The Unsung Jewish Woman Behind ‘Funny Girl’

Before Beanie or Babs, there was Isobel Lennart. It's time to reclaim her legacy.

Before there was Beanie, or even Barbra, there was Isobel.

Isobel Lennart was the unsung woman behind “Funny Girl.” She wrote the original story, the book for the Broadway musical and the screenplay for the film adaptation. She was an ambitious and funny Jewish woman whose best-known work was about an ambitious and funny Jewish woman, but her achievements have been virtually forgotten in musical theatre history.

“When people talk about ‘Funny Girl,’ they often talk about how Barbra Streisand created the role of Fanny both onstage and in film,” said theater scholar and director Barrie Gelles, whose research explores the intersection of Broadway musicals and Jewish identity. “But what is less commonly talked about is that there was another funny woman involved in this process, Isobel Lennart.”

“Funny Girl,” loosely based on the real-life story of Jewish vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice, opened on Broadway in 1964, where it ran for 1,348 performances. The musical was revived for the first time this spring, with Beanie Feldstein in the lead role of Fanny (originated on stage and screen by Barbra Streisand). Now, with the current Broadway revival, a new generation is being introduced to the musical’s version of Fanny Brice. It is time to give Isobel Lennart credit for her vital contribution to the creation of this iconic character. After all, Lennart was the only member of the creative team who was there at the start of the concept and through the end of the creative process, even as many others left or were let go. When legendary theater director Jerome Robbins wanted her off the show, producer Ray Stark chose to keep her, preferring to lose Robbins instead, in a dramatic demonstration of her value. In many ways, this was her project as much as anyone else’s, but one in which her name is so rarely associated.

Part of the problem is that, unlike performers, the writers of successful stage musicals are rarely household names. Known as book writers, these are the people who not only write the dialogue to a musical, but create the story, craft the structure, and develop the characters. When a show is well received, they typically go unnoticed, but when a show struggles, they often receive the blame.

And it’s even harder for women book writers. It took until 1991 for a woman to receive the Best Book award by herself at the Tony’s, without a male collaborator, and until 2005 for a Jewish woman to receive the honor as a solo book writer.

This disregard for book writers might partially explain why Lennart’s contribution to “Funny Girl” is not more widely discussed. But it should be. For one thing, it was extremely unusual for a woman to craft a woman protagonist, let alone a Jewish woman protagonist, with such confidence and drive in 1964. Her commitment to such storylines helped introduce a new type of character to theater and film.

“Isobel Lennart is a woman who’s making a career for herself in a field that is dominated by men at the time,” noted Gelles. “And one assumes that Isobel Lennart infused the storytelling of ‘Funny Girl’ with that awareness of what it is to be a talented, confident, funny woman in a room full of men.”

A Jewish girl from Brooklyn, Lennart was determined to carve out a career for herself in the film industry, and by any account she succeeded. She received two Academy Award nominations for her screenplays, and was the first solo woman writer to craft the book for a Tony nominated original musical. This focus on professional success likely also informed the characters she created, most notably with “Funny Girl.”

“I love that Fanny is unapologetic in her pursuit of a really great career,” said Julie Benko, discussing the character of Fanny Brice. (Benko is the Fanny Brice standby in the current Broadway revival, and she has performed the role several times since the show opened back in April.) “She stayed true to who she was. I think that’s a really important lesson for all of us.”

Unfortunately, the cultural zeitgeist doesn’t tend to linger on Fanny’s depth or her refreshing confidence, but on the frustrating love story between Fanny and Nick Arnstein. It is an unfortunate, if understandable reaction: The character is so shrewd about her career, but maddeningly gullible when it comes to romance. In the 1964 New York Times review, Howard Taubman wrote that the book “oozes with a thick helping of sticky sentimentality” once the love story unfurls in the second act.

Harvey Fierstein was brought on to tweak the book for the revival. “I don’t think it was ever really a classic book,” Fierstein told The Forward, conceding that the original version’s second act “had its problems.”
But critics were even tougher on Lennart’s (and Fierstein’s) book the second time around.

“Despite updated language, ‘Funny Girl’ remains an old-fashioned doomed love story,” wrote Naveen Kumar for Broadway News. In her review for Vulture, Helen Shaw referred to Lennart’s book as “misty-eyed,” which is perhaps the 21st century equivalent of “sticky sentimentality.”

And Did They Like It’s Christian Lewis stated, “The book by Isobel Lennart has structural issues,” asserting that all the good numbers occur in the first act.

The critics have their points. Lennart, who wrote over twenty screenplays, was much more at home on the screen than on the stage. This was her first musical, and while it might have been pretty good for a first attempt, it clearly wasn’t the format most suited to her talents. She fared much better when back on her own turf, writing the screenplay adaptation of “Funny Girl,” which became the highest grossing movie of the year, and for which Lennart received the 1968 Writers Guild of America award for Best Written Musical. The film became a beloved classic, launching Barbra Streisand into a stratospheric celebrity that cemented her status as a Jewish cultural icon.

Lennart knew this. Reflecting on the process of writing the musical years later, Lennart regarded it as “the most horrible experience of my life.” With witty flippancy, she explained in Musical Show that “writing the libretto for a musical (this was my first) is the best way to lose your sanity, your judgment and your teeth. (I lost one, so I should know.)”

But despite the show’s missteps, this was a story created by a woman who worked hard, knew this industry, and had the vision for an iconic Jewish character that had never quite been brought to life in this way before. The story remains a classic moment in American theatrical history, and the “Funny Girl” legacy is more encompassing than we often imagine. It is a legacy that includes Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand as well as Isobel Lennart and all the funny, ambitious Jewish women who have played Fanny in the years since Streisand first originated the role: Beanie Feldstein, and Julie Benko, and many more. Lennart deserves the credit for that, and it is time her role is recognized.

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