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BWW Interview: FUNNY GIRL Gabi Epstein

Toronto, you are in for a treat. And you have the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company to thank for it. Featuring the standards "Don't Rain on my Parade" and "People", the iconic musical FUNNY GIRL will be brought to life in all its original glory, this coming Monday night September 30th in what will be its first ever professional production in this city.

25 of this country's top Musical Theatre actor-singers will grace the stage of the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts - unquestionably one of the city's finest concert halls - backed by a full 24-piece Orchestra featuring this city's finest musicians. And Toronto's own Gabi Epstein stars as Fanny Brice in the role that catapulted a young actress and singer named Barbara Streisand to super-stardom nearly a half-century ago.

If you think this amount of talent sounds too good to be true, you'd be almost right. Unfortunately, this luxury of riches can only be savoured for 'One Night Only'. HGJTC Artistic Director Avery Saltzman is directing FUNNY GIRL in a one-off Concert Production as a fundraiser to kick off its new season. To buy tickets, call Ticketmaster at 1-855-985-2787 or visit today.

I spoke with Saltzman and Epstein by email recently to find out more about this exciting event, and why Torontonians shouldn't miss it.

BWW - Avery and Gabi - thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedules to join me today! For those readers who are still in the dark, tell us what FUNNY GIRL is all about.

GE - It is a wonderful show-business story about a girl trying to find her place in a community that resists her, and uses her own gumption to make herself known -- and finds love in the process. As in many stories, nothing is as shiny and perfect as it seems, and the "tragic clown" element shows its ugly face. I think the most beautiful part of this show is that (pun aside) it is about "People"-- plain and simple. Of course there is Jewish content, but it's more cultural as opposed to religious. Good stories always use something specific to be able to reveal their most truthful tellings and in this case it happens to be the Jewish element. I think it makes people relate to the story even more because of how specific it is. It was like when I saw "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". It was so specific you could have inserted any ethnicity into the title and it would be just as funny and just as true.

BWW - But why can we only see FUNNY GIRL for one night only, next Monday night?

AS - The HGJTC wanted to find a way to have this show as part of our season but it proved impossible because of the size. Attempting to scale it down and truncating the lush orchestrations just wouldn't do the show justice. In this day and age, it's very difficult for a Not-For-Profit theatre company to do a large show like FUNNY GIRL, but producing it 'In Concert' with a full orchestra has proved doable. I hope it will be a successful fundraiser for us!

GE - But because it is 'one night only', you get to see some of Canada's top talent all in one cast. So many brilliant people have committed their time to this one brilliant night, and I am floored at the amount of talent and experience in the room. Come for the full 24-piece orchestra (most musicals in the city do not have an orchestra of this size) and come to witness a truly unique experience -- to see a show that hardly ever gets done in a very classy way. It will be in "concert style" so there will only be music stands and microphones set up for us downstage. But this script/score is good enough that it doesn't need anything else. It's going to be a pretty special night.

AS - We have such an amazing cast who are making this show soar!

BWW - When I think of FUNNY GIRL, I think of Barbara Streisand. This show demands that its leading lady be a stunning comedienne, a fabulous singer, and a skilled dramatic actor. Back in 1964, this difficult role to cast was offered to Mary Martin, Anne Bancroft, Eydie Gormé, and even Carol Burnett before given to the then-unknown Barbara Streisand. Avery, you've had a 30+ year career in show business, talk to me about why Streisand's FUNNY GIRL performance was so revered.

AS - Streisand is an icon and a great performer. 'Fanny Brice' really is a difficult role. When you get right down to it, it basically is a one woman show -- it's so hard to find the right person to fulfill that qualification. I think Streisand was revered at the time because she was a 24-year-old performer who was discovered by the directors, writers and songwriters all at the same time that the public was discovering her. It was also a big deal because she had a great success in the role on Broadway and I think it was just the natural progression to let her make the movie. Her legend grew and the performance was revered because the legend was perpetuated as years passed. But as great as Streisand was, people forget that the show ran for over three years without her, which is a true testament to the creators of this iconic musical.

BWW - Now, I've personally worked with Miss Gabi Epstein in Angelwalk Theatre's I LOVE YOU BECAUSE, so I know first-hand that she's a fabulous performer. She's going to knock this out of the park. But tell everyone else why Gabi is the right actress to fill these shoes.

AS - She's quirky, funny, brave, an amazing singer, Jewish, and she has all the qualities of a STAR!

GE - Oh, and I don't think I'm half-bad, either....

BWW - Haha, amazing... So, what about you, Gabi? In your opinion, how did Streisand's performance become so iconic?

GE - I've been doing a lot of research about Streisand's process and it turns out that she didn't refer to a lot of the original Fanny Brice material while preparing for the role. In her interviews, she says that she was playing Brice like a character in a play and not like a real person in history, and for that reason she was able to put so much of herself into that role without worrying about doing an "impression" of Brice. For this reason, when people think of FUNNY GIRL they seldom think of the actual Fanny Brice because of all of the authentic 'Streisand' that went into the role. She certainly had a lot of "chutzpah" to put as much of herself into the role as she did without being worried about paying tribute to the original. And in the process, the show ended up being 'The Barbra Streisand Story' even more so than 'The Fanny Brice Story'. Unbelievable.

BWW - Like in the 1960's, Movie Musicals are back in fashion again. Recently, the JERSEY BOYS movie decided to cast many of the Original Broadway company in the film, and it actually created quite a stir simply because casting theatre actors in films is almost never done anymore. In your opinion, was casting Streisand in the FUNNY GIRL film similarly a big deal?

GE - She made that show what it was. Now, I must give credit to the score and the show itself, which ran for almost three years after Streisand left with many different actresses (a real testament to the quality of the show) but the role had 'Streisand' written all over it. Streisand did it for a full two years on Broadway. And so her performance in the film became the best bits of all of her two years playing the role. Also, it gave rise to a new star. In my opinion, this show should create a star. I don't think it really works if you have a bonafide star doing it. Everybody was rooting for Streisand. And she ended up succeeding. The film brought Streisand out of obscurity and into the mainstream... and made her a star in the process. The role had so much to do with the woman herself that the film would have suffered without her.

BWW - Alright Gabi, all that said, were you nervous stepping into this role?

GE - Of course! This is possibly the most iconic role for a female in musical theatre. I so admire both Brice and Streisand and just want to do the show justice. Everyone wants me to be amazing and I just hope I can deliver. Also, this is 'ONE NIGHT ONLY' and so the pressure is on for me and my own expectations. If I get to play my dream role for only one night, I want it to be the best it can possibly be - and that makes me excited, but also terrified!

BWW - Let's talk about that - being terrified. Do you feel extra pressure doing this role, when compared to playing any other leading role?

GE - There aren't many roles that we feel are 'perfect' for us. And so the pressure is on to make sure I perform the way I want to perform in this 'perfect' role for me.

BWW - I find that fascinating, this notion of roles being 'perfect' for us, and I can totally relate. Please expand on why you feel it's the 'perfect' role for you.

GE - As I said before, there aren't many roles that have such a beautiful, heartbreaking vocal score while being equally hilarious. I get to use all parts of my abilities in this role more than any other I've ever played. I didn't know really know a lot about Fanny Brice until my early twenties, but since doing the research, it certainly became a dream role of mine. Funny women who sing = dream roles for Epstein!

BWW - I'd like to explore a bit more, if I may, your particular process of building your version of 'Fanny Brice'. I have faced similar challenges in my career, for example when playing the iconic entertainer Frankie Valli in JERSEY BOYS. A major focus of mine in rehearsal was 'how do I stay on the right side of the line, and create a three-dimensional character without merely being an impersonator?' And similarly, when I played Danny Zuko in a production of GREASE, I couldn't get away from John Travolta's film performance and his characterization. In that particular instance, I felt that I had to do my version of his version of Zuko, because in large part, the audience expects it when coming to see GREASE. Travolta's performance transcended the material, so I felt I had to do it that way.

GE - Here's the thing-- When people think of Funny Girl they think of Streisand. I think it would be wrong to completely abandon what she brought to the role. That and Streisand is a huge inspiration for me so I am obviously going to bring some of what she brought to the way I perform into this iconic role. My challenge is to bring enough of my own version of the role so that people don't compare me to Streisand, while still paying tribute to everything she did for the show and the role. It's a tough challenge and has been the bulk of my work through this process.

BWW - Now, our readers may not know this, but you do a hilarious cabaret act where you impersonate Streisand, and it's amazing. You're becoming an expert in her! It must be very challenging to keep Epstein and Streisand and Brice apart in your mind! So, it's fair to say that Streisand is an idol of yours?

GE - Funnily enough, my very first professional gig was in a show for Smile Theatre about the life of Fanny Brice. I had to remind myself many times that I was not doing a show about Barbra Streisand (as much as I would have loved that!). Streisand, other than being one of the leading female comediennes of her generation also has, in my opinion, one of the best female voices in music and theatre of all time. As a singer, of course she is going to be an idol of mine for this reason alone. And, the fact that she idolized one of my favourite females of all time certainly doesn't hurt! And going back to the whole idea of having a Jewish idol in show business, she was certainly the original "Jewess Beltress"-- (a term I like to give to myself) and I don't think people would necessarily "understand" my own style and stage persona if it weren't for a performer like Streisand.

BWW - Avery, Gabi - this has been thrilling. I want to thank you both for being so forth-coming about your work and this special 'One Night Only' In-Concert performance of FUNNY GIRL. OK, Mr. Producer, over to you - any last words before I tell Torontonians to buy a ticket for Monday night?

AS - FUNNY GIRL is such a great show-biz story, a rich telling of a young girl who rises above adversity to be loved by a generation of people. It's a story for all. Great story telling, great music -- what's not to love!

BWW - Come for the show. Come for its sparkling star. Come for the memories. Come for the talented all-Canadian cast. Come for the unheard-of-in-this-day-and-age 24-piece Orchestra. Come for the incredible venue. Come for the event of it all. Come for the thrill of being entertained non-stop for a couple hours. Come because you support Live Theatre in Toronto. There are so many reasons to come. You won't be disappointed.

Music by Jule Syne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill, Book by Isobel Lennart

WHERE: George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto, ON

WHEN: Monday September 30, 2013

START: 7:30 PM

WHY: A Fundraiser for The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company

WHO: Directed by Avery Saltzman, Musical Directed and Conducted by Mark Camilleri
Starring Gabi Epstein as Fanny Brice

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