The Bible Meets Broadway: Funny Girl
Ephesians 2:1-9; Romans 8:37-39
Funny Girl was written as a stage musical but achieved fame in 1968 when it was made into a film starring Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, and Walter Pigeon. Streisand played the role on Broadway in 1964, but this was her film debut. It is loosely based on the life and career of Broadway and film star Fanny Brice and her relationship with entrepreneur and gambler Nicky Arnstein. A major critical and commercial success, Funny Girl became the highest-grossing film of 1968 and received eight Academy Award nominations. Streisand won the award for Best Actress for her performance (tying with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter). In 2006, the American Film Institute ranked the film #16 on its list commemorating AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals. Previously it had ranked the songs "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" in its 2004 list of 100 Years . . . 1oo Songs. Funny Girl is considered one of the greatest musical films ever made. And this morning we consider what this musical has to teach us about our faith.
This morning we continue our sermon series, The Bible Meets Broadway, looking at the musical Funny Girl. Set in New York City around World War I, the story opens with Ziegfield Follies star Fanny Brice awaiting the return of husband Nicky Arnstein from prison, and then moves into an extended flashback focusing on their meeting and marriage. Fanny is a stage-struck teenager who gets her first job in vaudeville. Her mother and friends try to dissuade her from show business because Fanny is not the typical beauty. She finds her niche in comedy, mocking the image of beauty expected of female stars. She is the “funny girl.” Six months later, now regularly performing on stage, she meets the suave and sophisticated Nicky Arnstein. Did I mention he was played by Omar Sharif? Sigh…. One year later, Fanny is now the rising star of Broadway, and she and Arnstein meet again and become romantically involved. They marry, move to a mansion, and have a daughter. But all is not well in paradise. Nick's various business ventures fail, causing him to lose a lot of money. Refusing financial support from his wife, he becomes involved in a bonds scam and is imprisoned for fraud for eighteen months. Following Nick's release from prison, Brice anticipates a reunion but Nick cannot forgive himself and insists that they separate. The ending is certainly not an “and they lived happily ever after” one as it appears that the two go their separate ways and we are left wondering whether there is ever a reconciliation. So, what can we learn about our faith from Funny Girl?
Funny Girl is a kind of rags to riches story. Brice lives with her mother in poverty and dreams of something better. Everyone agrees she has a beautiful voice, but everyone has also repeatedly told her that she is not beautiful. By the time we meet Fanny in the story, she has come to believe what she has been told about herself. In the song If a Girl Isn’t Pretty, she sings:
If a girl isn't pretty, she should get a job,
Go get a job--get any job
Get a weekly pay,
'Cause if a girl isn't pretty
Like a Miss Atlantic City,
She's a real Miss Nobody, U.S.A.
Our first sermon point reminds us, each of us, that we are created in the image of God and that God loves us, God loves you … just for you… Each person here is special and was created with a purpose. You were planned - you were not an after-thought or an accident. Ephesians 2 tells us several things about ourselves:
- God’s love for us is great.
- We are what God has made us.
- God sent Christ not for himself, but for us – so that we can have access to God as a member of God’s family.
- And from Romans 8:37-39, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
You were created that God might shower God’s love upon you.
In the story, Fanny has been told so often that she is not beautiful that she has internalized those words. It has affected her self-esteem and it impacts her relationships with others. After their marriage, Fanny and Nick have a child, a girl. Fanny is obsessed with her child’s looks, her outer beauty. At one point she is showing her child to a friend and she says to the friend, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” The friend responds affirmatively, but Fanny isn’t convinced that the friend means it. Maybe the friend is just saying what everyone says about a new baby. Maybe the friend is just telling her what she wants to hear. Fanny needs to know that her child is beautiful by human standards and won’t grow up hearing what she heard. She presses again and again for affirmation that her child is beautiful and is only satisfied when convinced that her friend is telling her the truth.
But at some point, before her marriage falls apart, Fanny begins to believe what she has been told about herself might not be true. See, her husband Nicky repeatedly tells her she is beautiful and quiets her when she brings up what others have said about her. She sings the song, His Loves Makes Me Beautiful. I think that is a message we all need to hear more often: God’s love makes us beautiful.
The second faith message for this morning comes from the relationship between Fanny and Nicky. They love one another but like all relationships there’s has its ups and downs. It seems that the low point comes when Nicky goes to prison for 18 months for fraud. But that’s not really true. Fanny stands by him and when he is released, she welcomes him back. She has forgiven him and is ready to resume their marriage. But there’s a problem. You see, Nicky can’t forgive himself. We are suddenly faced with a redemption story where forgiveness is offered, but is not accepted.
Returning to our Scripture reading for this morning from Ephesians, we are reminded that at one time we were dead through the trespasses and sins in which we once lived. Our sin separates us from God. But, as Paul writes in vv. 4-9: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
We mess up, we make mistakes, we sin – but God offers us love and mercy. Nicky couldn’t accept Fanny’s love and forgiveness and walked away; and we are free to reject God’s gift to us and walk away from God. The movie doesn’t end happily ever after, but our lives can end that way.
The third and final point we can take from Funny Girl comes from its most memorable song, one we heard this morning: People.
People who need people,
Are the luckiest people in the world
We're children, needing other children
And yet letting a grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children
A feeling deep in your soul
Says you were half now you're whole
No more hunger and thirst
First be a person who needs people;
People who need people
Are the luckiest people in the world.
As children of God, these words remind us that we need one another, we make one another whole. The Bible repeatedly tells us to love one another, to share our burdens, to encourage one another, to pray for one another, and to build each other up. Ephesians 2, beginning with v. 13, says: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Just like the words to the song, we can let our grown-up pride hide our need inside for one another and we can act like children. Or we can realize how lucky we are that we have one another and need one another and make one another whole.