Yes, gentle reader, I was one of those hopefuls poised at their computer on the 17th August last year, the day when Funny Girl tickets went on general sale. The run was sold out in an instant. I was lucky enough to procure our favourite Menier combination of Row A for a Sunday matinee, for very nearly the end of the run – it closes this weekend. But of course, the production is transferring to the Savoy, as was announced at the end of October – before it had actually opened, such was the public’s faith in the show; a twelve-week, limited engagement from April 9th. And now, even before the transfer has opened, it’s been extended by another three months, taking it to October. That is how it stands as the moment. There aren’t many shows that successful before even a dress rehearsal has taken place.
I had no previous knowledge of Funny Girl apart from People and Don’t Rain on my Parade. Neither of us have ever seen the film, nor any other stage production. I knew it was about the life of Fanny Brice, but I didn’t know anything much about her either. Stephen Sondheim’s lyric “we aren’t the Lunts, I’m not Fanny Brice” was about the sum of it. The real Fanny Brice was a comic chanteuse at the Ziegfeld Follies on and off between the 1910s and the 1930s. Later she was to have a huge radio comedy presence until her death in 1951 – but the show doesn’t get that far in her life. It also ignores her first marriage to Frank White and doesn’t reach her third marriage to impresario and lyricist Billy Rose. Instead, it’s all about her breaking into showbiz by impressing Florenz Ziegfeld, and her relationship with husband number 2, Nicky Arnstein – swindler, racketeer, gambler, con artist, and all-round good egg. He lived until 1965 so actually got to see himself immortalised in this show.
The original production opened on Broadway in March 1964, just a couple of months after the opening of a not dissimilar musical, Hello Dolly. But whereas Dolly scooped ten of the eleven Tony awards for which it was nominated, Funny Girl missed out on all eight of its nominations. Both shows featured a larger than life female lead that dominates the story and gets all the best songs. It was the Swinging Sixties, but both shows give us a huge dollop of nostalgia. Both shows portray people falling in love and the pitfalls associated therewith. They even each have a song about a parade! And of course both are associated with La Streisand (although Miss Carol Channing is the only Dolly for me.) Having seen both shows, I think where Funny Girl falls down is that there isn’t a big attention-seeking show-off number in the second half, which is the moment where Hello Dolly simply excels. Funny Girl’s best songs are all in the first act so you get a sense of imbalance. As in Gypsy, the song before the interval is a moment of pure theatrical defiance which sends you into the interval bristling with excitement and anticipation for the second act. But it’s a peak that the show never quite reaches again. On reflection, I think if I had been in the selection panel for the 1964 Tony Awards, I would have voted for Dolly too.
But that’s not in any way to criticise this production because it’s every bit as good as you could possibly have hoped it would be. The ever flexible Menier acting space is in standard Proscenium arch mode, but with a front curtain at a diagonal angle criss-crossing the stage rather than straight across the front – and you’ve never seen a curtain whip into position as quickly as it does at the end of the first act – stand in the way and you’d get concussion. Alan Williams’ band is on great form, playing those catchy show tunes with immense gusto. Lynne Page’s choreography neatly allows the large cast to dance together on what is a very shallow stage without bumping in to one another yet still appearing technically intricate. The show also benefits from having a very funny book, revised by Harvey Fierstein, and many of the songs also have wickedly delightful lyrics. If a Girl isn’t Pretty, You are Woman and I am Man, and Sadie Sadie had me laughing all the way through because of their clever turns of phrase (and also delightful performances). I haven’t heard the song Who Taught her Everything she Knows? for decades and had no idea it was from Funny Girl. I last heard it performed by – would you believe – Larry Grayson and Noele Gordon on the stage of the London Palladium in 1974, so it was fascinating to see how it actually fitted in to a real musical (although I also note that it usually appears in the first act – this production delays it till the second). I was also, erroneously, expecting Second Hand Rose to make an appearance, but it isn’t actually from Funny Girl, it was one of the real Fanny Brice’s hits, way back in 1921.
I have no doubt that the main reason the show sold out so rapidly was the promise of seeing Sheridan Smith as Fanny. Over the past few years she’s built up an enviable reputation of being the kind of actress who can turn her hand to anything. A pocket-sized powerhouse of warmth and charm, with a fantastic singing voice and a comic delivery to match the best in the business, I really couldn’t wait to see her in the role. And she was superb. From the naïve tomboy of her early years, failing (hilariously) to keep apace with the other dancing Ziegfeld girls, through the headstrong abandonment of her career to follow after Arnstein, to the wiser and sadder old trooper of later years, she always captures that spark of positivity that drives the character on. She’s one of those actors you just can’t take your eyes off, even if the others on stage are really good!
Darius Campbell plays Arnstein, and although he’s now something of an old hand at the theatre game, this is the first time we’ve seen him on stage, although we’re very familiar with (and fond of) his musical oeuvre. How does that singing voice translate to musical theatre? Incredibly well, as it turns out. He cuts the most imposing figure, his height adding to his stage presence, and his voice – would it be a baritone? – just resonates throughout the auditorium. They really use the “little and large” nature of the couple to great effect, including the delightful wedding photograph and her sneaking out from under his gangly limbs when he tries to get a little jiggy with it.
I really enjoyed Joel Montague as song and dance man Eddie, lamely trying to get Fanny’s romantic attention, when it was clear he was always only going to be Buttons to her Cinderella. I always like it when a relatively big chap carries off some challenging choreography, and Mr Montague is incredibly light on his feet throughout. Bruce Montague (no relation – at least I don’t think so) plays Ziegfeld with dignity and authority but also a mischievous glint in his eye. You might remember Mr Montague (Senior) as Leonard in Butterflies all those years ago, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s childhood favourites. He’s also one of two cast members who are nearer to their 80th birthdays than their 70th, the other being the excellent Maurice Lane as Mr Keeney, hoofing it with the best of them. Fine examples of how you’re never too old to give a great physical performance.
There’s the magnificent triumvirate (if that’s not too male a term – triumfeminate?) of Mrs Strakosh, Mrs Meeker and Mrs Rose Brice, all cunningly playing poker in the corner of the stage, cackling like hens and you wouldn’t trust any one of them an inch. With experienced performers like Gay Soper, Valda Aviks and Marilyn Cutts taking those roles, you know they’re going to give it every inch of oomph it needs, and their performance of If a Girl isn’t Pretty was especially enjoyable. The ensemble of singers and dancers are all first class but I did feel a twinge of sympathy for Matthew Croke and Luke Fetherston having to perform what must be the feyest dancing soldiers routine I’ve seen since the Monty Python Camp Square-Bashing sketch.
It’s a great show that leaves you with a smile as wide as your arm and makes you want to tap your toes all the way back to London Bridge station. Everyone who booked all those months ago certainly got their reward, and I’d be very surprised if the Savoy transfer doesn’t get extended yet again. And I promise you, you’ll be singing Don’t Rain on my Parade to yourself for days.
P. S. I know the Menier is a charity, but £5 for a programme? That’s a bit toppy isn’t it? Increase the price of the peripherals and you’ll only find people decreasing the size of the voluntary donation when they book in future.
Production photos by Marc Brenner