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Glorifying the Jewish-American Girl: Fanny Brice, Funny Girl, and “The Streisand Phenomenon”

Strycula, Alexandra

Rarely has there been a marriage of actress-and-role as lasting and profound as that of Barbra Streisand and her career-defining performance as Fanny Brice in the stage and film versions of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s Funny Girl. How and why, though, did Streisand’s associations with both the role and real life persona of Fanny Brice come to be so strong? The enduring “phenomenon” surrounding Streisand’s original performance in Funny Girl has cultivated a stigmatic “shadow” that has followed all subsequent presentations of the show since its debut on Broadway in 1964 and its 1968 film adaptation, augmented by Streisand’s novel presentation of a distinctly kooky, ethnic rebellion against the fear-induced conformity of early 1960s America – one that ultimately became a symbol of ethnic pride for an entire generation of Jewish Americans and beyond. Streisand’s performance came to be conflated with an urban, working-class sect of Brooklynites and promoted fantasies of class mobility and ethnic inclusiveness for an American-born generation of immigrants’ children during a time of deep identity contemplation in the United States. This trend also coupled with the star-making nature of the show’s leading role to allow Streisand to claim Brice’s journey to fame as her very own. By analyzing reviews, highlighting case studies of several contemporary productions of Funny Girl from the past 20 years, and interpolating secondary source material from scholars of musical theatre as well as Jewish identity, this piece explores the far-reaching cultural and ethnic associations between Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand within the context of how notions of “being American” have evolved from Fanny Brice's era until the present day, as well as in relation to the constraints that have surrounded Jewish female celebrity in mainstream American culture since the early twentieth century. It also discusses the challenges that such associations have posed to casting directors and producers of topical incarnations such as the recently scrapped 2012 Broadway revival helmed by producer Bob Boyett. Streisand’s lasting legacy as a symbol of ethnic and cultural pride ultimately implies that theatre-makers may simply have to wait until the infiltration of an entirely new generation of ticket-buyers for which Streisand’s alliance with Fanny Brice means little to nothing. Although such a generation is beginning to shape, especially with Ryan Murphy’s recent acquisition of Funny Girl’s rights and an extended storyline about a fictionalized revival of the show on FOX's Glee, I ultimately argue that the pervasive ethnic and cultural associations of Streisand’s initial performance – now deeply embedded with the show itself – will likely endure for years to come.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
American Studies (Barnard College)
Degree
B.A., Barnard College
Published Here
August 6, 2014
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