Opened March 9, 1975
Funny Lady was Barbra Streisand's ninth film, a sequel to her debut film, Funny Girl. She was 32 years old when it opened.
From the production notes:
“Funny Lady” takes up several years after "Funny Girl" left off and focuses on Fanny Brice as a famous Ziegfeld star. She has a beautiful daughter, Fran, from her marriage to Nick Arnstein. Though divorced, she still clings to illusions about the dapper and sophisticated Nick. Enter Billy Rose -- brash, unkempt, and fiilled with theatrical ideas and enthusiasm. They make an unlikely professional combination, the polished performer and the upstart producer, but each has something the other needs. "Funny Lady" is the story of their show business magic and their touching, realistic romance.
After approacing playwrite Neil Simon (who turned him down), producer Ray Stark hired Arnold Schulman to write an initial Funny Lady screenplay and several drafts in 1973. Schulman’s early drafts (titled A Very Funny Lady) would have taken the Funny Girl sequel in a different direction than the final film (written by Jay Presson Allen) that fans saw in 1975. Schulman brought Barbra's character Fanny Brice to Hollywood to start her career over in the movies. Schulman’s early drafts contained several scenes that ultimately ended up in the final film, including the opening scenes and “Am I Blue?”, as well as the scene with Fanny's daughter, Fran, locked in the bedroom, and the line that Fanny utters about Billy Rose: “I fell in like with him.”
Jay Presson Allen told the press her method behind developing the script: “Streisand has a powerful personality and a singular pattern of speech and pace. Also, there was wonderful material available. Fanny Brice did an oral history two years before she died that was just a mine, an embarrassment of riches. Then there was a book called ‘The Fabulous Fanny,’ as well as two Billy Rose books and tapes of the marvelous Baby Snooks radio show.”
Kay Medford's character—Rosie Brice (Fanny's mother)—was present in Allen's December 1973 draft screenplay, but by June 1974 was gone. Columnist Earl Wilson wrote that Streisand tried to save Medford's role, but was unsuccessful. Kay was paid, Wilson reported. “I'm now painting a lot of my furniture white,” she told him.
Presson Allen's December 1973 screenplay (which reads much like the final shooting script) also included Fanny befriending a young Lillian Hellman.
The final film credits both Allen and Schulman with the screenplay, based on a story by Schulman.
James Caan was cast as Streisand's love interest in the film, Billy Rose (after Joel Grey and Robert Blake were considered).“Billy Rose was 5-foot-1,” Caan told the Chicago Tribune. “Right there, why bother seeing what he was like? He sure as hell wasn't me. I don't think he even roped. And I don't think he played a lotta ball. He was a little guy, y'know? I had to find something that would make him less attractive to Fanny Brice than the Omar Sharif character—which isn't very difficult to do. You know, Sharif is this prince-like, may-I-kiss-your-hand-madam guy. So I played Billy like a schmateh salesman on 37th Street—the kind that's always bending over when he's talking to ya, always pulling at your sleeve.”
Song and dance man Ben Vereen—who was starring on Broadway in the Bob Fosse-directed musical, Pippin—was cast as “Bert Robbins,” a character the writers based on real-life Vaudeville dancers Bert Williams and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. “I did a matinee this particular Wednesday and I decided that between shows I would go see a movie,” Vereen told BroadwayWorld.com. “So, I go see a movie called Up the Sandbox. So, I go back to the thater after seeing the movie and do an evening performance. Then, I hear a knock on my door and I say, 'Who's at the door?' And it's Barbra Streisand [ ... ] So, she comes in and I go over and introduce myself—I was like, 'You were in the movie and now you're here!' And next thing I know I get a call from Los Angeles asking me to come out and do Funny Lady.”
Songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the score for Cabaret, were brought on board to write Funny Lady’s new songs.
Streisand told the BBC radio, “In Funny Lady we didn’t have Jule Styne, who wrote the score for Funny Girl. The writers [Kander and Ebb] wrote a score for Fanny Brice. They didn’t write a score for me. It was more ethnic humor. That’s something I’ve never really done.”
John Kander recalled: “There was a song called ‘Isn’t This Better?’ that we wrote for her Fanny Brice character in the movie. What Barbra was singing with that number and what they were arranging were so far away from the song that I could hardly believe it. It soon became clear that I was unhappy, and I remember the musical director, Peter Matz, trying to calm me down. Finally, it boiled down to an exasperated Barbra saying, ‘Well, what did you write in the first place?’ So I said, ‘This is what we wrote,’ and I played her the song. She said, ‘Oh, well, that’s nice.’ Then she recorded the song the way we wrote it.
Both Ebb and Kander remembered that they disliked the arrangement for ‘Let’s Hear It for Me’. They felt it mimicked ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ from Funny Girl. “’Let’s Hear It for Me’ was staged in exactly the same way that ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ had been. There was Barbra on her way somewhere,” Ebb said.
The production company rented an MGM stage and jumped in head-first, lensing all the musical numbers at breakneck speed: “Blind Date”, “I Found a Million Dollar Baby”, “So Long Honey Lamb”, “I Got a Code in my Doze”, “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charley”, “Great Day”, “How Lucky Can You Get”, “Am I Blue”, and the ensemble production numbers seen in the Crazy Quilt sequence.
“Great Day” was the first musical number filmed, with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond working only two and a half days before being fired. Zsigmond, who would later win the Oscar for his cinematography on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, explained his firing from Funny Lady: “I spent six weeks researching the film, I wanted the movie to look less like Funny Girl and more like Cabaret. Realistically a theater is dark when a performance begins. When the curtain rises you do not see the audience. And that’s how I lit the scene. But they said it was too dark. They wanted Funny Girl or Hello Dolly! They wanted the old concept of musicals. They were not interested in art, but in making it safe.”
Herbert Ross' wife, Nora Kaye, began choreographing the number "Great Day" but it was choreographer Lester Wilson who took over the dance moves for that number. Herb Ross ultimately reworked Wilson's choreography for the camera. (see below)
Meanwhile, due to Zsigmond's firing, James Wong Howe, Oscar-winner for The Rose Tattoo, and retired for several years at 75 years of age, was called by producer Ray Stark. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything,” he told American Cinematographer magazine. “But they convinced me and I asked ‘When do I start?’ They said, ‘7:30 tomorrow morning.’ So I went there at 7:30 the next morning and worked until four in the afternoon.”
Howe confirmed that the producers were, indeed, looking for less art and more light: “In general, I find that in making a musical you have to light it up a little bit more in order to give it a gay feeling and bring out the colors.”
As the crew of Funny Lady worked diligently to get all the musical numbers “in the can” on the huge MGM soundstage, Howe and director Herbert Ross developed a photographic style for each them. “Each number was photographed with a different kind of color. We used amber, magenta, soft pink and a light blue,” Howe explained. He lit the set of “How Lucky Can You Get” with a single, 1000-watt hanging light then used magenta on the footlights at the end of the number.
Howe surprised Streisand and ultimately won her trust when she discovered he did not use any diffusion in front of his camera lens. Her favorite cinematographer, Harry Stradling, lensed her first four films and Streisand’s close-ups always had a “gauzy” glow to them, achieved by diffusion in front of the lens. James Wong Howe, however, achieved similar results with his lights and, if diffusion was necessary, placing diffusing material in front of his lights rather than his lens.
As for working with Streisand, Howe had nothing but praise. Because of the strain of the production, Howe became sick and had to go into the hospital for almost ten days. Ernest Laszlo, president of the Association of Screen Cinematographers, filled in for Howe and matched his style for most of the location shots, including the Aquacade sequence.
A bit of casting trivia: Royce Wallace, cast as Fanny’s maid Adele, actually played Fanny’s maid, Emma, in the Broadway production of Funny Girl.
The problems with “Great Day” did not end after it finished filming. In early January 1975, Herb Ross, Nora Kaye and Marvin Hamlisch assembled an orchestra at the Goldwyn Studios scoring stage and spent a considerable amount of time redoing Peter Matz’s original orchestration for “Great Day”. Reportedly, Streisand liked her vocal track, but asked that the Matz arrangement be scrapped and that Marvin Hamlisch replace it with a new one. This technically challenging task took a week to accomplish.
The most interesting change in the 1998 reissue of the Funny Lady soundtrack CD is the “Great Day” track . The original soundtrack album (i.e. vinyl LP) and the 1990 Bay Cities CD contained a 5:16 minute track, which Streisand fans refer to as the “sky-high” version (Streisand belts out a long note when she sings the lyrics “angels in the sky, high”). It should be noted that this version of “Great Day” sounds just like what is on the movie’s soundtrack. The 1998 reissue features a decidedly different version of “Great Day”. From the minor chords that Streisand sings as the song opens, to the complex middle-section (after the clapping hands), one has to wonder if this is the original Peter Matz version that Marvin Hamlisch reworked.
News got out to the press that Peter Matz’s entire score was being thrown out and that Hamlisch was replacing him. In order to quell the rumors, director Herbert Ross talked to columnist Earl Wilson: “We’re putting in four new cues. It’s really minor. We’re using thematic material—a lot of those Billy Rose songs and John Kander and Fred Ebb songs. The boy who did the scoring is very good, but he’s never done a major film. We wanted more adroit scoring, more mood. Not one of Barbra’s vocals has been changed. Peter [Matz] did a wonderful job on those. The whole thing’s amicable. I’ve been talking to Hamlisch for 10 days on the phone; he’s been composing. We had big hands at the preview at Denver, even on one scene I was worried about. It’s where Fanny says ‘Go to hell, Mrs. Arnstein.’ They loved it. But you never stop fiddling. I took two frames out of something this morning and added five to something else. As long as you can, you do.”
“Funny Lady” Featurettes & Production Trailers
Columbia Pictures produced brief documentary films which covered some of the aspects of the film creation process for Funny Lady. These “featurettes” utilized behind-the-scenes, B-roll, and cut footage and are very rare.
When Columbia released Funny Lady on DVD in 2002, they did not include any of these as bonus features. (It'd be great if they look into these for the next edition or Blu-Ray versions!)
- Ben Vereen: A Song and Dance Man ... features cut footage from “So Long Honey Lamb”.
- The Look of Funny Lady ... features footage of the “Let's Hear it For Me” intro (Streisand, on the hotel house phone, sings “Billy's an alleycat...”) and also more “Honey Lamb” footage.
- Dancing on Water ... a short about filming the aquacade scenes.
- Omar Sharif: Leading Man
- In Search of a Star ... contains behind-the-scenes footage of Streisand, Howe, and Ross filming “How Lucky Can You Get”.
Next Page: Funny Lady Cut Scenes >>
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