Arguably more than any other musical, memories of 1964’s Funny Girl have been so dominated by its original Broadway star – Barbra Streisand – that there has never been a major revival of the show.
But audiences at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton voted the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical biography of vaudeville vocalist and clown Fanny Brice (1891-1951) the show they most wanted to see, so the search began for someone to fill the sizable shoes of the leading role.
Designated director Dom Ruggiero held unsuccessful auditions locally, then set his sights on New York performers. Eventually, he found what he needed, a big-voiced comic actress named Stephanie Maloney.
“When Stephanie came in and sang, we know right away that she was it,” says Ruggieio. She demonstrated in her audition, “That she was genuinely funny and real. She didn’t have to put that on. Plenty of the women we saw could sing the role, but she was the most honest one we heard.”
As Maloney says of the role of Fanny Brice, “It has everything an actress could want. You have the big songs, songs that have meaning, songs you have to act, not just sing. You get to be funny, but also you get to be tragic. It’s called ‘Funny Girl,’ but a lot of the show isn’t very funny. Fanny Brice’s life is pretty tragic. It’s wonderful to get to explore and play that.”
Maloney is well aware that much of the audience will arrive at the Wick with a Streisand soundtrack in their heads, either from the cast album or the movie version that won La Barbra her first Oscar.
“I also grew up listening to the soundtrack, so it’s obviously in my brain as well. When I was learning the music, that’s what I initially heard,” says Maloney. “For a second, I tried to forget it and just read what was on the page.
“After all, I’m not trying to be Barbra Streisand, I’m trying to be Fanny Brice. Ultimately, I tried to find a little mesh of Fanny, a little bit of Barbra, but also some Stephanie. I’m going to bring myself to the role.”
As she has learned in rehearsal, the part of Fanny is a marathon run. “She is in almost every scene. She sings almost everything in the show,” reports Maloney. “You start as this young, vibrant naïve go-getter girl, but I find I can’t let that power in the beginning go too far or I won’t have any breath by the time I get to the end of the show when she is a confident, strong woman.”
In addition to her rise to stardom, Funny Girl focuses on Brice’s precarious romance with gambler Nick Arnstein. Finding the right performer to play him was considerably easier for Ruggiero, who simply had to look onstage at the previous production, Annie, where George Dvorsky played Oliver Warbucks.
As Dvorsky sees it, the role has its pitfalls. If he is played too roguishly, the audience will turn off to him and not buy the romance. “You can’t make him a snake. You have to love this guy. And you have to watch him fall apart,” he says.
Adapter Isobel Lennart took substantial liberties in writing the role of Arnstein. “I think the real Nick Arnstein was all about himself,” says Dvorsky. “In the musical, he really wants to be with her, but they’re like magnets who push each other apart. I want the audience to come on the journey that the two of us have, to root for it to work and then watch it unravel.”
“At the end of the first act is ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade,’ where I give up my career and walk out on my friends. The audience has to understand why I’m about to do that,” notes Maloney. “They have to be torn as well. They can’t hate him. Wow, she’s going to give up stardom for a man. But we have to love the man, too.”
When Funny Girl premiered on Broadway, the critics considered the script to be the show’s weak link. “I don’t agree with that. It’s so actable. That’s what makes it such a good book,” says Ruggiero. “There’s no huge leaps in trying to make one moment connect to another. It’s just written so well.”
“In so many shows of that era, the book is just there to get us to the next song,” adds Dvorsky. “This one is not like that.”
“It’s a challenge. I’m not going to skirt around that fact,” says Maloney. “This is definitely the hardest thing I’ve done in my career thus far. And I’m so excited to tackle it.”
FUNNY GIRL, Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Jan. 17 – Feb. 24. $75-$95. 561-995-2333 or visit thewick.org.