‘Funny Girl’ takes on classic musical through gender-expansive lens


Photo courtesy of Joanne Haner

“Funny Girl” stuck to the script at performances but challenged norms by changing a character’s gender in two key roles.

Lexi Goldstein, Assistant Campus Editor

As pale lights faded in, a chorus began to sing the Israeli song “Hayaldah Hachi Yafah Bagan” (The Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten) in Hebrew to open “Funny Girl.” The song, about admiring and being jealous of the “prettiest girl in kindergarten,” resonated with Communication senior and co-director Dani Goldberg. They said they dreamed of being the prettiest girl in kindergarten but felt they couldn’t be since they weren’t a girl.

Goldberg said they sought to reimagine “Funny Girl” through gender-expansive casting at sold-out performances this weekend at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.

The show, co-directed by Goldberg and Communication sophomore Talia Hartman-Sigall, featured Goldberg as a “trans/non-binary body” in the role of Fanny Brice and Weinberg junior Lily Cohen as a woman in the historically male role of Eddie Ryan, Brice’s close friend. 

“I like to say that I was channeling my inner Fanny, and I wasn’t letting the norms and the standards in the arts industry and in society tell me what I couldn’t do,” Goldberg said. 

The idea for an NU production of “Funny Girl,” which Goldberg said is their unofficial senior thesis project, came to life when they were quarantined with COVID-19 during the summer before their junior year. 

Goldberg watched a recording of the West End revival of “Funny Girl” and saw a lot of their experiences reflected in an unexpected way. Growing up, they said they did not see themself in the media and arts, so the moments they feel represented stuck with them.

“I couldn’t quite shake it,” Goldberg said. “It became my new go-to answer for ‘What’s your dream role?’”

Goldberg applied for the rights to the show in spring 2022 and later received a grant as a part of the Wirtz Student Performance Projects program. 

Goldberg’s first call was to their friend, Weinberg senior Sofi Boczkowski, to ask her to join the team as the producer.

“I immediately said yes,” Boczkowski said. “And it wasn’t for ‘Funny Girl.’ They could have asked me for a wide range of shows. It was more so how Dani wanted to tell this story.”

While changing a character’s gender from the original source material is not a new phenomenon in NU shows, it is more prominent in student theatre and is less present in the department, Goldberg said. They said they did not change the show’s script, but rather cast non-traditional bodies in certain roles and discussed how that affected other characters and themes. 

To highlight the queer love story between Brice and Nick Arnstein, portrayed by Weinberg freshman Aidan Einhorn, Goldberg and Boczkowski said they worked on a more intimate production that featured a smaller ensemble and set. Also, to modernize the production, they said they implemented alienation techniques such as breaking the fourth wall and using neon lighting.

Boczkowski said the neon lights were a key element of the show. Certain themes and characters like Arnstein had colors that connected to larger symbols.

For example, the LED lights — located at the bottom of the background curtain and on Brice’s mirror — turned blue during Brice and Arnstein’s wedding to symbolize Jewish love, according to Boczkowski. Any time Arnstein walked on stage, the lights turned pink to draw attention to his feminine side and challenge the toxic masculinity associated with the character.

Goldberg cast Einhorn for a “gentler” approach to the role, they said, reinforcing the queer love story. 

“I feel like there is a certain amount of myself in the character, as opposed to it being a completely separate entity,” Einhorn said. 

The show emphasized certain lines that could be interpreted through a queer lens, such as “When A Girl’s Incidentals, Are No Bigger Than Two Lentils.” Goldberg said the line took on new meaning for them as a trans/non-binary body without breasts playing a female role. 

Goldberg led a conversation with Beanie Feldstein, who portrayed Brice on the Broadway stage, as part of her event through NU Hillel this Fall Quarter. They said Feldstein told them privately that Fanny becomes about whoever tells the story.

“I’m telling the story, the story is about me,” Goldberg said. “It really truly is about me and my experiences and it’s about all the experiences of trans and non-binary people who haven’t seen themselves represented in order to show them that they are capable, lovable.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lexipgoldstein

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