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a fun Funny Girl
Reviews by Rob Lester


(2-CD SET)
Motown/ Real Gone Music

Calling all music mavens with eyes toward history-marking! Candidates for the approaching new year's centennial toasts include: songwriter Bob Merrill, lyricist of Funny Girl; the professional tunesmithing debut of the show's composer partner Jule Styne (then age 16 ); and the debut (in English) of what became the signature song for the biographical subject of 1964's Funny Girl. That entertainer was Fanny Brice, and the number was "My Man," interpolated as the finale of the film adaptation. It's also the final bonus track on the expanded release Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing and Perform "Funny Girl": The Ultimate Edition. An intense, live Ross solo, preceded by patter, it builds with some suitably torchy drama and passion and quiet moments, like other times she's taken on this weeper, but this rendition is previously unreleased. Consider it the cherry on the top of a super-sized delectable sundae.

With three or more audio variations of each selection from the bio-musical, it's like thrice the Brice for the price. Not that the projected persona or inflections try to suggest Fanny or her world. In my view, people who can appreciate both initial (or famously indelible) treatments of songs and some creative reimagining are the luckiest people in the world of music fans. This zingy and entertaining tour through a score is hardly a "loyal" approximation of its ancestor: Don't expect Funny Girl's twin sister, but more of a distant cousin who's so cute and enthused that one don't want to rain on her parade.

Presenting nine numbers from the 1964 Broadway production and the new Styne/Merrill title song for the then-imminent movie incarnation of 1968, the Motown record label's project showcased Diana Ross and the image of a true trio was becoming increasingly perfunctory and a memory. At this point, she had become more front and center than ever as the Supremes' leader and was being groomed for her solo career. The other two members, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (who'd replaced Florence Ballard), were often left with the musical crumbs of singing backup words or sounds, their contributions later depersonalized further when numerous other studio singers were added to the mix (but not billed or acknowledged then). The new package includes not only these concoctions in both stereo (the American record release) and mono (the U.K. edition), but also the rescued original sessions with just Ross/Wilson/Birdsong, plus alternate vocal takes of three items ("Cornet Man," "His Love Makes Me Beautiful," and "Sadie, Sadie"). But wait, there's more: a rendition of "I'm the Greatest Star" intended for a TV special, as well as the aforementioned "My Man."

Students of the school of Compare & Contrast will cheer the chance to weigh differences. But the variations among the options for each piece are hardly as profound or rewarding as one would wish. Diana Ross is dazzling, coquettish and playful at times, showing her sincere side on the serious stuff: "The Music That Makes Me Dance"; "Funny Girl"; and "People" (this one with an insert of a spoken plea for tolerance and kindness). It's also the only piece with a notable difference in playing length/edits. The more audiophile-leaning who look for differences in balance and what sounds dominate may prefer the stereo or mono. The orchestra was recorded ahead, separately, so those three alternate vocals are working within the same architecture and are not startlingly different, with some minor exceptions. Likewise, the non-Supreme singers (The Blackberries and The Andantes) follow in similar prescribed lanes. And, since they didn't have all that much real meaty stuff to do, and are sometimes silent (or almost so) for stretches, there isn't a night-and-day revelation exactly. Those of us who'd listened to and enjoyed other Supremes records for years, but once only knew these tracks as first issued with more voices, were gratified to have a belated chance to hear the "smaller cast" (while this is the first time those 10 are on CD, they were released digitally several years ago).

Some who come across this crossover curiosity might have mixed feelings about the marriage of genres, crying foul, or regretting that Gil Askey's arrangements leave the results as being neither fish nor fowl. The proceedings sometimes go back and forth between wanting to keep some theatrical dynamism and indulging in uses of trademark Motown touches. When sprinkled in just sporadically or suddenly, they can stick out in a smile-inducing but campy way. Things would have felt more authentic if there were even more prominent pop-flavored figures and beats and if the lead vocalist's words were more consistently echoed or embellished in harmonies. Eyebrows raise in response when bits of tweaked/added verbiage in "Don't Rain on My Parade" via the back-up vocals are admonishing the clouds or when the main voice is trumpeting the title line of "I'm the Greatest Star" while, behind her, the others are agreeing dutifully reinforcing and repeating "She is the greatest! The best and the greatest!"

Beyond such little tweaks to suit the Funny Girl girl group fit, those who know the material well from the cast and soundtrack albums, etc., can still be surprised. There was a verse written to set up "Don't Rain on My Parade" which appears on the sheet music, but who includes it instead of launching into this showstopper with the defiant "Don't..." admonishments? Diana Ross does. She also employs the rarely heard set-up naming "fiddle and oboe" as elements of "The Music That Makes Me Dance." When it comes to the celebration of gender differences (or gender stereotypes) pointed out in what was the seduction duet titled "You Are Woman, I Am Man," we get a combination of what the first stage/film star Barbra Streisand sang not just when playing the role, but also the quite different lyrics recorded for a 45 rpm single.

This large-scale personalizing of the material from just one Broadway show or movie musical by vocalists known as pop or jazz artists is a few-and-far-between kind of happening. There are plenty of purely instrumental outings by jazz players and big orchestras, covers of individual songs by different performers (and compilations of such efforts). Porgy and Bess is the exception and the champ—there are several cases of a male and female celebrity sharing the duties in a studio. Beyond that, Dr. Dolittle had a few takers, Nat King Cole devoted a full album to My Fair Lady, siblings The Pastors chose Tenderloin, and The Barry Sisters fiddled with Fiddler on the Roof. (Marilyn Maye's Hello, Dolly! delightful deep dive doesn't count as an outsider's outing since she played the title role.) Diana Ross and The Supremes may seem like unlikely choices, but they'd already dipped their toes in traditional waters, tackling (or perhaps tickling) a full LP of Rodgers & Hart in their own way and incorporating standards in concert and TV appearances.

Some songwriters have been zealously protective of their work, not fond of musical transformations. Lest you think Funny Girl's composer was one of those, Jule Styne was not. Interestingly, he not only gave his OK, but was involved in the plan and execution. This is explained in his liner notes from the original LP, included in a booklet along with an interview with him and well-written background information by the Ultimate Edition's co-producer Joe Marchese. The pages also present some glam photos of The Supremes in their fancy frocks. But it's the Funny Girl material that really gets dressed up and modeled in a real attention-grabbing way.

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