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Memories of Funny Girl

The great Broadway composer Jule Styne's widow shares stories of one of his biggest hits with Peter Filichia. logo
Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl
(Photo from Broadway Musicals:
The 101Greatest Shows of All Time
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers)
Margaret Brown Styne is sitting in her late husband Jule Styne's office. Window cards line the walls. They start with Glad to See You, an out-of-town closer; but right next to it is High Button Shoes, which opened 59 years ago next Monday and started a major Broadway career. The other window cards on display, for such shows as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, and Funny Girl, prove it.

It was nearly 45 years ago when Margaret Brown, a British model-turned-actress, began working with famed producer Ray Stark. Among his many projects, he had optioned a musical based on the life of his wife's mother, the comedienne Fanny Brice, with a book by Isobel Lennart, music by Styne, and lyrics by Bob Merrill. "One night, Ray asked me to go out to dinner with him and his friends," recalls Mrs. Styne. "He said, 'Don't bring a date; I have one for you.'" And that's how she got to meet the lyricist of Funny Girl.

Yes, I said lyricist. Stark had fixed her up not with Styne -- whom she'd soon marry after just a courtship of a few weeks -- but with Merrill. "But there was a widow next to Bob, and they went off together," she recalls. Soon after her marriage to Styne in 1962, she witnessed the first of her husband's closings: Subways Are for Sleeping shuttered on Broadway on June 23 after a six-month run. "Did you know that, on closing night in the old days, the people who wrote the shows used to go on in them in bit parts? Jule was a Chinese waiter in Subways," she tells me.

Though Mrs. Styne's memory is quite good and she comes up with facts and figures rather readily, she does have a diary of those years in front of her -- just on the off-chance that she'll need it while talking. "Look," she says, "May 10, 1963; Funny Girl off.'" Part of the reason the show was put on hold was because of a lack of a star, she says, thinking back. Where could they find a Fanny Brice? "When Barbra Streisand was first mentioned, Jule sent his assistant down to see her, and she reported back: Eh!" she recalls. "But we went to see her at the Bon Soir, and Jule was immediately enthusiastic. We went back four or five nights in a row. Even Jerry Robbins applauded when she did her audition. But Fran Stark -- Fanny's Brice daughter -- said, 'That girl play my mother? I wouldn't hire her as my maid!' She never liked her, even through the success. But I've since realized that the world is split into those who love Barbra and those who don't."

Mrs. Styne returns to her diary, turning pages and inadvertently displaying on one finger absolute proof that diamonds are a girl's best friend. Then she looks up: "Jerry Robbins walked away from the show. Bob Fosse later did, and David Merrick walked out, too." She reads from her text: "Oct. 20, 1963: Barbra's lawyers found loopholes. She made large demands, Ray said he couldn't afford it. Ray and Barbra agreed. All seems well."

For a while, anyway. "Isobel Lennart wanted Steve Sondheim to come in and write lyrics, and Bob was very upset. But they had to have a director. One day, they played the score for Garson Kanin. The next morning, nothing -- and the day after that, nothing, too. Then four or five days later, Jule and I were going into Sardi's for dinner, and Garson and Ruth [Gordon, his wife] were coming out. They always ate at the crack of 5:00. Jule took Garson by the lapels and wouldn't let him go for 20 minutes, until he agreed to do the show." She again goes to her diary. "Let's see when that was. Hmmm, Stop the World; World Series; met Christopher Plummer; Mr. President, awful. Ah! 'Monday, Sept. 23, 1963: Garson set.' "

Mrs. Styne smiles and shakes her head slowly from side to side. "The first day of rehearsals, after the read-through, Jule says to Barbra, 'I know this isn't ordinarily done, but why don't you stand up and do a few songs for the cast?' She did and wowed them. Yet she never hung out with them, with the exception of Sydney Chaplin -- but that's another story. She actually went to Sydney for direction. You see, Garson wouldn't direct her, because he was so in awe of her. Ruth used to stand on the front of the stage mouthing all the lines; Barbra would do whatever she'd do, and Garson would say, 'That's wonderful, Miss Streisand.' Barbra was so frustrated, because she instinctively knew she could do much better."

Then Mrs. Styne remembers the show's horrific tryouts in Boston and Philadelphia before the show finally opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre on March 26, 1964: "It was hard. There's Fanny Brice's daughter, who doesn't want the truth told that Fanny was already married, she knew Nicky was a crook, and used to shill for him. They're trying to make a show, and Mrs. Stark wants it neat and tidy. Meanwhile, Ray was in a cast the whole time. It came from skiing, I think; certainly not from kicking anyone," she says with a laugh. "Then it became apparent that Garson wouldn't be able to pull the show together. So everyone said, 'Let's try to get Jerry back.' They all gave up some [of their royalties] and persuaded him. Garson was mortified. He wouldn't leave, he skulked around. I did feel sorry for him, because if they hadn't got him [in the first place], the show wouldn't have happened. And the pregnant bride was Garson's idea. Jerry's major contribution [to the show] was telling Bob and Jule to add that counterpoint for Fanny in 'You Are Woman.' "

She shakes her head again, as if to clear it. "And to think a year earlier, Jule, Betty [Comden], and Adolph [Green] got calls from Judy Holliday to save Hot Spot. We all went out of town, where Judy was doing everything -- directing, rewriting, everything. I said, 'Show business is so exciting, isn't it?' The four of them just looked at me. But Jule loved to work, no matter what. Getting that hit with High Button Shoes made him never want to stop."

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