By Annette Hinkle
In 1964, it became a vehicle for Barbra Streisand on Broadway.
And it hasn’t been seen much since.
Which is why when director Paula Brannon decided on “Funny Girl” for this year’s Pierson High School spring musical, she found there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there to share with her cast.
“It was Barbra Streisand’s second show on Broadway,” explains Brannon. “She wasn’t known, but she blew everybody away with her performance and became a star overnight.”
“In ‘68 the producers wouldn’t do the film version unless they got Streisand — and from that point on, no one has revived it,” adds Brannon. “That’s why there’s not much out there about it. It’s aggravating to me, because I like to do a lot of research for those on stage so I can see how it was done.”
“But it’s not there.”
What is known about the musical is the fact that the funny girl in question is Fanny Brice, one of the Ziegfeld girls who made it big on Broadway in the early 1900s, not because of her stunning looks and amazing dance skills — by most accounts she was lacking in both — but rather because of her quick wit and her ability to make audiences laugh.
“Fanny was not — by Broadway standards — a siren,” says Brannon. “She had this beautiful voice, but wanted to be the funny one. This play is based on her life – she went to school until eighth grade, then was on stage doing whatever she could.”
It’s the sheer determination of Fanny Brice that is revealed in “Funny Girl.” Not only her strong will to succeed on stage, but her determination to continue loving the totally wrong man — a suave con artist named Nicky Arnstein who served 14 months in Sing Sing for wiretapping and abandoned Fanny after using her money to try to beat his rap.
Though it’s a fairly unromantic way to treat a lady, Brannon notes the script glamorizes Arnstein — who was still alive when the play opened — most likely to prevent him from suing.
“This makes him seem like a charmer who really got caught hanging out with the wrong people,” says Brannon. “He was probably a nice, considerate and charming crook — but a crook nonetheless.”
“When he got out of jail, he took off and never spoke to Fanny or their two children again,” she adds. “It makes it seem like what you want every broken marriage to be. We love each other so much, we just can’t live together. In the history I found, Fanny was just immediately smitten with Arnstein. She had rose colored glasses and couldn’t help it. So in the end, they parted ways.”
“It ends with her on stage alone singing about her man and he leaves,” adds Brannon. “It’s a sad note and a slice of life.”
That ending alone is enough to hint to audiences that “Funny Girl” is a hardly a typical Broadway musical. That is to say the kind that ends with the big overly optimistic number about how everything’s great in the end.
Rather this play is about a strong woman with a depth of character that allows her to survive on her own through wit and sheer determination. Which is exactly why Brannon felt “Funny Girl” would be a perfect production for Emily Hinz, the Pierson senior who has the lead role and has garnered much acclaim as a performer during her high school career. Junior Zack DePetris, who’s been acting in productions with Hinz since sixth grade, stars opposite her as Nicky Arnstein.
Though Brannon doesn’t pre-cast productions, given Hinz’s strong track record as a stellar talent at Pierson, she knew the role of Fanny had the potential to take Hinz to the next level and prepare her for the role she will take on next fall — as a freshman theater major at James Madison University in Virginia.
“I wanted to give her something more than song and dance,” explains Brannon. “I wanted to give her something to act in. When she started preparing for college auditions she was unprepared and didn’t know she had to do a particular monologue. At that point, I told her ‘We need to do something where you can act more and do something you haven’t done much of.’”
“Emily is completely connected,” adds Brannon. “There were times when I thought, ‘You’re better than Fanny.’ If you see Streisand in the role, she plays the girl who’s not so pretty but everybody loves her. She’s genuine. Now we have a beautiful girl playing the same role. But when she first starts out, you forget that. It’s not about her looks but her persona. Everyday I see her, she’s gone deeper into the character.”
For Hinz, playing Fanny Brice has been both transformative and eye opening.
“I really wanted to be challenged this year — to give me a feel for what kind of things I might be doing in college,” explains Hinz. “I wanted that weight on my shoulders to see how I handle it and where it will take me. This is the most dialogue I’ve ever had. I think this will be a good ending for me.”
“It’s been a long journey, but I think each day I get to know more about Fanny Brice,” adds Hinz. “I’ve fallen in love with the show more and more every day.”
Brannon notes that “Funny Girl” — particularly the movie — really was a vehicle for one performer — Barbra Streisand. The play version, she adds, has a lot more characters to go around, but it still is one woman’s story and admittedly doesn’t make for a great high school show when lots of performers need parts and songs.
“I was a little skeptical at first. It’s known as a one woman show and I didn’t want that,” says Hinz. “I wanted other people to have the opportunity to sing and have solos and shine.”
Which is why Brannon took it upon herself to develop personas for other cast members based on real-life Ziegfeld girls and dispersed many of Fanny’s 12 songs in the musical among the cast, with Hinz’s encouragement.
“She said, ‘You decide what they sing and I sing,’” recalls Brannon. “She’s that kind of performer. So the Ziegfeld girls got songs as well. ‘Second Hand Rose’ is being done by Fanny’s nemesis — that’s the point they become enemies.”
“This has become a bigger show than we gave it credit for being,” adds Brannon of the production which features 39 high school students along with four middle and elementary school students. “Looking at it, it takes place in two theaters, we thought ‘How hard can it be?’”
Truth be told, producing Pierson musicals has, in fact, is a lot less hard than it used to be — much of it due to the focus of the students. That’s certainly true from choreographer Oscar Gonzalez’s point of view.
“It’s set in 1910, so the dancing is old fashioned and I’m trying to base the choreography on the Ziegfeld Follies,” he says. “It’s more like walking and posing. There’s also the Charleston and what I’m trying to do is modify the routines for the kids. For almost 11 years I’ve been working here, the kids are getting better and better.”
Gonzalez chalks that up not only to the Pierson students’ awareness of dance, but also the outside training many of them bring to the shows.
“They’re taking lessons and they have a knowledge of dance,” explains Gonzalez. “The first show I did here was ‘A Chorus Line.’ Now I’m thinking to do it again, they’re getting that much better, to the point where they’re triple threats — acting, singing and dancing.”
As a result, he finds the routines are easier to choreograph and less time is spent teaching the moves.
“I keep pushing, dance wise, especially because this show is mostly acting, not a dance show,” says Gonzalez. “I try to keep them acting — if a character falls on the floor, is she going to smile or be scared? I’m asking more of them — to tie the body into the emotion.”
“As soon as I choreograph something, they pick it up fast,” he says. “I come back and they’re better.”
Seeing professionals on stage can go a long way toward inspiring young performers. Because of Sag Harbor’s proximity to New York City, Pierson students have a unique opportunity to experience Broadway first hand. Another huge motivator for many in this cast came courtesy of a workshop last month in the city with the cast of “Jersey Boys.”
“They sent us a song to do for the workshop,” explains Pierson chorus teacher Suzanne Nicoletti who organized the Broadway trip for 32 students. “We worked with actors from the show and understudies, got to talk about the process and we sang with the musical director. Then the choreographer taught them choreography from the show.”
“They really learned something from them. We also had lunch at the Stardust Diner,” says Nicoletti, referring to the eatery on Broadway that prides itself on the talent of its singing wait staff who are hoping to become stars.
“They’re all trying to make it on Broadway,” she says.
Sounds sort of like the story of Fanny Brice.
“Funny Girl” runs April 18 to 20 in the Pierson High School auditorium, 200 Jermain Avenue, Sag Harbor. Shows are 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. There is also a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. (all proceeds from the matinee benefit Pierson theater scholarships. For tickets, call the office at 725-5302.