It was instructive to see Gypsy (1959) and Funny Girl (1964) within the space of a couple of weeks. The two greatest Broadway musicals of Jule Styne – himself one of the finest but most underrated figures in the history of American musical theatre – have much in common.
Both throw the optimism and the bright lights of the stage into stark relief with the savage reality of the world behind the scenes. Both use clichéd 'show music' in inverted commas, which is to say that both contain numbers which employ banal music deliberately to emphasise this clash between the characters' plights off-stage and on-stage.
And both tell the story of a real-life person, the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the case of Gypsy and comedienne Fanny Brice in the case of Funny Girl.
The latter show has just opened at the Minerva Theatre to inaugurate the 2008 Chichester Festival. Although Funny Girl is a familiar title, it has rarely been seen on the stage since its original Broadway and London runs in the 1960s, probably because the career-defining performance of Barbra Streisand in the title role, which was also captured in the film version, is a difficult legacy to vanquish. Chichester's solution to the problem is two-fold: first, to cast the lead with Samantha Spiro, an actress who resembles the real-life Fanny Brice more than Streisand did and who is stronger as a comedienne than as a singer, just as Brice herself was; and second, to stage the piece in the studio space of the Minerva rather than the larger Festival Theatre, so that the action is much more intimate than one assumes would have been the case with the original large-scale Broadway production.
These choices were fascinating but also had their flaws. That Spiro is a bit more like Brice than Streisand was makes Fanny perhaps more of a human character, but the decision is not consistent with the text of the show itself, which is unrealistic and heavily idealised (it fails to mention Brice's brief first marriage, for instance). Furthermore, although Spiro is a capable singer, some of these songs need greater vocal reserves than she was able to conjure up at this performance. Her sense of text in 'People' was exemplary, but she did not bring to it the nuances in the musical line that Streisand does; 'Don't Rain on My Parade' was valiant but strained compared with Streisand on the film soundtrack; 'Cornet Man' was over-amplified and many of the words were obscured; and 'I'm the Greatest Star' didn't pack the punch that it might have. On the other hand, Spiro's performance of 'You Are Woman, I Am Man' and 'Sadie, Sadie' was superbly comic, and there was a strong emotional core in everything she did. Her acting also went straight to the heart of the character, unreservedly throwing everything she had into portraying Brice's psychological journey from ambitious young klutz to Broadway star.
However, it was strange to cast Mark Umbers opposite her as Nick Arnstein. Umbers is roughly five years younger than Spiro, but although there was considerable chemistry between them, he seemed a little too young for her. Umbers is also a more powerful and resonant singer than Spiro, even though he has far less to sing – his 'I Want to Be Seen With You Tonight' and reprise of 'Don't Rain' were highlights – so again the casting seemed incongruent; and by the end of the evening it was easy, in a way, to understand why Nick and Fanny leave each other. I also found (as is often the case for me with Funny Girl) Arnstein's recklessness so pathetic that I was left wondering what Brice, one of Broadway's greatest stars, was meant to see in him. Yet once these questions were put aside, there was much to enjoy: their mutual attraction was realistically portrayed, and both gave controlled, rather than melodramatic, acting performances.
The rest of the cast was generally strong, though the singing of the ensemble was a little weaker than the dramatic element. Sheila Steafel's Mrs Brice was perfect as the Jewish mother, while Myra Sands was hilarious as Mrs Strakosh. Sebastien Torkia made the most of Eddie Ryan's vocal appearances (in contrast to the non-singing role in the film version); Amy Ellen Richardson showed great promise in her singing as Mimsey; and David Killick was a suitably brusque Ziegfeld. Angus Jackson's direction traced the progress of the plot imaginatively, and Mark Thompson's designs were remarkably representational given the limitations of the space. Stephen Mear's choreography was largely effective, though the humour of 'His Love Makes Me Beautiful' was far less amusing than in the film version, and special praise is due to James Whiteside for atmospheric lighting. Musical Director Robert Scott's pacing of the score was sympathetic to the singers' needs; a shame that the band could not be bigger and I could have done with less dominating amplification at times, but the musicians played well.
Over at the St James Theatre in New York, a revival of Gypsy was a vivid reminder of how emotionally compelling the theatre can be. With all due respect to the expert director and some of the other performers, the reason for the show's success is largely due to Patti LuPone in the role of Rose, Gypsy's mother. I rank her performance amongst the greatest I have ever seen, perhaps the most powerful in a musical since I saw Elaine Paige in Sunset Boulevard over a decade ago. LuPone really does have both the voice and the acting ability for this role. Greeted by loud cheers from the audience, she made her first entrance from the back of the stalls and gave a high-octane performance throughout. That said, numbers such as 'You'll Never Get Away From Me' were delivered with an admirable control and restraint; 'Some People' was also initially understated, depicting Rose's fantasy in the repeated 'I had a dream' Leitmotif as a warm and sympathetic ambition for her children rather than as being something more sinister. Indeed, the success of LuPone's portrayal was the way in which she managed to remain likeable and sympathetic in spite of her often repulsive actions. One really believed that she wanted the best for her offspring, with her personal ambition to want to be on the stage a sad, secondary consideration. Of course, the singing was also excellent, with 'Rose's Turn' featuring an even greater range of emotions than is usual. Sometimes the piece is delivered as an angry number, with the line 'Why did I do it?' shouted in rage, but LuPone's Rose literally goes delirious in front of our eyes for a few moments, so disturbed and gutted is she by the way in which her whole family has deserted her.
Another strength of the production is the depiction of the Rose-Herbie relationship. Personally, I have always found Herbie a rather two-dimensional, dull character - a bit like Nick Arnstein in Funny Girl in that respect - but Boyd Gaines' performance gives him a far greater psychological and emotional depth. In his hands, Herbie is a perfectly decent guy whose attempt to bring Rose back to reality and give her a respectable life is thwarted literally at the last minute by Louise's unexpected opportunity in the burlesque theatre. Remarkably, director Arthur Laurents – who wrote the book and is still going strong at the age of ninety – manages to make this moment reasonable on the parts of both Rose and Herbie. Herbie is right to leave Rose because he realises that her children are more important to her than he is, and Rose seems perfectly reasonable in this priority.
On the whole, Laurents' direction is potent, bringing the scenes to life vividly in spite of relatively Spartan (if attractive) sets by James Youmans. The dialogue is carefully delivered and the show, at this performance at least, seemed as fresh as if it were an opening night. However, I found both the vaudeville sequence in the first act and 'The Strip' in the second both overlong and boring. Laurents' staging of 'Dainty June and her Farmboys' deals cleverly with the passage of time, in which there is a transition between the child actors and the older ones, but the number flagged. Similarly, 'The Strip' wasn't sexy enough and seemed too extensive, with the announcements between each strip being over-obviously dragged out to allow Laura Benanti's Louise to prepare for the next costume. Benanti, too, in my view takes some of the blame for this weakness. She sang brilliantly in 'If Momma Was Married' and 'Together Wherever We Go', and her early scenes were very well acted, but on discovering her other side she became a little too cold for my taste. Leigh Ann Larkin was excellent as Dainty June, however, and the three stars of 'You Gotta Get a Gimmick' (Alison Fraser's Tessie Tura, Lenora Nemetz's Mazeppa and Marilyn Caskey's Electra) brought out the wry humour of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, which are one of the strongest aspects of the work. Patrick Vaccariello's conducting of the wonderfully large on-stage orchestra is almost reason enough to see the show: the audience was cheering from the offset thanks to their barn-storming rendition of the deservedly famous overture.
Both of these shows have much to recommend them. The rarity of this revival of Funny Girl makes it an attractive proposition, even if the drama is more compelling than the music, and the brilliance of almost every aspect of Gypsy is well served by a good cast and a great central performance from LuPone.