FUNNY GIRL: Bean on the Beam

“Stiff upper nose, kid.”

Those who’ve long paid attention to Broadway musicals can immediately identify that lyric.

They’ll tell you that it comes during the last moments of FUNNY GIRL, after Nick Arnstein has been released from prison — and after he releases Fanny Brice from her marriage vows.

Fanny anticipates that rejection and is devastated. But she’ll be brave in front of him – and us, for that matter, after he leaves. As her reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” dramatically shows, she’ll maintain a “stiff upper nose.”

Here’s betting that Bob Merrill had not yet written that lyric when Anne Bancroft, Mary Martin, Carol Burnett and Eydie Gorme were all being considered for Fanny Brice. He undoubtedly only inserted it after the role had been given to Barbra Streisand, whose nose was indeed more pronounced than the ones those other stars sported.

What’s my point? Hearing Shoshana Bean sing the lyric last week at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts took me by surprise – for only then I was reminded that Barbra Streisand created this role and inspired this lyric lo those 50-plus years ago.

Yes: Shoshana Bean actually made me forget that.

Virtually every time a performer takes on an iconic role one of two experiences happens 1) He or she exactly replicate that famous performance or 2) He or she does every little line, phrase and note in a completely different fashion. When the choice is the latter, I’ve found that almost every decision that’s made is, sad to say, markedly and woefully inferior to the original.

Bean – happily and amazingly enough – made choices completely different from Streisand’s, yes, but didn’t make any that were inferior. She gave us a chance to hear the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill songs done in a third but equally thrilling way that bore no resemblance to the original cast album or the later soundtrack (on which Streisand overstylized the songs). Once again we were reminded that Best Score Tony in 1964 — sorry, DOLLY fans – should have gone to FUNNY GIRL.

Oh, I’ll admit that in Bean’s first number – “I’m the Greatest Star” – the lyric about “an American beauty nose” made me think of Streisand. But two and a half hours later when Bean got to “Stiff upper nose,” I had forgotten that Streisand had even done the show.

THAT’s how powerful Shoshana Bean was. Do you recall Shakespeare’s having Cassius tell Brutus that Caesar did “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus”? Well, Bean authoritatively strutted around the circular North Shore stage like a Colossa.

In spite of her achievement, however, Bean was technically miscast, for she doesn’t have the homely looks that were the trademark of Brice and Streisand. The worst you can say about Bean is that she’s strong-faced, but on balance, she’s rather attractive. So Bean had to make us believe that she was less than alluring, and did just that.

There was another wondrous aspect to James Brennan’s taut production. Early in the overture – the best one ever (now it’s time to say “Sorry, GYPSY fans”) — “The Music That Makes Me Dance” was heard. Hurrah! In the film version, this dynamic eleven o’clock number was replaced with Brice’s signature song “My Man.”

Leave it to the movies to make that move. Broadway musicals, at least in 1964 when FUNNY GIRL debuted, seldom-if- ever interpolated songs from other eras and properties. Composers tackling an earlier time — such as Styne here — were required to write songs in the style of the day and not just borrow someone else’s. So Styne and Merrill wrote THEIR “My Man” as “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and did a bang-up job of it.

Conventional wisdom has always insisted that musicals not offer two ballads in a row. FUNNY GIRL dared to defy that; Fanny preceded “The Music That Makes Me Dance” with the soulful question to Nick “Who Are You Now?” Bean showed vulnerability mixed with concern in the earlier of the two, and then defined what a torch song is in the second. What the Statue of Liberty holds in her right hand seemed to be a matchstick in comparison.

Although this script was cobbled from Isobel Lennart’s stage libretto and subsequent screenplay (with a few nips and tucks here and there), the score was almost intact; only the verse of “Cornet Man” was dropped.

Those who have only seen the film may not know this song, for it was replaced by “Roller Skate Rag.” (Watching Fanny fall on her tuchus was more cinematic.) But “Cornet Man” is the superior number, a barnburner that Bean did in splendid razz- ma-tazz fashion.

This stage version allowed film fans to become acquainted with two waltzes with a Lower East Side sensibility: “Henry Street,” heard only instrumentally in the movie, celebrates Fanny’s first success in THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. “Find Yourself a Man” is advice given to Mrs. Brice (the amusing Susan Cella) by Fanny’s first fan Eddie Ryan (the extraordinary Rick Faugno) and neighbor Mrs. Strakosh (the hilarious Sandy Rosenberg).

Written in a hurry when the show was trying out in Philadelphia was “I Want to Be Seen with You,” in which we see Nick and Fanny begin to bond. This was yet another song that the film dropped, but in a way, the decision was understandable; at fewer than two minutes long, it’s what musical theater refers to as “a throwaway.” Still, it does swing, and Ralph Burns’ orchestration and ride-out make it irresistible – if you have the right people doing it.

And that brings up to Bradley Dean, who played Nick Arnstein. Take it from someone who saw both Sydney Chaplin and Johnny Desmond in the original production and have since seen two other actors try it: Dean did the seemingly impossible by putting aside the party line that this is a thankless role. Instead, he grabbed it and played it not just for all it’s worth, but for MORE than it’s worth. He met Bean head on and gave every one of their conflicts life-and- death importance. To borrow a slogan that a nearby state uses to promote itself, “Bean and Dean: Perfect together.”

In the last half-century, Lennart’s book has taken more heat than one can find in hell. Frankly, she did a better job than oother writers have done with backstage stories. The show starts with Fanny’s apprehension of seeing her husband after he’s spent 18 months in jail for a crime he did indeed commit. If that’s not dramatic, what is?

Lennart also showed that ugly duckling Fanny made a profound mistake by being blinded by Arnstein’s good looks and ignoring his “occupation” as a mere gambler. Meanwhile, the diminutive Eddie Ryan who loved her just as much if not more than Nick was right there, but because he wasn’t handsome in a ruggedly masculine way, Fanny never regarded him as a contender. Once she saw this dazzler in a tuxedo, she thought she could be beautiful by riding on his coattails. That tragedy makes for a good plot and fine theme, and the entire North Shore cast treated both with respect and conviction.

On the other hand, Lennart, Styne and Merrill have long gotten away with a scene and song that makes no sense whatsoever. If Fanny is so unattractive, why would Florenz Ziegfeld make her the centerpiece of a big bridal production number called “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”? This impresario who was intent on “Glorifying the American Girl” would have never picked someone un-glorious to star in the song. He’d choose a genuinely beautiful showgirl and no one else would do.

True, Ziegfeld does say that he needs a fine voice for the number, but let’s face it: Brice’s face would not please an audience, who’d be mystified by the lyrics stressing facial splendor.

However, “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” did give Streisand one more chance to shine – not that she and all actresses who have followed haven’t had enough to do. Fanny has no fewer than six solos, one reprise, and is featured in five other numbers. Since James Brown’s death, I don’t know who’s assumed the mantle of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” But no question that for the last couple of weeks, “The Hardest Working Woman in Show Business” was Shoshana Bean.