SURPRISE!

Jack in the Box

There are so few surprises left in the entertainment world that it puts a great big smile on my face when I find one.  So it was not unsurprising that I was grinning ear to ear last night when I found out that Lauren Ambrose, the flame-haired Emmy-nominated actress who played the slightly screwed up, aspiring young artist Claire on HBO’s brilliant “Six Feet Under” TV series, was cast as Fanny Brice in the upcoming Broadway musical revival (the first in 45 years) of “Funny Girl.”

Now, for those of you who aren’t musical theatre freaks or gay, don’t stop reading.  Because there will be a larger point made.  Fanny Brice is the part that made Barbra Streisand a Broadway and movie megastar and defined her as a performer for decades.  Industry wisdom was that NO ONE could ever do it, be as good or believable, and that it was pretty much a waste to spend millions of dollars in musical theatre (or other) money in order to try and convince anyone (much less an audience) to the contrary.  Still don’t care?  Okay —

How can I explain this to readers under 40?  Particularly those who are heterosexual —

Jaden Smith

Jaden as Harry? I don't think so.

Having someone step into Barbra Streisand’s shoes as Fanny Brice would be akin to remaking the first  “Harry Potter” movie and casting – uh – say – Jaden Smith as Harry?  It just won’t feel right to most people on the first blush.  Or the second.  Or even the twenty-third.

I’m a huge “Six Feet Under” fan and a Lauren Ambrose fan in particular.  Her current turn as a bizarre pharmaceutical rep on the Starz series “Torchwood” is a gem and I’ve seen her be good in lots of stuff over the years.  But playing the quintessential Jewish American musical comedy heroine, the same part played by THE real-life quintessential Jewish American musical performer/heroine of the last century?  Are they kidding?

Then I thought about it and realized.  Well, she can act.  But can anyone act that well in a part that’s been done so perfectly that they’re not right for? (at least according to conventional wisdom).  Hmmm.  Maybe.  But even accepting that, how could she sing it?  I mean, I’ve actually heard her sing.  A former writing partner of mine directed the film version of “Psycho Beach Party,” one of her first roles, and she was quite good.  But – “Funny Girl?”  Are you kidding?

Then I listened to this –

And this

It’s oddly infectious.  And off.  And funny.  And she can really sing.  But I mean – really sing.  Not necessarily like Barbra Streisand.  But the funny, quirky, infectious thing she does could possibly remind me of some performer.  Maybe one from the past.  Let me think.  Hmmm.  Still thinking.  Maybe – Fanny Brice?

The point here is not whether Lauren Ambrose will be a great Fanny Brice or perhaps the disappointment a small handful of nasty and bitter Lea Michele fans were hoping for.  (No, she didn’t get the role – get over it!).  It’s that it took a performer with the drive and talent of Ms. Ambrose to not let the industry define her – but define herself and forge her own path despite what any of us naysayers think.

Can you imagine if after “Six Feet Under” she’d said to her agents – you know what I’d like – to do a big Broadway revival of – “Funny Girl.”  HUH????  Answer:  What about the star of your own TV series on NBC, honey?  There are potentially millions of dollars in that.  What about movies?  They want you as Katherine Heigl’s sister in “29 Dresses” and it’s lots of exposure to a new audience.  What about, uh…wait, even if you can sing, no one can compare to Streisand.  Why set yourself up for failure?  As your agents we’re here to tell you….

Oh, go jump in the lake, CAA.

Now I’m not entirely sure that’s how the conversation went but I can guess.  That’s the advantage of being the chair of this blog.  And I don’t know that I’m so far off.   Except that I hear that Ms. Ambrose is quite a lovely person and would probably not treat the people that represent her so shabbily.  So I’m quite happy to do that for her.

The reason I’m willing to mouth off is that someone needs to occasionally speak for creative risk-taking and artistic independence.  Or at least shine a small (albeit very small) light on artists who  “walk the walk” and follow their muse — Creative people who take chances when they don’t have to, probably passing up many more seemingly sure things in order to do this.  This goes not only for someone in Ms. Ambrose’s position as a working actress, but also for any person in the creative arts who is not working.  We all make choices every day on which projects we’ll work on, what we will devote our time to.  Are we choosing the “sure thing” (as if there were such a thing) or deciding to do what is “calling” to us?  In Ms. Ambrose’s case I can only guess that when some years ago when she decided to play in small clubs as a singer with a retro jazz band called The Leisure Class that she was answering “the call.”  Because it wasn’t for the money or attention.  This isn’t the 1950s. Or even the l920’s.  This isn’t the age of girl singers.  Or turn of the roaring twenties singers.  That really went with, well, was  pretty much last popular in — the age of Fanny Brice.  Oops.

I might have told this story before but it bears repeating.  Many years ago I worked as a publicist on the set of the sequel to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”  It was admittedly not the high point in my career although for some weird reason it is now met with some odd kitschy respectability.  But what I particularly recall from that time is the look of surprise and disbelief on the face of some of the (above-the-line) crew when they found out I was a writer.  (“Yeah, sure, who isn’t”).  This was nothing compared to the absolute shock on some of their faces when by the end of filming I had sold a screenplay I wrote that was packaged with several big stars and given a green light to be filmed less than six months later.  “Did you hear the PUBLICIST sold a movie?”  “How can that BE?”

The entertainment industry (actually the world at large) pretty much wants to define everybody.  It’s easier that way.  Even as I’m writing this I have to cop to the fact that I am probably guilty of it too.   But we all make a big mistake when we set the limits for someone else.  And – for what it’s worth – an even bigger mistake when we set limits for ourselves and what we can do.   If you’re in the creative arts, the very nature of it, the very fun of it, is that there ARE no limits.  It’s a playground.  And aside from a few basic parameters when you’re in the playground there are no rules.  You get to make up the game as you go along.  It’s better that way, certainly a lot more fun.  Because every once in a while the odds are that if you play the game you make up right, you get to be the BIG, BIG winner.  The verdict is out but I suspect that is what’s in Ms. Ambrose’s future.  And perhaps one of ours if we’re willing to follow her path.

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17 thoughts on “SURPRISE!

  1. Enjoyed this very much, Steve! We all need to be greater risk-takers in this overly compartmentalized, categorized, hashtagged world.

  2. I’m just disappointed you never told me you were a publicist on “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” Surprise!

    “Excellent” article, by the way.

  3. I’m not sure it was one of my finest hours 🙂
    But do give yourself a pat on the back because you were one of the ones who urged me to take advantage of “new” media and now — I am on twitter!

  4. Nick Meyer started as a publicist too (on Love Story). From the evidence, it seems that publicists make great screenwriters! Great article and very inspirational.

  5. You are absolutely correct. I wish her and the project success. They have a golden opportunity to take a 45 year old property, which at the time was considered average at best, but elevated to smash hit status by the red hot newcomer, Barbra Streisand. With an improved book – one that is perhaps truer to Fanny Brice, another look at including some Fanny Brice classic material, and reorchestrating those solid 1960’s big brass Jule Styne songs into something that embraces the actual period a little more closely. All this might take a lot of the pressure off the new star, and let her shine in a different way. For those who just can’t get over Barbara Streisand’s brilliant interpretation, there is always that pretty good movie, forever at the ready for them to enjoy.

  6. Yes what we all need to remember is Lauren Ambrose is playing Fanny not Babs. Just as Kate Winslet was playing Mildred and not Joan.

  7. Hey Darling, Cuz….
    I adore her and had the pleasure of doing a few episode of Six Feet Under with her (ironically she sang her heart out in one of them. A very “Glee” moment). She was lovely to work with, talented, kind, professional, and had a confidence rarely seen in someone her age. She is now kicking some ass with Bill Pullman on the 9 episode Torchwood series as a publicist from hell.
    It is my wish that she kicks some serious ass on Broadway. As a singer, I’m here to say, she can sing! No, not in a conventional “broadway” way perhaps, but I too love the quirk in her strong voice. I am far more interested in watching someone who has great presence and is a strong, good singer then someone who has no presence and sings “perfectly”.
    Well done, Steve.
    Big Love,
    Cousin Christine

    • I forgot you worked with her! So happy you’re confirming the cool stuff I heard about her — yes, she seems absolutely fearless — I keep wondering, “who were her parents????” We’re two episodes behind on Torchwood so far but I totally agree. She is gonna wow ’em in NYC – wish she and her group The Leisure Class had a cd cause I’m hooked.
      ST gets back tomorrow – we’ll figure out something and make a plan! xoS

  8. great news! i’m not sure if the reason i don’t mind seeing lea lose this one is just the usual schaudenfraud or weariness with her “they wanted me to get a nose job but i wouldn’t!” protestations and her promise (threat?) to play “every role on Broadway”…maybe it’s one and the same but in any case, go Lauren!

    • Just cause you didn’t get a nose job and can sing really well doesn’t mean you’re the best gal for the part. If that were the case, my Aunt Sadie could have played Fanny Brice.

  9. Wonderfully said. I must admit when I heard Ambrose was cast I was skeptical – but why? Stranger things have happened (like Marky Mark of the Funky Bunch becoming Mark effing Wahlberg, but I digress). Now onto casting Mr. Arnstein!!

  10. I’ve found the most common thing I run into in the “industry” is the unwillingness of people to believe that you can do more than one thing well. “You’re working as an editor, great, but you say you can write music, too? Pshh! Stop pulling our legs.”

  11. One of my favorite cd’s is Robert Downey, Jr.’s “The Futurist.” Your point proven.

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