Paving the road for beloved comediennes like Bette Midler, Lucille Ball and Joan Rivers, was a spunky, multitalented Jewish girl named Fanny Brice who could belt out the saddest of torch songs one moment, and have you roaring with laughter the next.
A fictionalized account of her life was captured in the 1968 film, Funny Girl, which earned Barbra Streisand an Academy Award, but for Brice, one of America's pioneering comediennes, there was much more to the story.
Her unconventional yet successful career paired with a dreadful string of marriages is a tale that still resonates today, as audiences will soon discover as Fanny Brice: America's Funny Girl, which opened Wednesday at .
Starring as Brice is singer-actress Marya Grandy, who played the title role in the play's world premiere at Maltz Jupiter Theatre in 2009. She also performed in the 2006 Broadway revival of Les Misérables and has had roles on Law & Order and Rescue Me.
Grandy won the role of Brice when her friend Andrew Kato, Maltz's artistic director, forwarded a YouTube video of Grandy during a concert singing "I'm the Greatest Star" from Funny Girl to writer/director David H. Bell. She was hired without an audition.
"I thought: This is what it must be like for Angelina Jolie ... never having to audition," Grandy told Patch with a laugh. But she seemed taylor-made for the role.
Bell gave Grandy free rein to explore Brice's character on her own, and without Streisand's Funny Girl influence. In fact, Grandy never watched the film. And it's clear that Brice's drive and hutzpah is what inspired Grandy's performance.
Fanny Brice's career soared when she began headlining Ziegfeld Follies in 1910 and recorded "My Man" in 1921. She starred on Broadway and won even more fans throughout the 1930s and '40s playing Snooks, a hilariously bratty toddler on The Baby Snooks Show radio program.
But as successful as her career was, her love life was equally tragic, having failed at three marriages ... to a barber, a crook and a scheming theater man. Bell's Fanny Brice picks up in the middle of Brice's third marriage to Billy Rose, and through a series of flashbacks, touches her earlier life and rise to stardom.
Although she was not a traditional beauty, Brice was successful because she didn't try to mold herself into someone else—and she was smart about the career decisions she made, Grandy said. Grandy, whose own looks are strikingly similar to Brice's, gets right to the heart of the matter.
"Women who aren’t conventionally pretty ... have to make their own destiny," Grandy said. "If she weren’t doing her own thing, she would not work because she was so unconventional and because people didn’t know what to make of her. So she really had to rely on her wits."
But without the trail-blazing Brice, Grandy said, the world may have never come to know brilliant stars like Midler, Streisand, Rosie O'Donnell or Sophie Tucker—all of whom were not considered conventional beauties.
"It’s upsetting at times to feel like there’s still a 'type,'" Grandy said. "But then it forces us gals who don’t look like everyone else to be resourceful. It makes us much more resilient. When it’s all said and done I would much rather be that."
After a two-and-a-half year hiatus, the original cast of Fanny Brice is back together, and Grandy said the time afforded them to become close friends, which has enriched the performance.
"We have this ease with each other on the stage now that we didn’t have before," she said. "They give me a soft place to fall so I can afford to be riskier on stage."
On May 20, the Asolo cast (which includes Lance Baker and Stef Tovar from the Maltz shows as Brice's husbands) performed a preview of the show, and it was then that Grandy knew this revival was something special.
"This particular alchemy that we have with this group of people is something that you cannot manufacture," she said. "It's something that’s borne of having relationships with these people."
The final song in the production is "My Man," which earned Brice a posthumous Grammy Hall of Fame Award. During the preview performance, Grandy said the audience gave her a standing ovation, even before the final scene was played out.
"That’s never happened to me in my entire career...ever. Back stage we all looked at each other and said, 'Is that what happens down here? I’m never leaving!'" Grandy said of the Sarasota audience's reaction to the show.
"It’s so moving for us; I’m so honored," she said. "That’s all you want to do as an actor: All you want to do is connect."
If you go: Fanny Brice: America's Funny Girl runs through June 17. Tickets are $24 to $67. Visit the Asolo Rep box office for ticket information.
This version corrects the ticket prices.