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Music: Stop in the name of Styne

Craven Lovelace
NOTES
Free Press Music Columnist

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest musicals of Broadway theatre history — and as a result, Motown fans are getting a gift they had come to think they never would.

It was half a century ago on March 26 that “Funny Girl” opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre. The play had endured a rocky, strife-filled genesis, one which had seen many of Broadway’s greatest names come and go from the project. Originally conceived as a literary biography of “Ziegfeld Follies” star Fanny Brice, “Funny Girl” was the brainchild of producer Ray Stark, who himself was Brice’s son-in-law. Despite its difficult birth, “Funny Girl” proved to be a huge hit on Broadway, running for more than 1,300 performances, and making a superstar of its young female lead, Barbra Streisand, who just two years earlier had appeared for the first time on a Broadway stage at the age of 19 in the Harold Rome musical, “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.” When Streisand started filming the motion picture version of “Funny Girl,” she was only 25 years old; a year later, she was picking up her “Best Actress” Oscar at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the 41st Academy Awards ceremony, and had transitioned from “Barbra who?” to “le Streisand,” a near-mythic figure who would dominate Hollywood cinema and pop music for the next two decades.

Meanwhile, to capitalize on the 1968 release of the motion picture version of “Funny Girl,” Motown impresario Barry Gordy decreed that his famous Detroit label’s most commercially successful act, Diana Ross & the Supremes, would record a cover album of songs from the musical’s score. The group had already recorded versions of “People” and “You Are Woman” three years earlier for their aborted album, “There’s a Place for Us.” But now, assisted by Motown arranger Gil Askey, they were tasked with covering every song from “Funny Girl.”



Most of the music for “Funny Girl” was written by Jule Styne, the much lauded composer who had been crafting songs for hit musicals like “Bells Are Ringing,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Sugar” since 1947. When the Supremes recorded their take on the songs of “Funny Girl,” an enthusiastic Styne donated the album’s liner notes, gushing thusly: “My life is now complete. From Frank Sinatra, to Barbra Streisand, to Diana Ross and the Supremes. What a parlay!”

Nevertheless, “Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform ‘Funny Girl’” proved to be a disappointment for Motown, reaching only #150 on the Billboard 200. (The actual motion picture soundtrack did much better, climbing to #12.) Perhaps because of that lack of market success, the album is one of the very few Supremes releases to never be re-released on compact disc, and has become something of a Holy Grail for Motown enthusiasts.



Now, in honor of the 50th anniversary of “Funny Girl,” the specialty label Hip-o Select re-released the album, generously appended with a lot of bonus tracks, this past Tuesday. Available only as a limited, digital-only release, the album includes both the original mixes of the songs, as well as new versions which have eliminated the syrupy backing chorus Askey used back in 1968. It appears that in 2014, people who love musical theatre and 1960s R&B are the luckiest people in the world.

Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.


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