I’ve been non-stop kvelling for Beanie Feldstein from the moment she was announced as “the titular role” of the first Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.” In the wake of Hollywood and Broadway’s persistent reluctance to cast Jewish women in Jewish roles, here was one of my absolute favorite Jewish actresses getting one of the most iconic Jewish roles in American stage and cinema, one that launched the career of one of the most legendary Jewish talents, the Barbra Streisand. Feldstein landing the role felt like a win, a bit of hope that something from the seemingly endless calls for change from Jewish celebrities, writers and critics alike stuck.
So seeing Feldstein at last take the stage as Fanny Brice and own the role with her impeccable comedic timing and irresistible presence was similarly cathartic. “Funny Girl” is, at its heart, a musical about a Jewish woman learning that she is “the greatest star” as she is, that she does not need to meet a mythologized standard of Western beauty to be a triumph. It was clear from the moment that Feldstein stepped out on the stage that she understood the role and what it means to inhabit it.
Beanie’s Brice liberally peppers her dialogue with Yiddish. The script explicitly acknowledges that the qualities that make Brice a “funny girl,” rather than “pretty like Miss Atlantic City,” are inextricably tied up with her Jewishness, and Feldstein recognizes this. When she belts “Who’s an American beauty rose? With an American beauty nose! And 10 American beauty toes!” it’s with a knowing confidence that could be felt in the rear mezzanine. It’s pure joy to watch someone like Feldstein interpret a bold, unapologetic Jewish woman this way, still brimming with warmth and likeability.
What the show has to say about Jewish women and desirability, of the difference between being laughed with and laughed at, is evergreen if you are a Jewish woman who has ever been deemed “too much” or despaired at the kind of narrow boxes Jewish “funny girls” get shoved into. The show lands laughs without making them at the expense of the heroine. She gets to have it all — success, fame, the hot-but-useless gambler Nick Arnstein — without ever having to change to fit the world’s expectations.
Through the first act, the question is whether other people will recognize Fanny’s greatness. In the second act, that question shifts to whether Fanny will recognize her own greatness, and how it exists independent of Arnstein. It is, however, never in doubt that Fanny is great enough to be deserving of her place in the spotlight.
So it all feels rather ironic that consensus from critics seems to be that, for someone to succeed in the role of Fanny Brice, one must meet a mythologized standard, not of Western beauty but of Barbra Streisand.
In the first reviews, cutting comparisons abound. The New York Times devoted the review to praising not Feldstein but Streisand, ending with a description of the “necessary star,” “someone not nice but inevitable, not diligent but explosive, not well-rounded but weird. They don’t grow them that way much, anymore, nor write new material for them. Paging Ms. Streisman!” (The New York Times is referencing a historical error wherein “Funny Girl” supervisor Jerome Robbins mistakenly wrote Babs’ name as “Barbra Streisman.”)
Theatermania says, “Like Tony Hawk’s 900 or Simone Biles’s Yurchenko double pike, following in the trail-incinerating footsteps of Barbra Streisand has settled into Broadway’s collective consciousness as an act of near-insanity with only two options: Legendary success or bone-crushing failure.” The Washington Post, comparing the two actresses, declares, “while, for instance, you believed outright that Streisand was a star, with Feldstein, your foremost belief is that she believes she’s a star.”
Of course, every Broadway revival calls forth some shadow of its predecessors. It is impossible, however, to think of another role where success or failure is treated as singularly dependent not on the lead’s ability to inhabit the role on the page but her ability to be the actress who played the part 58 years ago. Plenty of Broadway shows have birthed iconic performances and made the careers of legendary performers. Yes, Barbra Streisand is a bigger icon than most. But since when did it become more important that the lead of “Funny Girl” more embodies Streisand than Brice?
Streisand is not the first Jewish woman to find success and even stratospheric fame on the stage or on screen, but her legacy arguably looms largest in contemporary American Jewish life. Her ascent to stardom is often treated as a particular turning point in the place of Jewish women in American pop culture; her rise made room for the kind of actress who could be publicly Jewish and a massive mainstream success. At the same time, it’s hard not to read the commentary that has emerged about the “Funny Girl” revival and see that many view Streisand’s singularity as a kind of yardstick to measure the Jewish women performers who have the temerity to come up in her wake, and a reason to find them all wanting.
The threat of “she’s no Streisand” has turned Fanny Brice from what should be one of the great roles on Broadway for Jewish women into a trap. It precludes the possibility of reinterpretation, because any deviation from what Streisand accomplished is deemed a failure. It allows for a kind of critique that willfully misunderstands what can be accomplished in the role by someone who is not Streisand and isn’t trying to be. The role can be one where an explicitly Jewish woman gets to defiantly claim the spotlight, all while being who she is, but instead has become a chance to gleefully remind her who she is not.
It does not need to be this way. Watching Feldstein take the stage, what was clear is that this role is an opportunity. In the same way that Streisand’s turn as Fanny Brice showcased the best of Streisand’s talents, so does Feldstein’s. Not because they sound alike, but precisely because Feldstein has the confidence to interpret the role as herself. The thrill of this revival isn’t seeing a Streisand, but seeing another Jewish actress who is talented and radiant in her own right take up the leopard-print coat and make it her own. Ultimately, this is what makes her a worthy successor to the part.
Beanie Feldstein gets at the very heart of what Fanny Brice represents: a Jewish woman who does not fit conventional ideas about what sells, and delights in proving the naysayers wrong.