By Matthew Enfinger
Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, directed by Robert Delamere, brilliantly plays Fanny Bryce: an icon in broadway history and a star never afraid to be herself. However, Fanny being the complete opposite of what most would consider “American beauty and desire,” fights for the spotlight, revealing a larger conversation of gender and sexuality in societies larger agenda.
On stage and off, Fanny embodies the notion of being a “funny girl:” a little awkward, quirky, and fun. Using this to fight for her own place on stage, Fanny takes comfort in her talent, her incredible singing and ability to interact with audiences and other stage members in unique ways. Fanny never wavers in this identity, choosing to live it 24/7, bringing an authentic feel to her characters and performances in ways not seen before. It is Smith who takes this performance to another level, delivering and exuding energy in ways that other cast members lack, and it is her performance that truly makes audiences understand and root for Fanny.
Disgustingly, Fanny lives in a man’s world, and it is this world that she fights to find her own place within. Men tell her yes, men tell her no, and men argue with other men on whether she deserves a yes or a no; to the point that Fanny never really controls the trajectory of her career alone. Tom Keeney, director of a small theater house, initially refuses work for Fanny until an applauding audience convinces him otherwise. Even then, Keeney underpays her until another man, Nick Arstien steps in and makes him pay up for the talent he deems “worthy.” Eventually, Fanny reaches the highest and most desirable stages, performing under the direction of Florenz Ziegfeld, the man literally responsible for defining “American beauty” through his reinvisioned show girls that Fanny does not fit represent. Ironic isn’t it? However, Zeigfeld too undervalues Fanny and wants to use her as a comic, someone to be the foil to the show girl. Not someone to laugh with but laugh at. Oh and did I mention Nick Arstien becomes Fanny’s love interest and is a stereotypical man who cannot handle a woman making more money than him and causes a lot of problems for Fanny. There’s that too.
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” perfectly encapsulates the complicated and dense environment that Fanny Bryce lives in, and Sheridan Smith’s performance of it is everything. With every beginning and end of musical phrase, Smith belts out lines that not only put a wall between her and patriarchal authority but also question the very notion of it with lyrics written by, Bob Merrell, such as “Don’t tell me not to fly/ Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?” The contour of her voice and the melodic line she sings brilliantly enhance the lyrics with subtle shifts of note length, tone, and inflection that combine to add an edge, an attitude, and a confidence that highlights Fanny Bryce’s steadfast desire to live life as she chooses: fuller and undeniably herself. It is this desire that also invokes a dream-like feel for what could be and makes this song and this moment in the musical that much more special.
A jazz big band accompanies and mimics the lyrics, playing a simple upbeat swing, show tune and groove written by Jule Styne. Like Smith, the band utilizes changes in inflection, playing heavier and more staccato when questioning patriarchal authority and playing more light and airy when invoking Fanny’s dreams of a world that could be. Orchestration has a big role in pulling this off, whereas most of the time the brass have this bite to their sound, when Fanny begins dreaming, they sing and their melodic lines soar and are legato rather than being short and abrupt.
However, just as Fanny Bryce is living in a patriarchal society, so too is the song and the music. Another interpretation of the short staccato interjections in the big band throughout the song being the fight back to Fanny’s commentary, with only the longer more lyrical moments along with the slower breakdown being truly Fanny’s and Smith’s voice.
Further complicating this idea is that the actual peak, the high point, and climax of the song occurs when Smith sings “Hey Mr. Arnstein here I am.” The high point, the most critical moment of the song, directly talks to a man. In fact, in this moment of the musical Fanny is leaving her job for love, for a man, for the toxic man Arnstein, which only goes to show that despite all of the work Fanny puts in to being herself and fighting for change, ultimately, patriarchal society is still very much overbearing and present. It’s inescapable…. unable to be broken. Interestingly, this is not the only song in the musical that Merrell and Styne write together with the climax being “Mr.” which only solidifies the undertones of this song. It is a clever choice, subtle, to the point, and damning.
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” is a genius representation of gender and sexuality as it reveals and highlights the complicated layers in which Fanny has to fight for her world. From the very notion of not being the typical “showgirl” that broadway demanded of at the time, and for constantly having to fight to remain true to herself and in “control” of her narrative. Yet at the same time, the song displays the true world in which she lives, that no matter what Fanny does, as long as society is a patriarchal society, she will always be a part of this oppressive and binary society; making this musical and this song problematic to me. It is both good and bad, certainly revealing, and leaves you, me, questioning the society and world which we live in today, which I ultimately think is intended and for the better.