Peter Bart: Broadway Openings Set Breathless Pace, Testing Frazzled Critics And Taunting Virus

Show business thrives on risk — even existential risk. Take this Broadway moment when new shows are opening at a pace that shocks even grizzled veterans – 15 in April alone. Of course, some will quickly be shuttering due to Broadway’s two dire enemies: critics and Covid. Ticket buyers must navigate a complex landscape.

It seems appropriate that Barbra Streisand may now re-appear as a star of the maelstrom. The revival of Funny Girl on April 24 will help her celebrate her 80th birthday — 60 years since her coronation on the hit show.

Given their layers of narcissistic impenetrability, superstars resist honest analysis, and that applies to the great Streisand as well. She is arguably the most famous, the wealthiest and the most trouble-prone. I’ve been a witness to “Barbra-trouble” over the years, but her high-temper detonations have only added to my admiration for her.

As the Streisand presence still looms large on Broadway, the same applies to Hollywood. Visit the grand new Academy Museum and you’ll walk across the Barbra Streisand Bridge connecting two structures. While the museum was heavily criticized for initially seeming to “cancel” every industry leader who happened to be Jewish – the Louis B. Mayers and Sam Goldwyns — Streisand has survived the purge, flaunting her ethnicity as part of her brand.

In the original Funny Girl, which opened in 1964 after momentous creative battles and delays, her performance as a gutsy comedienne and singer named Fanny Brice triggered years of ticket lines. Fanny Brice’s son in law, Ray Stark, secured the film rights to Funny Girl but his home studio, Columbia, couldn’t afford its budget.

When Stark took it to Paramount, however, he hit a bigger roadblock: its chairman, Charles Bluhdorn, didn’t like the project and decided to shoot it down by systematically asking each of his regional sales managers worldwide to vote on this question: Would ticket buyers support a Barbra Streisand musical? He announced the results in a conference call: “No musical with a Jewish star would ever be accepted by a worldwide audience,” he declared.

Robert Evans and I, both new to Paramount, were outraged both by the verdict and the methodology, but to no avail. Stark raised private funding and took the show back to Columbia where it became a major hit, even winning Streisand an Oscar. Frustrated, Bluhdorn greenlit another musical starring his preferred actress, Julie Andrews. It flopped.

Streisand ultimately responded to Bluhdorn’s veto by setting up Yentl, a period musical drama that was defiantly ahead of its time. Shot in 1983, it focused on a Polish-Jewish girl who aspired to study the Talmud, only to discover that women were not accepted as scholars. Her decision: to become a boy, or at least to dress and act like one.

Streisand, then 44, comfortably and defiantly played a 17-year-old cross-dresser, thus astounding critics and daunting MGM, the studio that owned the rights. Its new studio president, Frank Rothman, summoned Streisand to a marketing meeting, warning, “I like your movie but hate your campaign.”

“On what grounds?” Streisand demanded.

“The campaign is too Jewish,” Rothman responded.

“The movie is about Jews,” Streisand retorted in a voice that could reach the second balcony.

Rothman cringed. The campaign was approved and the film was a modest success.

Having won her battles, Streisand qualifies to play “elder statesman” as she views Broadway’s second coming of Funny Girl. Fanny Brice is now played by Beanie Feldstein, whose past credits seem stronger in comedy than in song (she co-starred with Seth Rogen in a sorority comedy titled Neighbors 2).

Her fate will be in the hands of frazzled critics who have been reviewing one play a night for the past several weeks. “We are bouncing around from show to show in our critical cocoon,” observes Greg Evans of Deadline, who, in his 30 years on the scene, has never experienced as frantic a time.

With some 255,000 people passing through the theater district on an average day, the Times Square Alliance has erected 10-foot-tall Playbill monoliths to welcome them. Even the new Mayor, Eric Adams, showed up at the gala opening of Paradise Square, to salute the extravaganza produced by Garth Drabinsky (the Broadway gurus are dubious about its survival).

Broadway is accustomed to critical diatribes but is adjusting haltingly to its pandemic issues. Vaccinations will be mandated at all theaters through April, with most Broadway venues expected to end the requirement thereafter. Masks will be required for Broadway at least through May, even for big shows like Wicked (the Gershwin Theater has 1,926 seats), but many Off Broadway patrons will sip their drinks in smaller venues and avoid masking.

Some shows, like Plaza Suite, have endured periodic Covid shutdowns – the Neil Simon revival stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick both had bouts with the virus. Four of the seven actresses in POTUS, a new farce, tested positive during rehearsals, while another, Julianne Hough, did so during previews. Daniel Craig in Macbeth canceled 10 days of previews.

So will Broadway endure? Streisand’s imposing presence, some feel, could represent a symbol of resilience. And resilience is the quality that is most urgently needed, even more than good reviews.

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