Even the touring Broadway revival cast of “Funny Girl” will admit it: No one can replace Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice, the show’s protagonist.
Cast member Melissa Manchester would know. She saw the original 1964 production with Streisand when she was a little girl in New York.
“It’s not that she was rare,” Manchester said of Streisand. “She was singular.”
But while the show may not have its original star on stage, “Funny Girl” has seen a resurgence in both popularity and relevance, so much so that it is on its first Broadway National Tour, “Funny Girl” is playing at the Hippodrome Theatre on Oct. 24-29 as part of its Broadway Series.
“With an updated script from Harvey Fierstein, the upcoming production of ‘Funny Girl’ at the Hippodrome is sure to charm audience members,” said Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, where the Hippodrome Theatre is located. “Its themes of self-acceptance, fighting against stereotypes and pursuing one’s dreams transcend time and can be realized by anyone in the audience, regardless of age, sex or creed.”
Manchester, the powerhouse Grammy Award-winning Jewish performer who plays Fanny Brice’s mother Rose Brice, believes Jewish people and Jewish women especially can take plenty from the show. In her eyes, “Funny Girl,” above all, about a woman’s relationship with her mother.
“I don’t believe in unconditional love. I don’t know what those two words mean together. As a mother and as a grandmother, I cannot figure out what those two words mean together,” Manchester said. “I am more in the school of, Rose had unlimited confidence in her daughter.
“That profound primal love of your kid is — and to me, because it’s all I know — it’s a singularly Jewish expression,” she added.
In “Funny Girl,” Rose Brice bears witness to the highs and lows of her daughter’s life with the backdrop of the eve and aftermath of World War I. Fanny Brice, a Jewish performer, begins her career modestly in vaudeville, before eventually landing a spot with the “Ziegfeld Follies.” Parallel with her rise to fame is Fanny Brice’s star-crossed romance with the charismatic Nicky Arnstein, who struggles with a gambling addiction.
With a 50-year career, Manchester once turned down the role of Fanny Brice when composer Jule Styne offered her the role in a revival production several years ago. She had a young family and a developing career with which to contend.
“But I believe this is the way it was supposed to work out. … What I have brought to Rose Brice at long last is my entire life,” Manchester said. “It’s how I am a mother, how I mentor, how I have been as a teacher. It is just about everything that I know about my life thus far.”
Besides her own life, Manchester channeled the lives of her aunts who raised her.
“They were very strong and very opinionated,” she said.
Their resilience, Manchester said, is reflected in how she plays Rose Brice: “Rose is a survivor.”
The character, though originally portrayed by devout Catholic actor Kay Medford, lives out distinctly Jewish themes, according to Manchester: “Humor in the face of catastrophe, strength in the face of bullying.”
Manchester came of age in show business in a time when women were sidelined and were not given roles of stage managers, stagehands or dressers. While she never felt out of place for being Jewish, she existed in the entertainment industry in a time when the roles of Jewish women were changing, largely in part to Streisand’s role in “Funny Girl.”
“Streisand is able to portray a character that is obviously Jewish, and in this role she creates a space for the intelligent Jewish woman to be depicted,” wrote Joyce Antler in her 1998 book, “Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture.” “In this role the Jewish woman was presented as smart, comedic, beautiful and talented.”
But beyond what “Funny Girl” has contributed to the Broadway canon of Jewish women characters, it’s also a family-friendly show that can serve as a “reminder” to anyone of “what is good and what is true power,” Manchester said.
“‘Funny Girl’ is the answer to whatever ails you,” Manchester said. “There’s not a curse word in the entire evening. The score is spectacular. And the songs are so well known.”