If you’re a mezzo-soprano belter in musical theatre, chances are you’re familiar with the 1964 musical Funny Girl. In fact, it’s likely you have sheet music from the show in your collection — I know I do. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is a song every mezzo should know, even if Barbra Streisand’s iconic show-stopping performance in the 1968 film adaptation has made it off-limits in the audition room. Still, if you can belt, you should know it.
But there’s a song from the film even more taboo than “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The finale: “My Man.” Seriously, sing it at your own risk. The song is synonymous with Streisand’s performance, which clinched her Best Actress win at the 41st Academy Awards. Anyone listening to you sing it will instantly compare you to Streisand, and no one can sing it like Streisand. Trust me and save yourself the trouble. However, if you’re looking for a song to sing on your own time with an octave jump up to a Db5, be my guest. I find it impossible to resist breaking it out in the practice room every once in a while.
However, when singing “My Man,” I never think about the number’s cultural implications. The lyrics compel me to swear as a woman my devotion to my male partner, daring others to challenge me as I follow him to the ends of the earth. I will give up my career, my passion for performing because my love for my husband is stronger. Wait…what? I’m giving up my hard-earned, successful career as Fanny Brice, the headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies, to stay with my insecure husband? You’ve got to be kidding me.
The addition of “My Man” as the finale to the film adaptation, a song not included in the original Broadway production, transforms Funny Girl from a musical about an empowered artistic trailblazer to one about a woman who is ultimately subservient to men — how disappointing. Why would director William Wyler put this song in the defining position to end Brice’s story? To counter Second Wave Feminism? To feature one of Brice’s most famous Ziegfeld numbers? To show everyone Barbra Streisand is one of the best musical theatre performers we’ll ever have? No matter the reasoning, the song, as well as Streisand’s performance, makes Funny Girl’s ultimate message one championing the “devoted wife” above all else: an antiquated and sexist idea.
The lyrics of “My Man,” translated from the work of Albert Willemetz and Jacques Charles, paint a picture of a woman absolutely submissive to her husband. Brice, one of the most successful performers of her time, sings “all my life is just despair/ but I don’t care/ when he takes me in his arms/ the world is bright,” sharing that her success means nothing to her without a man’s love. This sentiment sharply contrasts Brice’s repeated assertion that she wants to be “the greatest star” the world’s ever seen. Additionally, Brice sings “what’s the difference if I say/ I’ll go away/ when I know I’ll come back/ on my knees one day.” These lyrics vividly depict a woman so beholden to a man that she will metaphorically crawl back on her knees to him no matter what. Lyrics like “whatever my man is/ I am his” further emphasize how Brice will stand by her husband even when he treats her poorly. With these words, “My Man” transforms Brice from a strong woman making her own way in the world to one dependent upon the approval of a man — a feminist nightmare.
Composer Maurice Yvain’s score for the piece supports Brice’s transformation. Romantic mezzo-piano violins set the tone at the beginning of the song, encouraging the audience to listen carefully and believe Brice’s words. The score repeatedly fades throughout the song, allowing breathier vocals to dominate, forcing the audience to give their full attention to the lyrics. As the third verse begins, Yvain adds staccato snare drums and horns to the instrumentation, creating a bombastic atmosphere that captivates the audience as the vocalist soars into a forte full-chest belt. A rallentando before the final few lyrics imbues the song with drama and suspense that captures the audience in the performer’s emotional world. Every musical choice furthers the storytelling provided by the song’s lyricism.
Streisand’s “My Man” is one of the most iconic musical theatre performances because her acting and vocals spellbindingly convey Brice’s devotion to her husband. Before she begins singing, Streisand shows us a new side to Fanny — she is hesitant and unwilling to make eye contact with the audience, nervous to shed her theatrical persona to become vulnerable. These acting choices clue in the audience that this is the “real” Fanny singing, and they should heed her words. Throughout the first verse, Streisand blends her speaking and singing voices to add intimacy to the song, specifically speaking the line “I don’t care” as she chokes back tears; it is obvious how much “her man” means to her. Streisand produces actual tears as the song continues, infatuating the audience. As the third verse begins and the instrumentation picks up, Streisand takes more space physically and vocally, challenging the audience to get in the way of her devotion. With an octave jump from Db4 to Db5 on “alright,” it is impossible to focus on anything else. Streisand (and Brice) become completely lost onstage during the final sustained note, singing for themselves rather than for the audience. With this performance, one is unable to deny the conviction behind Brice’s commitment to her husband.
The combination of lyrics, music, and performance creates an unforgettable finale, and the song’s message is difficult to forget. Brice is a woman undeniably loyal to her husband, willing to give up everything she has built to stand by him no matter what he does or how he treats her. She transforms from a confident performer, willing to do whatever it takes to achieve stardom, to a wife focused only on maintaining her marriage and gaining her husband’s approval. This is a wildly disappointing character arc for an icon of the Great White Way. While it’s hard for me to ignore the sexist implications of “My Man,” I must admit — damn, the song’s fun to sing.