I have never seen a production of ‘Funny Girl.’ I saw a concert version a couple of years back with different Fannys, but I don’t think that counts. Of course, I have seen the film, but I haven’t in the last decade. I had heard accolades of the London production which originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory directed by Michael Mayer, and I know it moved to great success on West End. I had wanted to see that, but when I was at London last year, it had already left to tour.
So when I found out that the production was filmed and to be presented at cinemas nationwide, I knew I wanted to see it. Of course, ‘Funny Girl’ is the kind of show wherein you have to have someone in the title role who is not only triple threat, but has to be vulnerable, and funny. And by God, do we have that and more in Sheridan Smith. I was astounded by how good she is. Streisand will always be the gold standard in which you measure anyone doing this role, but for a brief second there, I forgot her. Her ghost still mostly haunts, but when Smith is on stage, it seems like it is only hers. In a way she is almost the anti-Streisand, her singing more in the vein of “an actress who sings,” eschewing the usual ‘stand and belt’ style that most actresses would use for this role. And her physical look fits the character better – a lot less self-aware, and it makes the ‘ugly duckling falls in love with the prince’ story line more believable and even more heartbreaking. The dependent/victim role has never looked more appealing in Sheridan Smith’s hands.
Harvey Fierstein, in his rewriting of the book, has made the show feel a lot more like a book musical. Funny Girl, as it stood, felt more like a concert (I heard David Merrick wanted to cut all scenes without Fanny in them. ) but in this version, the story flows better, making the songs mean more. ‘People,’ here is more casual, not an aria but more akin to Carousel’s bench scene, essaying that exact moment Fanny realizes how it feels to finally fall for someone. For me, it is the best song and scene of the show, sort of like that moment you realize that she is doomed and destined for a real heartbreak as you tell yourself, ‘this will end in tears.’ Mayer’s direction is spare, and he gives his actors a lot of room to breathe. Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein feels less one -note, beneath his dashing gambler persona, you can sense an insecurity, at times even a longing – he is given a point of view like never before – they made ‘Who Are You Now’ a duet to give him a voice, for example. Styne’s score is really a mixed bag – but the highs are up there. At this point, the familiar songs can be overly familiar, t it’s always good to see and hear them in their natural habitat, which is musical theater. Also, the show’s creaks are more evident, too: without a great star performance, there’s not much there in the show – it’s really Gypsy-lite.
The film was shot well, with enough closeups so we can feel the characters more. I certainly feel fortunate to have seen this production, as it made me realizes how much I needed to see Smith’s performance, and well, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.