raise Barbra’s salary to $5,000, largely because of the huge advance ticket sales, which were attributable mainly to her. But he agreed to none of her other demands, and the sometimes acrimonious negotiations left each wary of the other. Stark resented what he saw as Barbra’s agents’ hardball tactics; Barbra thought him niggardly in light of how important she clearly could be to the success of his long-held dream to bring his mother-in-law’s story to life. The volatile love-hate relationship between Barbra and Stark, which would extend from Broadway to Hollywood and cover more than twelve years and seven productions, had begun.
ON JANUARY 13, 1964, Funny Girl had its first out-of-town tryout at the Shubert Theater in Boston. The performance started an hour late because of a snowstorm, and the audience was restless and unresponsive. By twelve-thirty in the morning, the curtain still had not fallen, and half of the audience had left the theater. The show finally ended at 1:00 A.M., and in the early-morning hours, the dispirited cast read the reviews in a deserted tavern. The notices made Isobel Lennart weep.
Clearly Funny Girl, as it stood, was a fiasco. Just about everything that could be wrong with the show, was. It was too long (the next night, twenty minutes of songs and scenes were cut out). It was unfocused, loose, rambling. Many of the musical numbers didn’t work. The book didn’t seem sure whether Nick Arnstein should be portrayed as the reprehensible ne’er-do-well he was or fictionalized beyond recognition as a charmer forced into an embezzlement scheme only because of his embarrassment at being considered Mr. Fanny Brice. The former concept gave the show a richer, more multidimensional leading man, but the latter elicited more audience sympathy. Jule Styne and Garson Kanin argued for Arnstein as he really was, but Ray Stark was unwilling either to offend his wife’s memories of her father or to stir any litigious anger in the eighty-three-year-old Arnstein. He held out for what Styne called Nick’s “candyization.”
Audiences might have forgiven ail of this if Barbra’s performance had been better. There were flashes of brilliance, to be sure, but on the whole she seemed ill at ease. Her performance was often flat and one-dimensional; she behaved essentially the same with her friends and family onstage as she did with Arnstein. And Barbra was trying too hard with the comedy.
The Boston reviews terrified her. She had given up nearly one million dollars in cabaret and television bookings to do this show, and now she feared the whole thing would be a disaster. She had never had to carry a hugely budgeted Broadway show on her shoulders. For the first time in her career, she doubted her abilities. Her stomach twisted into knots; she couldn’t keep food down. Her doctor put her on Donnatal, a prescription drug to control her stomach.
Her employment was still tenuous and she knew it. Erasmus Hall High School alumna Lainie Kazan, Barbra’s understudy, confirmed that Ray Stark interviewed actresses to replace Streisand at this point. Kazan was privy to that, she said, “because I was one of the people they talked to.” For Lainie, a Broadway novice, the experience of working on Funny Girl was an eye-opener. “It was like going to war. There were hirings and firings and accidents. There were a lot of power struggles. I was in shock. And it must have been overwhelming for Barbra. But she got through it because she was a strong-willed, feisty little thing.”
Fearful of being dismissed, Barbra became more obsessive than ever about being “great.” After one of the Boston matinees, Kanin returned to the theater and was surprised to find Barbra kneeling on the apron of the stage, singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” at full throttle. He went down to the footlights and called out, “Barbra, wait a minute.” She stopped, startled. “Barbra,” Kanin said, “you’ve just played a whole tough, long matinee. And in about an hour and a half you’ll have to be back here again starting to get ready. You should be in your hotel room, resting.”
“Goddammit!” Barbra shouted. “I gotta get this fucking thing right! Jesus Christ.”
Kanin backed off. “All right. It’s your life and your career. Do what you want.”
That evening, Kanin recalled, Barbra apologized for blowing up at him. “I didn’t mean to do that,” she said. “But that whole number was getting so fucked up. And the tempo! Jesus, I thought it was my fault. But it was that goddamned asshole in the pit. Jesus Christ.”
“KANIN’S NOT TELLING me what to do!” Barbra wailed to Marty. “I need direction! All he ever tells me is everything’s fine!” Erlichman sat down for a drink with the director and relayed Barbra’s concerns. “When are you going to tell her more—like what to do?”
“She doesn’t need to be told what to do,” Kanin replied. “She knows what to do. I’m only gonna tell her what not to do.” Kanin’s theory was that once he coupled an actor or actress to a role successfully, the rest would take care of itself. “In forty-five years,” he said in 1980, “I have never read a line for an actor. And I have very seldom given anyone a physical direction about where to go, what to do. I believe that you create an atmosphere in which the creative work can take place, and then the players—if you have the right players—will respond.”
Although Barbra was clearly the right player, she didn’t have enough experience to call on in the absence of a strong directorial hand. Kanin’s approach might have worked with a veteran like Mary Martin or Ethel Merman, but it wasn’t working with Barbra. Something had to be done, and Barbra knew what it was: she needed Allan Miller to coach her.
Ray Stark gulped when she told him this. “Okay,” he replied, “but you can’t let Garson know. I don’t want to offend him.”
“But Allan will have to come to the theater and watch the performance.” Barbra protested.
“Well, tell everyone he’s your cousin or something.”
MASQUERADING AS BARBRA’S lawyer-cousin from California, Miller watched a performance, and his heart sank. “She looked like a rank amateur,” he recalled. “It was pitiful. Nothing had been discovered for her; she didn’t know what her emotions were supposed to be based on. She was just told, ‘Could you do this? Could you move like this?’ She covered up her deficiencies by relying on what we call ‘indicated acting.’ She wasn’t feeling anything, she was just pretending to feel something. The scenes between her and Sydney Chaplin were awful. They stood onstage during these supposedly intimate moments and there was a chasm between them.”
For one scene, Miller coached Barbra and Sydney in the theater rest room, with Chaplin’s wife, Noelle, standing guard lest Garson Kanin find them out. It was the moment that Fanny first sees Nick, backstage after a performance. Both actors had played the scene awkwardly, stiffly. Miller asked Chaplin to wait outside the bathroom, then told Barbra to put herself in Fanny’s place. “You’ve just done a performance. How long do you think you’ve been in those dancing shoes.” he asked her. Barbra picked up his train of thought immediately. “Oh, God! My feet are probably swollen.”
“That’s right. And so what are you gonna do the minute you get back to your dressing room.”
“Take off my shoes.” Barbra sat on one of the toilets, undid her shoelaces, and started to massage her feet.
“That’s good.” Miller told her. “Your feet are killing you, they’re swollen, so how are you gonna get out of the theater.”
“On my hands and knees!” Barbra exclaimed as she fell to the floor and started crawling.
Miller then left the room to talk to Sydney. “When you come in, you like what you see,” he told Chaplin. “This is a young girl, she’s uninhibited, you’re drawn to her. So you want to join her. When you go in there and see what she’s doing, let’s see what you do.”
Chaplin came upon Barbra crawling around on all fours, her shoes tied by their laces around her neck. First she saw his legs, and she let out three woofs. Then she looked up and said the famous line from the script, “Gorgeous.”
“I beg your pardon.” Chaplin said, reciting the dialogue.
“Your shirt. It’s gorgeous.” At that point Chaplin got into the spirit of things. “This?” he said, and pulled the shirt out of his pants and took it off. Then he sat down on the floor with Barbra for the rest of the scene. “It was a wonderful moment.” Miller recalled. “You could see why she’d fall instantly in love with the guy.”
According to Miller, another major problem was that audiences weren’t responding to Barbra’s rendition of “People.” There was a real risk that the song, which Jule Styne expected would top the pop charts, might be dropped from the show. “Barbra was singing it the same way all the way through, with no connection at all to the lyrics,” Miller said. “And she was singing it out to the audience, rather than to Sydney. We worked on all that, and the next night—all of this exploration had to be done before live audiences in Boston—she sang the song very differently. Sydney Chaplin looked at her like ‘What the hell’s going on?’ And Milton Rosenstock didn’t know what she was going to do. She was so halting in the beginning—which was right for the song—that Rosenstock didn’t know how to keep the orchestra in sync with her. He just had them stop playing and she sang a cappella.
“When she got to the phrase, ‘two people, two very special people,’ she turned to Sydney and sang the rest of the song only to him. It was magical, touching, real. I could see Sydney smiling; he really got caught up in what this girl was doing. At the end of the number, the audience was on their feet. It stopped the show.”
Although Barbra’s performance improved, Funny Girl remained in chaos around her. The book still presented a major problem; Isobel Lennart would sit in the wings during rehearsals, type new pages of dialogue, and hand them to the cast. Whole scenes were added, then discarded. Musical numbers came and went with alarming speed. Most of the abandoned songs had belonged to Sydney Chaplin, and as Barbra’s performance gained steam, it became clear that more and more of Funny Girl would have to revolve around her. Jule Styne wasn’t happy about that. “This is turning into An Evening with Barbra Streisand,” he groused. But Ray Stark and Garson Kanin knew that if Barbra continued to grow into the role, her star quality would propel the show’s box-office grosses into the stratosphere. Thus, anything that didn’t serve Barbra was expendable.
“She was the whole show.” said Chaplin’s understudy, George Reeder. “It didn’t matter who else was in it. Finally they told Sydney, ‘You look great. Just come on in your tuxedo, walk around, and look nice. Let Barbra do the show.’”
SYDNEY CHAPLIN MAY have been so sanguine about Barbra taking over Funny Girl because by the time the show got to Philadelphia early in February, the two of them were enmeshed in an affair. Barbra had said to Elliott six months earlier, arguing against marriage, “I have to sow my oats.” and Sydney Chaplin—handsome, dapper, charming, a ladies’ man—proved too attractive for her to resist. With Noelle Chaplin back in France and Elliott at home in New York a good deal of the time, Chaplin and Barbra began a discreet romance, dining alone after the show and having rendezvous in each other’s hotel rooms.
Garson Kanin recalled that “They were extremely chummy.... He was a very waggish fellow. He always made a lot of jokes and talked dirty, and she used to laugh and respond to that.”
Ceil Mack, Barbra’s wardrobe lady, said, “I was aware of it, their little affair. They weren’t obvious about it, but if you already knew about it you could pick up on things, like the way he looked at her.”
Rumors of the affair rippled through the company in Philadelphia, and George Reeder recalled that one night after the show he and several other male cast members were sitting around a table in a restaurant with Chaplin when someone mentioned “a rumor going around.”
“What rumor?” Chaplin asked.
“Nobody wanted to tell him.” Reeder recalled. “So I piped up and said, ‘Well, the rumor is that you and Barbra are having an affair.’ None of us really believed it, so we were pretty surprised when he laughed and said, ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ in a way that told us ‘Yeah, it’s true.’”
Years later Elliott said that when he first heard of the liaison he confronted Barbra, and she readily admitted that she and Chaplin were involved. Barbra’s infidelity, needless to say, put a strain on the Goulds’ barely five-month-old marriage. George Reeder recalled that Barbra and Elliott “didn’t act like a happily married couple. He wasn’t around very much.”
Another rumor that emanated from Philadelphia said that Barbra was expecting a baby. Had she been, it would have spelled disaster for the show. “She really did look like she was three months pregnant.” Larry Fuller, a dancer in the cast, recalled.
The first press mention of the rumor appeared in Earl Wilson’s New York Post column on February 8: “Producer Ray Stark, denying his Funny Girl Star, Barbra Streisand, is expecting, says he’ll give $1,000 to charity if he’s wrong.”
On March 2, Barbra herself denied the rumor to Wilson. On March 11, Wilson reported that “Barbra Streisand lost five pounds last week, helping squash rumors she’s expecting.” That news, of course, prompted fresh speculation that Barbra had had an abortion.
Ceil Mack, involved in the day-to-day fittings of Barbra’s costumes, denied Streisand ever was pregnant. “What made her look that way was her posture. When she stood, her belly protruded. Irene Sharaff, the costume designer, had to design loose-fitting outfits and Empire dresses for her to disguise it. I would have known if she was pregnant and then got an abortion. She looked the same from the beginning of rehearsals. She didn’t gain any weight. The rumors weren’t true.”
Still another rumor came out of Funny Girl’s Philadelphia tryout—that Barbra Streisand’s performance had evolved into a stunner. The reviews were good, and word of mouth was now so positive that by the third week, when the company moved from the Forrest Theater to the Erlanger, Variety reported that the show was making “big news” with $30,000 in ticket sales the first day on sale at the Erlanger “despite a snowstorm.” For the next two weeks in Philadelphia, the show was a sellout.
It was at this time that Allan Miller saw Barbra give “the most surpassingly beautiful performance I’ve ever seen on a musical comedy stage.” He had been working with her daily, refining her interpretation of Fanny, developing the nuances that make a characterization memorable. The night before, he had suggested that Barbra dedicate her next performance to her father, in the hope that the deep feelings she had for him would translate into a richer emotional outpouring from her.
It worked. After the performance, Miller recalled, Ray Stark, Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Milton Rosenstock went to Barbra’s dressing room. “They said to her, ‘Barbra, if we ever had any doubts about you, please forgive us. You are golden. Anything you want is yours.’ And they literally bowed down in front of this twenty-one-year-old girl for this incredible performance.”
Miller remained after the others left. “So what did you think?” Barbra asked. Miller simply hugged her.
“No notes tonight.” Barbra asked.
“No notes. You were flawless. Let’s go out and celebrate.”
The next night, as he watched Barbra’s performance, Miller was even more stunned. “She tried to do everything the same from the night before, and it was a travesty. It was unhuman, unfeeling. Nothing worked. She was back to indicating, not feeling. Ray Stark stormed out of the theater in the middle of it, and later in her dressing room it was just her and me.”
“Don’t say anything.” Barbra said softly. “I know, I know.”
“So what are you gonna do.”
“I don’t know.”
“We’re going to go over what we worked on.”
“Yes, we are. We’re going to go over everything we worked on the other night to get you back into focus. You can’t do this again.”
The next night Miller felt Barbra had brought the performance about two-thirds of the way back, but that evidently wasn’t enough for Ray Stark. According to Miller, “Stark came zooming back to her dressing room and flung open the door. He barreled in and barked at me, You get out of my way!’ Then he screamed at Barbra. ‘You bitch! You goddamn fucking little bitch! How did I trust you? You’ll never work in the theater again! I want Monday night’s performance back!’”
“What are you yelling at me about.” Barbra wailed.
“I’m yelling at you because it’s my show. I own you.”
“You do not own me! You get out of here. My throat is hurting and I don’t want to yell. Fuck you! Get out.”
Stark was shocked. “You can’t say that to me!”
“This is my dressing room. And I’m saying it to you! Fuck you! Get out.”
Stark stormed out, slamming the door behind him. Barbra looked at Miller wide-eyed. “Did you hear what I said to him.”
“Good!” Miller said.
Barbra giggled. “Do you think I should call the others in and say it to them, too.”
“No, you don’t need to do that.” Miller replied.
“Wow,” Barbra whispered. “I really said ‘Fuck you!’ to Ray Stark.”
STREISAND’S INCONSISTENCY, unresolved book problems, the lack of a firm directorial hand in Garson Kanin—as Funny Girl plodded toward its Broadway previews, all of these problems convinced Ray Stark that he had to bring in another director to “whip the show into shape.” He asked Jerome Robbins to come back. Robbins caught a performance in Philadelphia and he agreed to return as “production supervisor” only because “Streisand has gotten so good, I want the rest of the show to live up to what she’s doing.”
Robbins lost no time. He pushed back the Broadway opening, which had already been postponed twice, from March 14 to March 24. He immediately restaged most of the dance routines Carol Haney had created for the show, and jettisoned even more of the musical numbers and scenes that didn’t highlight Barbra. “They wanted every number to stop the show.” Garson Kanin said. “And who can blame them.”
Robbins was amazed at how much Streisand had grown as a performer in less than a year. She had soaked up every ounce of advice from Allan Miller, and she had honed her theatrical instincts to the point where she was able to make the right interpretive decisions on her own. She seemed to thrive on the creative chaos that drove all around her to distraction. Robbins later wrote, “She accepts the twelve pages of new material to go in that evening’s performance and pores over them while shnorring part of your sandwich and someone else’s Coke. She reads, and like an instantaneous translator, she calculates how all the myriad changes will affect the emotional and physical patterns.... When she finishes reading, her reactions are immediate and violent—loving or hating them—and she will not change her mind. Not that day. During the rehearsal, in her untidy, exploratory, meteoric fashion, she goes way out, never afraid to let herself go anywhere or try anything.... That night onstage, in place of the messy, grubby girl, a sorceress sails through every change without hesitation, leaving wallowing fellow players in her wake... her performances astound, arouse, fulfill.”