Revivals of Funny Girl are few and far between.
Despite boasting one of the best scores—and roles—ever written for the stage, it still has not been seen on Broadway since the show made Barbra Streisand a star in 1964. Any professional production that pops up is, to my mind, a major event.
That Shoshana Bean—who has long been at the top of Funny Girl wish lists—is finally taking a crack at Fanny Brice, her dream role, makes this production at North Shore Music Theatre a remarkable occasion.
Bean made her Broadway debut in the original cast of Hairspray in 2002, and in 2005 she replaced Idina Menzel in Wicked, playing Elphaba for over a year. As a musician, her solo recordings have topped the iTunes R&B charts in both the US and the UK, and she sang backup for Michael Jackson at his 30th anniversary concert. Last summer, Bean starred as CC Bloom (the Bette Midler role) in Beaches at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre.
I spoke to Bean a few days before she began rehearsals about stepping into a Streisand role, finally tackling her dream role, and doing Fanny justice.
I suppose that you’ve probably been rehearsing for Funny Girl since you were a child.
[laughs] Yes, you are correct. I’ve been prepared for years, just waiting in the wings!
Revivals of Funny Girl are so rare. Do you think it’s because of the baggage that comes with the role?
I’m not sure. I think, from rumors that I’ve heard, that they feel like there are problems with the book and that there are problems with stepping into Streisand’s shadow. How are you going to do that without having comparisons? Those are the two main things I’ve heard: who’s going to play it and the book has problems. Which I heard have been rectified with Harvey’s [Fierstein] new re-write over in London. I know plenty of girls who would kill this role, so, I’m not really sure. I find it really interesting, of all the shows, especially with a score as glorious as it has, that it hasn’t really had a proper revival yet, you know?
What are you feeling as you’re about to go into rehearsal?
Oh, man. I guess I’m feeling nervous, actually. I’m really excited because it’s been a life-long dream, but I’m nervous too because it’s been a life-long dream and this is my one shot to do it. I’m nervous and I’m very conscious about wanting to do it justice and to do Fanny justice, you know what I mean? I really want to make sure that my research has been done thoroughly. I’m watching a lot of movies that she’s in, whatever I can get my hands on—there aren’t a lot—to try and accurately depict her, to have some of her characteristics and quirks and those faces that she made. Like, I can do a Jewy accent of an East Coast Jew, that’s my family so that’s not a problem, but the way she spoke was different. Her character filtered in a lot of the Yiddish accent, which is different from just a Brooklyn Jew. I’m trying to be authentic to her, and that’s a little bit of a challenge to me because obviously for the past however many years, the Streisand movie and the Streisand soundtrack and the Streisand, Streisand, Streisand, which isn’t necessarily specific to Fanny Brice. I’m trying to really be conscious about honoring her and to remember to have fun because I really want to do a great job. I don’t want to be too mechanical about muscling my way into a great performance [so] that I forget that this is a dream come true, and that I should have fun and enjoy it too.
What about this production being staged in the round? How do you think that will inform your performance?
I can’t even begin to answer that because I’ve never done anything in the round. I have no idea. I’m curious to see how they imagine it, how they will direct it and stage it. I think it’s interesting because when you are faced with a show that has a stigma like this one does, it’s cool to turn it on its head and be like, “We’re doing it in the round!” I would assume it gives me no boundaries, which is nice because we obviously don’t live in a world where we have a proscenium. I think it’ll feel like I have a lot more freedom.
It’s a much more intimate experience for the audience. It might bring out that more human aspect of the show.
You said during an interview for Beaches that that show was like doing Funny Girl on steroids.
I know! Yes. I really thought CC Bloom would be my only chance to get that close to this type of a role. And I’m grateful that I was wrong.
When you look back on your time with Hairspray, what is the first word or the first feeling that comes to mind?
You literally said that and a smile came across my face. Family would be the first word that comes to mind. The first thing I always say when people bring up Hairspray is that it was the best two years of my life. I was on the phone with Harvey today. These people are my family; they always will be. Three of my very best friends in the world are from Hairspray. I just don’t think an experience like that comes around so often, where from the top down we were blessed with not just the most talented people, but the best human beings, the biggest hearts. I don’t know that any theatrical experience will be able to top that as far as the holistic magic of the experience.
A friend and I cut school my senior year of high school and caught a Wednesday matinee. It was just before the Tony Awards and there was an electricity in that building that year, that very first year that you guys were open, that I will never forget. It was so palpable, even from the very back of standing room that I can only imagine what it was like for you guys.
Yeah, it disillusioned me. I just assumed that that’s how it works, but I very quickly learned that it was an isolated experience. It was magical and special. We were needed at that time. The city needed life and fun and bright and positive. It was right after 9/11, if you recall, so people wanted that, they needed it. We kind of filled that void.
I have to ask you, what was it like singing backup for Michael Jackson?
I’m glad I was young enough to not understand what was happening, in the sense that if I had known we were going to lose him, my head would have exploded. The way I can boil it down to be super succinct is just that it was an education. It was his concert so the majority was his material, but we also sang backup for like 20-30 other artists and groups of the moment, some legends like Ray Charles and Gladys Knight, and then some pop stars like Britney Spears, *NSYNC, and Destiny’s Child. I just remember thinking, “Oh, you can see the difference between what makes a legend and what makes a pop star of the moment.” I remember being really impressed by his knowledge of his own music, of his handle on people, not necessarily socially; he was really great with people he knew for a long time, but new people, he could not interact with. It was fascinating to watch, the work ethic. Literally everything you see in that movie [This Is It] is exactly what we experienced; that’s the person I saw, the person I knew for those two weeks: someone who knew his own shit inside and out, knew his people, knew what he wanted, knew how to communicate it, and would work tirelessly. Tirelessly. Full-out every time. That’s what I remember.
What are you up to after Funny Girl?
I’m currently writing my fourth record. I’m also going to put out another project in between that I haven’t announced yet, but that will be sometime this summer. And then I’m pretty much traveling all over the world doing concerts. I’m going to Australia in July for a couple weeks, and then September and October are mostly Europe: London, Germany, and Spain. A good chunk of the year is spoken for already, which I love. I love being able to travel, I love all the people I get to meet and collaborate with. I’m very excited about that.
You made a conscious decision to take a break from theater and focus on your own music, but are there any roles that got away from you? Something you turned down and regretted or wanted really badly and didn’t get?
I don’t, and I love being able to say that. I think that CC Bloom was the moment that I said, “If you don’t [do] this, you’re going to regret it.” That was the first and only thing that’s come across my table, because even when they [were planning] the Funny Girl revival [on Broadway], it was going to happen, and I got down very close, and I didn’t get it. Then when that didn’t happen, I was like, “I’m glad I didn’t get it, that would have broken my heart to get that close and then it not happen.” So, no, there hasn’t been anything where I’m like, “That should have been me!” I’m so glad I can say that. It’s been a commitment to not do theater and just focus on my own stuff; it’s been a conscious choice, and it’s been a decision I’ve made over and over again as things do come across that table or things do get presented. But I’m very happy to say that there’s not one thing that I wish I would have done. I knew CC might have been that thing, and that’s the reason that I chose to start making decisions based on what would make me happy. I really wanted to be a part of that development.
As you researched Fanny Brice, what did you learn about the woman, not the character, which surprised you?
I think there are a lot of things. Mostly, the thing that surprised me was how many similarities there are between she and I, and I was actually surprised that a lot of the tidbits from the biography are in the musical, little moments that are in the show that I’m like, “Oh, that’s actually real! That’s a real thing!” I’m watching a movie with her called Be Yourself. It’s one of only, like, three that you can even get your hands on because she didn’t have an extensive film career. I expected that if you’re known for being a schticky comedienne that you are rubber faced, and you steal the spotlight, and you are not necessarily aware of the people around you—this is my assumption. But I’m watching her in this movie and she’s so invested and interested as a listening participant in the scene. Watching her act opposite this guy was a revelation to me because, while she’s known for being a comedienne, she was a beautiful listener, which is the hardest part of acting. It’s not thinking about what you’re doing and being concerned with how you’re being perceived, but being in the other person’s experience. That was what blew my mind: what a beautiful listener she was, what a beautiful, calm, centered spirit seemed to emanate from that performance, which is not what I would have anticipated based on the fact that she was famous for being a schticky comedienne. That’s my own assumption; that has nothing to do with anything that I’ve been told or any other interpretation of her, but that just shocked me.
FUNNY GIRL. 6.7-6.19 AT NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE, 62 DUNHAM RD., BEVERLY. NSMT.ORG