What the heart wants

Michael Mayer on Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand, Beanie Feldstein and his Broadway revival of Funny Girl

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Peter Francis James (Florenz Ziegfeld), Jane Lynch (Mrs. Rosie Brice), Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan), Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice), Ephie Aardema (Emma), Debra Cardona (Mrs. Meeker), Martin Moran (Tom Keeney), Toni DiBuono (Mrs. Strakosh) and the cast of Funny Girl
Peter Francis James (Florenz Ziegfeld), Jane Lynch (Mrs. Rosie Brice), Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan), Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice), Ephie Aardema (Emma), Debra Cardona (Mrs. Meeker), Martin Moran (Tom Keeney), Toni DiBuono (Mrs. Strakosh) and the cast of Funny Girl Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

When I spoke with Tony winner Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, nominated for Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Thoroughly Modern Millie) in December on his Netflix holiday season hit, Single All The Way, we discussed that he was going to be directing the very first Broadway revival of Funny Girl with Beanie Feldstein (Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart) in the Barbra Streisand role as Fanny Brice and Ramin Karimloo taking on Nicky Arnstein, played by Omar Sharif in the film.

Michael Mayer with Anne-Katrin Titze (in Batsheva) on Funny Girl: “It’s really the Fanny Brice story, not the Barbra Streisand story.”
Michael Mayer with Anne-Katrin Titze (in Batsheva) on Funny Girl: “It’s really the Fanny Brice story, not the Barbra Streisand story.”

The musical features music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and the book by Isobel Lennart with revisions by Harvey Fierstein (Tony wins for Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, nominations for Kinky Boots, Newsies, Casa Valentina) and costumes by Susan Hilferty (Tony win for Wicked, nominations for Into the Woods, Lestat, Spring Awakening, Present Laughter). Michael’s 2019 production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, starring Adam Driver and Keri Russell, had been nominated for Best Revival of a Play and with his Funny Girl, he chimes the reawakening of post-pandemic times for live musical theatre.

The1968 movie version, directed by William Wyler (after Sidney Lumet left during preproduction), co-starring Omar Sharif as gambler Nicky Arnstein and Walter Pidgeon as Florenz Ziegfeld, brought Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice an Oscar win that she shared with Katharine Hepburn for Anthony Harvey’s The Lion In Winter. The great costume designer Irene Sharaff was responsible for the film’s clothes and both Michael and I discovered in our conversation that those fabulous coats left the strongest impression.

“Backstage at the New Amsterdam Theatre, New York City, 1924, and memories prior,” is the setting of this revival, in which Beanie Feldstein and Ramin Karimloo take on the roles of the mis-matched and in-love-nevertheless couple. Jane Lynch, as Fanny’s mother and commentator on her life, combines skeptical melancholy with mayhem, which is very fitting for a revival that wisely does not attempt to update the story into a slick version of what relationships supposedly should look like.

Instead, the diversity of the cast of spectacular dancers, headed by Jared Grimes as Eddie Ryan, celebrates the progress Broadway has made since a Jewish comedienne named Fanny, who wasn’t considered pretty by the standards of last century’s Twenties, broke down barriers of prejudice and landed on stage with the most glamorous of all, the Ziegfeld Follies.

Ziegfeld Girls (Leslie Flesner and Afra Hines) warn Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) about Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo)
Ziegfeld Girls (Leslie Flesner and Afra Hines) warn Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) about Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo) Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

Much remains to be done in the Twenty Twenties we have embarked on now, and a love story like Funny Girl, that speaks as much about what it takes to love yourself as how difficult and unpredictable it is to love another, is very right for the moment. Far from cliché, the question why people who need people are the luckiest people in the world, is one to ponder now more than ever.

From New York, four days before the opening of Funny Girl, Michael Mayer joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on his Broadway revival and the ongoing impact of Fanny Brice.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Michael! How are you? How are you feeling?

Michael Mayer: Hi! Out of my mind, I’m trying to get organized. I’m so not used to working so much, but we finished now. We froze the show.

AKT: I loved it.

MM: I’m so pleased!

AKT: It felt yesterday that Broadway is back.

MM: Yeah! That’s really exciting.

Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) and the ensemble applaud Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes)
Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) and the ensemble applaud Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes) Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

AKT: Especially with this show that takes place in 1924, so it’s not just the COVID years. But it’s as if you’re bringing back the entire history of Broadway with Fanny Brice and the great tap dancers and all of that.

MM: You’re hitting on something that’s been very important to us as we’ve been making it at this point. Because it’s so much about the history of Broadway and the history of theater, it’s such a treat to be able to celebrate where we came from and where we are now at the same time. It’s unusual that you get to do that with something that is essentially such a grand entertainment at the end of the day.

AKT: But it has depth to it because it’s about love and that’s not going anywhere. The two things together are so great, that you have the entertainment and exuberance and at the same time, I think actually a very deep story about self-esteem, about love and connection.

MM: Yes, and it’s a fairly adult love story too, which is unusual. So many of the musicals that are made now really feature young people, so the fact that this second act is really the story of that marriage and they have been through a lot already.

AKT: And it works for the young people. Last night, I was sitting next to my friend, 90-year-old Gay Talese and on the other side were all these super-young people who were excited in their seats.

Gay Talese at Funny Girl
Gay Talese at Funny Girl Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MM: How do you know Gay, by the way?

AKT: We were on the jury together [with Killer Films’ Christine Vachon and the B-52’s Fred Schneider], nine years ago, for First Time Fest, a film jury. And we stayed in touch ever since.

MM: That’s wonderful.

AKT: Gay said - let me get it, I don’t want to misquote Gay Talese.

MM: No, don’t want to do that!

AKT: He wrote to me earlier today that “Yes, Anne-Katrin, please do tell Michael Mayer that I applaud his work on “Funny Girl" most enthusiastically.”

MM: That means a lot to me.

AKT: And “Especially wonderful was Beanie Feldstein!”

MM: Isn’t she heaven?

AKT: She is great! Gay met her at an “Impeachment” party once, and personally complimented her on playing Monica Lewinsky.

MM: I don’t know if you saw that? She’s really good on that.

Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theatre
Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theatre Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: No, I didn’t yet. When you and I talked in December, you were already telling me that because she is so so different from Barbra Streisand it works.

MM: Yes exactly. I think we had to do that. If we got anyone who was trying to duplicate or mimic one of the, I guess, most iconic and celebrated voices of the 20th century then you could be in a bit of trouble. When it’s really the Fanny Brice story, not the Barbra Streisand story. That’s part of the narrative we’ve really been trying to put forward when we talk about the show.

Without this real trailblazer from the early part of the last century and someone without whom quite frankly there would be no Barbra Streisand, let alone all the great female Jewish comics who came up. Once Fanny Brice sort of made it safe for them then you get the Joan Rivers’ and the Sarah Silvermans of the world.

AKT: I was blown away by your Nicky Arnstein! His money flew onto my lap during the performance last night!

MM: Oh great! Isn’t he dreamy?

AKT: Yes, he is dreamy! Tell me about the casting of Ramin Karimloo!

Ramin Karimloo (Nicky Arnstein) and the cast of Funny Girl
Ramin Karimloo (Nicky Arnstein) and the cast of Funny Girl Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

MM: Ramin, I had only heard him and seen him on YouTube and things. And I was doing a production of Chess, the Tim Rice and Benny [Andersson] and Björn [Ulvaeus] musical from the 80s. We were doing it in Washington D.C. and I had heard Ramin sing Anthem, which is his big act one closer for the character of Anatoly. It was like a five-day-long Encores kind of thing, so it was semi-staged, although we pretty much staged it.

And I just offered him the part because I thought he’d be really good. I’d never met him and never worked with him obviously. We had such a good time and I liked him so much that when we were finished in D.C., I said to him “Ramin, if I ever get to do Funny Girl in New York” because I had already done it in London, “you’re going to be my Nicky Arnstein!” He had no idea what I meant. He had no idea what Funny Girl was, he had no idea who Nicky Arnstein was.

AKT: Never heard of Omar Sharif?

MM: No, he had no clue. He’d never seen the movie, he didn’t know the show. So then a few years later, cut to he got the offer and he called me and said “I want to do it, but what is it?”

Barbra Streisand in the leopard coat in the movie Funny Girl
Barbra Streisand in the leopard coat in the movie Funny Girl

AKT: He has great timing and great warmth. And Nicky Arnstein is difficult. He could be very hate-able, very easily.

MM: Yes, what Mrs. Brice [Jane Lynch] says about him is true, “He’s always been a crook.” That’s who he’s always been and Fanny just doesn’t want to see it because she was so smitten. I also think he genuinely falls for her and is really in love with Fanny. So he’s kind of caught between a rock and a hard place because he wants to be there for her but he also can’t fight what his true nature is.

AKT: And he thinks he has to keep his masculinity intact.

MM: 100%, we’re going to do it my way, he says, or not at all.

AKT: At the same time, there is real infatuation and this wonderful moment when Fanny explains “You don’t know what he did for me.” Last night that moment was great. I don’t know if it’s always that great. It made me actually think of Arnaud Desplechin's latest film on Philip Roth’s Deception. When I talked with Arnaud, we discussed that we can’t choose how we want to be loved.

MM: That’s right! It’s true.

Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice on the tugboat in Funny Girl
Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice on the tugboat in Funny Girl

AKT: I thought about that last night. This is how Fanny wants to be loved, the way Nicky Arnstein loves her.

MM: That’s exactly right. The heart wants what the heart wants.

AKT: Precisely. Overall the cast is great, the dancers are great, especially the tap-dancing. Jared Grimes is wonderful.

MM: He’s one of the best in the world right now in tap dancing. I feel so lucky that we have him. And he’s such a sweet lovely actor too.

AKT: When was the first time you saw the film Funny Girl?

MM: 1968 when it came out. My mom took me and my brother and my cousin, I think. We were at the beach and it was raining and there was nothing to do, so she looked at the paper and there it was, Funny Girl. It must have been after the Oscars. I guess in these days movies played that long. All I remember is the leopard-skin coat. That’s all I knew, I was eight years old. It wasn’t so much for kids but I was fascinated by that woman and I remember thinking the songs were good. But it wasn’t like Oliver! That was my gem in 1968.

AKT: The coat, that’s so funny. I too remember the costumes most when I saw it as a child on TV. What Barbra Streisand is wearing on the tugboat!

Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo) woos Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein)
Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo) woos Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein) Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2022

MM: Yes, the orange coat!

AKT: I thought of wearing my orange Batsheva today because of that scene in the movie. I think Beanie wears a lot of Batsheva dresses in her private life, doesn’t she?

MM: Yes, she loves all that girly stuff.

AKT: I noticed a number of Michael Mayer touches in the production. From the very start. The blinking lights that react to the music during the overture! That could only be you, who would come up with the choreography of the stage lights?

MM: Exactly, ha! I told the lighting designer to do it and he was like “really?” And then his associate would say yes and we were all on. I said “Look, they are lights, we got to use them!” And that overture is so iconic too.

AKT: Is it true that Netflix is going to have Funny Girl, the movie, available?

MM: I don’t know, it’s possible.

AKT: When I looked it up, it seemed to be coming and I thought it might be connected to you.

MM: Must be because we are in the news.

Nicky Arnstein’s (Ramin Karimloo) money Cinq Mille Francs
Nicky Arnstein’s (Ramin Karimloo) money Cinq Mille Francs Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: In the bio in the Playbill you dedicate the show to your mother.

MM: Yeah, she loved Funny Girl so much. She was too ill at the time to come to London to see it. It was one of the great sorrows at the time that she couldn’t come. I think of her so much when I’m working on it. You know, because my mother was very very funny. As I say in the Playbill, “she was a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls” too.

She wasn’t a standard size to fit a standard dress. She wasn’t a conventional beauty in that way, but she was her own person and she was very very funny. And she loved the theater. And I just knew she would have loved this. I thought of her a lot while I was making it. I thought what would my mom like? What would make her happy?

AKT: In the revised book [by Harvey Fierstein] there are numbers that were not in the film version.

MM: Correct.

AKT: Were some of those taken from what Florenz Ziegfeld did at the time?

MM: No, here’s what they were: every song that we have in our show was written by Jule Styne for Funny Girl. But some of them got cut when they were out of town and never saw the light of day. Some of them were written for the film and either discarded or rewritten, so there was a lot of material there.

Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein), and Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes)
Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein), and Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes)

The instinct that Jule and Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart had, clearly - because when you look at all the material, so much of it was for Nick - so clearly there was an instinct to create more material for him so that he has a stronger journey. In the original Broadway musical, the second act is almost entirely a Barbra Streisand concert. It’s just one song after another, with the exception of Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat.

AKT: That is the military number in silver with the bagels on Beanie’s belt?

MM: Yes, that one and Sadie were the only ones that anybody else sang during the second act, with the exception of one song that we ended up cutting, which was a song from Mrs. Strakosh, trying to convince Rosie Brice to find a man. It just felt a little bit off-topic and I felt like Nicky deserved to have more material in the second act so that we could really understand what he is going through.

AKT: I haven’t seen Funny Girl since I was a teenager and saw it on TV, but the You Are Woman, I Am Man number is very vivid in my memory for some reason. So I was full of anticipation how it would play out in your production. It works so well!

MM: She’s amazing in it. They both are. Their chemistry is so good and they love each other so much in life. They have such respect and such a good time playing together. One thing we changed, I don’t know if you noticed, but the end used to be that he would sing “ You are woman, I am man, let’s kiss!” And he is dominating and the whole thing was more cat and mouse. And here when we were playing with it, I think Beanie said “What if I say: I am woman, you are man, let’s kiss? And I’m on top?” I was like, yeah, that’s so good!

AKT: I did notice that! I liked that very much. Are there plans for a film version of this?

MM: I don’t believe so. I think we’re going to record an album and if everything goes well there’s already been a fair amount of interest in a tour. So I think when we’re done on Broadway, it’d be great to send a tour out so that people all across the country can see it. And who knows, maybe I’ll bring it back to London or Australia or something like that. It’d be fun for the show since it hasn’t really been seen in so many years.

Funny Girl on the August Wilson Theatre marquee
Funny Girl on the August Wilson Theatre marquee Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Before we wrap, I have to tell you about my rollercoaster day yesterday. After an interview with a filmmaker whose film will be in Cannes, in the afternoon I had a conversation with Bernard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher/filmmaker about his new documentary on the wars that the world likes to overlook from Nigeria to Somalia to Kazakhstan to Ukraine and on and on. Our interview was actually moved forward half an hour because of the French presidential debate before the election.

MM: Oy, it’s so scary!

AKT: So scary. So I was watching the French election debate after the Lévy interview, then I met Gay for dinner at Gallaghers and we talked about all that happened during the pandemic and actually your film of The Seagull with Annette Bening, whom he loves. And then comes Funny Girl and that feeling of resurrection to round out that extraordinary day!

MM: How great! I feel like it’s what Broadway does best. When Broadway is at its best, what it can do is it can salvage a terrible day. It provides so much joy and so much effervescence. Even if the show has serious moments like Funny Girl does, it’s so uplifting to be live and in-person with a cast who is singing and dancing their hearts out and telling a story to one group of people, even if it’s 1,200 people, but they’re together to share that. It’s the only thing that does that. Nothing else does it like that and it’s so invigorating.

AKT: And unforgettable. I still have vivid memories of seeing Tommy Tune and Twiggy on Broadway in My One And Only in the Eighties, as a child somewhat. It’s still there in my head, the exuberance. So glad to talk to you!

MM: I’m always happy to talk to you, it’s so refreshing. And you’re so terrific! Thank you!

AKT: Keeping my fingers crossed that the world sees what Gay and I saw last night!

MM: I hope so! Take good care!

Funny Girl opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Sunday, April 24.

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