Now through August 3 at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, Gasteyer is starring in Funny Girl, the hit Jule Styne-Bob Merrill musical version of Brice's life -- and, not so incidentally, the show that made a superstar out of a young Brooklyn girl named Barbra Streisand. This production co-stars Robert Cuccioli as Nicky Arnstein and Diane J. Findlay as Mrs. Brice, both reprising the roles they played in the 2001 Paper Mill Playhouse revival.
"I haven't done a role this size since Annie Get Your Gun in eighth grade," Gasteyer tells me from her New York home, a few weeks before the show opens. "Seriously, the only thing I can I compare it to is running a marathon. The sheer stamina you need to do it is overwhelming. It's like you need a sports psychologist to get you through this show."
While Gasteyer hasn't hired a sports psychologist, she started intense vocal coaching and dance lessons more than three months ago to prepare herself. As she explains it, "I have something like 11 numbers to sing, sometimes twice in one day, and I want to be able to sing them well. What's more, it's like the whole score is made up of 11 o'clock numbers! And I am a dumb-dumb when it comes to dancing. I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time."
Gasteyer was born three years after Funny Girl debuted on Broadway and a year before the film version was released. "I don't remember exactly when I saw the movie," she says, "but it was probably in high school, during my phase of fascination with movie musicals. We did have the record and I listened to it over and over. But, I have to say, we weren't a big Barbra household; my parents were more into Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. They're music snobs and they thought Barbra was too pop-sounding."
Still, Gasteyer is trying hard to keep the shadow of Streisand in perspective: "The first time I sang 'People' I thought it was a piece of cake. But then I started thinking about that frame of reference. All of sudden, the vise began to tighten and I saw 3,000 Barbra fans looking at me. But the show is not about Barbra, it's about Fanny Brice. She is a cornerstone of American female comedy, and I am an American female comic. We've even been mentioned in the same documentaries. I think Fanny is a good fit for me; I understand the trials and tribulations of being a funny girl and I've been faced with a lot of the conundrums she faced. Her family was from Hungary and my grandmother is a Hungarian immigrant. And my daughter is named Frances! But I do have a very nice husband."
The Pittsburgh production does not mark the first time Gasteyer is playing Brice: She was one of numerous stars who appeared in last year's Actors' Fund benefit performance of Funny Girl at the New Amsterdam Theatre and she got to sing "You Are Woman (I Am Man)" with Peter Gallagher. According to Gasteyer, "I was kind of defensive when Seth [Rudetsky, the benefit's organizer/musical director] assigned me that. I thought, 'What, I get the patter song?' I wanted a big ballad. But Seth, who has become a really good friend, convinced me that it was the funniest scene in the show."
Ironically, Gasteyer says, her appearance in the benefit had nothing to do with her securing the role of Fanny in the Pittsburgh CLO production. "The people from the Jule Styne estate [who control the rights to the show] didn't seem to know anything about seeing me in that benefit when I talked to them," she relates. "In fact, they said that they saw me as Debra in Kimberly Akimbo and decided I was perfect for Fanny -- though I don't see how that's possible, since I was playing a gum-snapping, bank-robbing lesbian."
Gasteyer has her own theory about how her turn as The Greatest Star came to be: "I have always wanted to play this role and my agents and managers have been talking to people who might be able to bring the show to Broadway, so the talk's been in the ether. I guess the ether heard it and said, 'Go to Pittsburgh first!'" Even before leaving SNL in the summer of 2001 -- a departure caused in no small part by Frances's impending birth -- Gasteyer was focusing on a New York stage career. She did a stint in The Vagina Monologues and then took over the role of Columbia in The Rocky Horror Show. But she was particularly thrilled when she landed Kimberly Akimbo, which played at Manhattan Theatre Club earlier this year.
"David Lindsay-Abaire is such an amazing playwright," Gasteyer gushes. "I did the first reading while I was in a maternity fog and I thought it was one of the best pieces I had ever read. His material is so multifaceted, there was always something new to play. And you can't beat David's roles for women; just in that play alone, there are three of the most interesting women ever written. I read all the reviews and, in retrospect, that was a terrible idea. Ben Brantley thought I was great -- I couldn't have asked for a better review -- and other people didn't. But I was really saddened that it was such a misunderstood play."
Gasteyer notes that some of her peers thought she'd get bored doing a stage run after her years at SNL, but this was far from the case. "After all those years of sketch comedy, where you're lucky if you can just get one foot in front of the other on show day, the slow release of living with a character for four months was pure bliss," she says. "One of my goals when I left SNL was to find a character I could sustain over a period of time. It's such a luxury to be able to inhabit someone." In fact, she says that the only thing that she really misses about working in TV is "the paycheck." (She and Lindsay-Abaire are considering writing a sitcom that would star Gasteyer.)
But nothing would make her happier than being able to play Fanny on Broadway. "I think it would be a great idea," she enthuses. "I could bring in the teenage audience, and the old-timers would come because they remember it and the show hasn't been done in 40 years. I really would love to do a big Broadway musical; I've actually been called in three times for one this fall, but I don't know if I want to do it. The problem is, because of my background, I keep getting called in for the 40-something, fat, frumpy friend or for some part where they think I can create the character even though it's not on the page. But I've learned that if it's not on paper in some way, it's never going to be there. And as for playing generic ingénue number one -- screw it! If I am going to be on Broadway, I want to play someone vital and interesting."