by BARRIE GELLES
My heart was racing because I had just bolted through the New York City theatre district. As far as I was concerned, there was an archival emergency. I recognize the absurdity and humor in claiming that I was having a musical theatre crisis, but the urgency felt real. Having a desperate need to discover the answer to my question felt simultaneously stressful and exciting. Sometimes, archival research is subdued and slow paced while you sit in a quiet room, carefully taking notes and collecting sources. But, some days, you find yourself frantically checking your research notes in the middle of Times Square, looking through two separate archives, and trying to find answers in between meetings with producers at a Broadway theatre. Some days, the connection between the “then” of an archive and the “now” of a theatre production is immediate. Some days, archival research is really quite thrilling.
I have been researching Funny Girl for years as part of my dissertation, “’Here in America’: Broadway Musicals and the Making of Jewish Americans.” In March 2022, I was put in contact with one of the producers of the Broadway revival of Funny Girl and, in our first meeting, I explained that I was eager to use my skills and knowledge to create a public facing dramaturgy project for them—whatever they thought would suit the production best. The producers told me that they wanted to create a lobby display to highlight some of the history of Fanny Brice and the Ziegfeld Follies. They asked me to help compile and curate the archival materials and I happily joined the project.
The Funny Girl producers had already been in contact with Doug Reside at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in the hopes of gathering archival images. Because I had done a large part of my dissertation research at the Billy Rose Theatre Division and Doug and I have been colleagues for years, it was a welcome opportunity for us to work together again to bridge academic research and musical theatre production. While Doug focused on accessing the materials that were housed in the NYPL archive, one of my tasks was to contact other archives, organizations, and resources that might be able to collaborate on this project.
My first email was to Eric Colleary at the Ransom Center to look through the Jule Styne papers to see if there was anything that would be well suited to a lobby display. Eric was extraordinarily helpful and he offered to set up a digital archival exploration that would allow us to look through the relevant portions of the Jule Styne papers together thanks to the dual technologies of a document camera and Zoom. Time was of the essence, so I set up the digital research session with Eric at the Ransom Center on the same day that I would be visiting the archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, right before my meeting with the producers of Funny Girl at the August Wilson theatre. I didn’t know it yet, but this hectic schedule was a fortuitous decision because it was going to be the solution to my archival emergency.
The day of back-to-back Funny Girl meetings had arrived. I began the day reviewing my personal files of research collected over the years of writing my dissertation. The first meeting of the day was with Doug in his offices at the New York Public Library where we would pour over images of Fanny Brice and the Ziegfeld Follies so that I could take notes and reference photos for the eventual meeting with the Funny Girl producers. Before looking at image options for the lobby display, I wanted a better idea of the space where this mini exhibit would be showcased. It was only a twelve-block walk between Lincoln Center (home of the Performing Arts library) and the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street; if I planned my day correctly, I could take a quick peek at the space at the theatre and just walk quickly up 9th Avenue to get to Lincoln Center. I thought that if I went to the theatre first, I would have more insight into the display space and it would help focus the search of the archival material. I did not expect my visit to the theatre to open up an entirely different research goal that would have me frantic because of the addition of one little word.
At the August Wilson Theatre, the lobby display was going to be exhibited in the walkway that would lead audience members to their seats. As I stood in the space, trying to imagine how to best capture the spectators’ attention with archival images, I could hear the Funny Girl rehearsal happening on the stage. As the actors rehearsed the song “I Want to Be Seen With You,” I noticed a few subtle differences between this production’s revised dialogue and the original Broadway libretto that had been the primary source of in my research. In the story Fanny Brice has just completed her scene-stealing first performance at the Ziegfeld Follies and Nick Arnstein is backstage congratulating her and proposing a night on the town. Fanny declines his offer, explaining that her mother is throwing her a party in her neighborhood, the scene of “Henry Street,” the next musical number. Fanny asks Nick, “you wanna come?” Nick’s reply included a line of revised dialogue: “I’d love to…it’s not every day that a bona fide, glorified, Ziegfeld girl invites me to Brooklyn.” Onstage, Fanny is shocked at Nick’s response because she cannot believe that he would escort her to a humble neighborhood celebration. In the lobby, I was shocked because I could not believe that Henry Street was in Brooklyn.
There are two Henry Streets in New York City, in two different boroughs. One of the Henry Streets is on the Lower East Side in Manhattan and the other runs from Brooklyn Heights down through Red Hook in Brooklyn. The real-life Fanny Brice had lived in Brooklyn (though not on Henry Street) during the time of her life when she started performing and, ostensibly, that is why the geographical detail had been added to the line in the revised script, to give an air of authenticity. Funny Girl plays fast and loose with the historical facts of Fanny Brice’s life and changes small details and monumental life events in equal measure.
For most people, it wouldn’t matter whether Funny Girl’s Henry Street (and its upbeat musical number) was on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn. But it mattered to me because I had already written an entire chapter of my dissertation in which this neighborhood party was a prominent case study. The chapter is titled “The Haunted Jewish City: Ellis Island and the Lower East Side as Signified Jewish Space.” When I initially planned the dissertation chapter, it was based on my assumption that Fanny Brice’s neighborhood in Funny Girl was on the Lower East Side in order to foreground her Jewishness and, as I began writing the chapter, I had done some research to prove that bit of dramaturgy.
In the opening of the “Henry Street” number, the stage is filled with ensemble members playing neighbors and banners celebrating Fanny’s success. In the stage directions of the published script, it specifies that one of the banners says, “Love from P.S. 64” and, based on my research, the public school “64” in Manhattan was just north of the Lower East Side whereas the Brooklyn-based P.S. 64 was all the way on the opposite end of Brooklyn, far from the borough’s Henry Street. But, after hearing the revised line at the theatre, I pulled up my digital file of production photos that had been collected from various archives and, to my dismay, one of the photographs of the “Henry Street” number captured a banner that clearly stated, “P.S. 65 SENDS REGARDS FANNY.” In the middle of the theatre district, I was attempting to figure out if Public School 65 was located near either of the two Henry Streets (it didn’t seem to be) and I was wondering whether the script or the photo was a more accurate piece of dramaturgy. As I considered the revised line of dialogue, I was gripped with the sinking feeling that I needed another source to prove my assertion that “Henry Street” was a Lower East Side story. Luckily, I had an appointment to see the documents from the original production of Funny Girl that very same day.
When I signed on to the Zoom meeting with Eric, I explained that we now had two goals for our archival treasure hunt: first, we were looking for archival items that would be visually appealing in a mini exhibit and second, we were trying to find a crucial piece of evidence to keep me from having to tear apart a dissertation chapter because I was unable to prove my claim. Eric was supportive of this additional goal and was excited by the high stakes of the search (even if I was the only person who was desperate for the geographical clarity). The Jule Styne papers had quite a few versions of the score and script, evidence the on-going revisions to the musical during the rehearsal process. Eric diligently flipped through each version as he gracefully and carefully maneuvered the pages under document camera. Happily, I was so familiar with the script at this point that we were able to use bits of dialogue to quickly find the section we were looking for when we couldn’t rely on page numbers. What did we find? We found Henry Street – on the Lower East Side.
The first exciting bit of archival evidence that we found was a handwritten note on a piece of steno pad paper, with the detail “revised 3-10-64,” that detailed some notes about “Scene Eleven” including the description of the scene as an “East Side Street” leading into the “Henry Street” number. This seemed reassuring as New Yorkers typically use terms like “east side” to refer to locations in Manhattan and the Henry Street in Brooklyn is only a few blocks from its west coast, thereby making it as far from an “east side street” as you can get. As we continued to comb through the files (stopping at various points for me to grab screen shots of other lyric and libretto changes), we found a printed version of the script dated “3-18-64” and in “Scene 11,” sure enough, the “Henry Street” scene was described as “East Side Street.” This was enough concrete evidence to support my assertion that the Fanny’s neighborhood was on the Lower East Side (at least in the 1964 production of Funny Girl).
Eric and I went through more of the files and agreed that some handwritten song sheets would look very elegant as part of the lobby display for the revival production. I returned to the August Wilson Theatre that evening with many images to show the producers, feeling buoyant from the rush of academic adrenaline and satisfied by an archival affirmation. On that day (and during the following weeks) I worked with the producers and archivists to put together the lobby display that showcases bits of history related to Fanny Brice and the Ziegfeld Follies. I never mentioned my findings about Henry Street and, in the Broadway revival version of Funny Girl, Henry Street is located in Brooklyn. It doesn’t mean that the revival’s dramaturgy is incorrect – a revival reserves the right to make changes and adjustments to the story and even change lines of dialogue, provided they have permission. It is interesting to consider that, in 1964, having Funny Girl’s fictional version of Fanny grow up on the Lower East Side was a particular cultural signifier of Jewishness whereas, in 2022, the choice to mention Brooklyn seems to be an attempt to be more authentic to the history of real-life Fanny Brice’s upbringing. This is what makes dramaturgy so interesting and why archives are so important in the act of storytelling, whether it be a production or a piece of academic writing.
You might be wondering what part of the Ransom Center’s Jule Styne papers ended up in the lobby display. We included two pieces of handwritten sheet music, “Don’t Rain on my Parade” and “People.” It delights me to think about how the archival artifact of “People,” arguably the musical’s most famous song, is displayed in the lobby of the revival production, simultaneously serving as a connection between the productions of Funny Girl and, if you know this story, subtly referencing how they differ. For me, it’s a reminder that people who know archivists are the luckiest people in the world.
TOP IMAGE: Frames filled with archival images and descriptions sit on the floor of the August Wilson Theatre lobby, ready to be displayed before the opening night of the Funny Girl revival. This mini exhibit shares some of the history of Fanny Brice and The Ziegfeld Follies. The framing was provided by Julie Boardman and Diane Nicoletti of The Broadway Museum.