There was a time when Easter was a major release date for movies. Places like Radio City Music Hall would present a holiday show with a big motion picture release; a prestige picture. In 1975, Columbia Pictures had a big film that it was releasing for Easter: “Funny Lady,” the sequel to “Funny Girl.”
As Barbra Streisand stands on the brink of creating what will most likely be her last big musical, “Gypsy,” it’s interesting to look back at how “Funny Lady” fits into the Barbra Streisand filmography.
It was not the Broadway adaptation that “Funny Girl” was, nor was it a remake like “A Star Is Born.” It was an original musical, but unlike “Yentl,” the creative forces behind the production were attempting to replicate the success of a very different kind of musical. You see, “Funny Lady” had the same actress — Barbra — and musical director — Herbert Ross — but it was aspiring to be another “Cabaret.”
When “Cabaret” was released in 1972, it was a sensation. The Bob Fosse production won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey) and Best Actress (Liza Minnelli). It seemed to be a beacon for the “new movie musical.”
Ray Stark, who’d successfully produced “Funny Girl” on Broadway and on film, decided that instead of using the successful team from the original production, he’d go with the hot “Cabaret” personnel. He wanted to see if lightning could strike twice.
So “Cabaret’s” Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jay Presson Allen was brought in to adapt Arnold Shulman’s script of “A Very Funny Lady,” calling it “Funny Lady.” The idea was to present Fanny Brice in a more realistic way, picking up her life after she divorced Nick Arnstein and married songwriter/impresario Billy Rose.
Another change from “Funny Girl” to “Funny Lady” was the music. Rather than ask Jule Styne and Bob Merrill to do the score once more, Stark enlisted the “Cabaret” team of Fred Ebb and John Kander. Additional songs would be culled from Billy Rose’s catalog…and maybe a few other standards.
Therefore, those who went into “Funny Lady” anticipating another “Funny Girl,” were surprised by the different tone and style. Where “Funny Girl” had been sentimental and romantic, with Fanny as a young girl finding fame and falling in love with a gorgeous guy, “Funny Lady” was darker, more mature and tinged with bitterness.
This was an older and wiser Fanny; a lady who was much less vulnerable because she’d been burned. She was still carrying a torch for Nick, even as she accepted that their marriage hadn’t worked. In contrast, Fanny’s relationship with Billy Rose was funny and feisty. Billy was pugnacious and street-smart, the antithesis of Nick…at least as fictionalized in the picture.
For “Funny Lady,” Barbra approached Fanny more as an acting challenge than she had in “Funny Girl.” She said in interviews that she was more interested in playing the real Fanny this time around.
When she had first portrayed Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” on Broadway and in the film, Barbra chose not to research the real Ziegfeld star. She wanted to play Fanny as the character created by scenarist Isobel Lennart, which was very close to Barbra’s own persona.
While it was ambitious of Stark and Streisand to want to stretch with the sequel, they might have been better served by hewing more closely to the original, beloved “Funny Girl.” For instance, had Lee Allen returned as Fanny’s good friend Eddie, it would have made more sense than her confiding in a new character named Bobby (Roddy McDowall) who we we’re told has been her best friend for years.
And even a single scene with Kay Medford, reprising her role as Rosie Brice, Fanny’s mom, would have created a nice continuity from one film to the other. The only link to the original film beside Barbra was Omar Sharif as Nick.
Of course, there are many elements of “Funny Lady” that do work quite well, especially the chemistry between Streisand and James Caan. As Billy Rose, Caan was great casting, and coming so soon after “The Godfather,” the film benefited from his star presence. He was surprisingly good at singing, and he and Barbra were charming together. They played off each other brilliantly, nailing every joke.
Musically, Barbra has a couple of beautiful numbers, especially “If I Love Again,” which she sang simply beside a piano. It was not an original Kander and Ebb song, but it was lovely. The best of Kander and Ebb was the ironic theme, “How Lucky Can You Get?”
In fact, this number, in which Fanny bitterly reflects on the fact that she is not lucky in love, was staged by director Herb Ross in a style that reminded people of “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy.” Perhaps it was a glimpse of what we can expect when her next movie musical is released?
Until then, here’s my recommendation for you, maybe something you should do this holiday weekend, whether celebrating Easter or having a Passover seder — watch “Funny Lady.” You can’t get much better than Barbra belting out “Great Day” or crooning “More Than You Know.” You’ll also discover what moviegoers did on Easter weekend of 1975. It was a perfect holiday release.