She’s on the stage for two hours – singing many of Fanny Brice’s best-known songs while tap dancing, twirling, telling funny jokes, relating Fanny’s personal life and career highs and lows, while ‘Baby Snooking’ her way into the hearts of the audiences. I asked Esther Covington to talk about preparing for and performing the role of the legendary comedienne in The American Century Theater’s production of One Night With Fanny Brice.
Esther: The premise of the show is that Fanny Brice has returned from the dead (not like a zombie… although that would be kind of cool) for this one night to this particular stage to share with the audience the events from her life that shaped her earthly existence, complete with songs that she loved and performed when she was alive. The script doesn’t provide a reason why this particular phenomenon happens, which is one of the challenges of the script. Why is Fanny here on this stage on this night? I believe that Fanny has returned as a tribute to her children, grandchildren, etc. and to share one last night with the people who meant the most to her and never hurt her. Regardless of the reason, the show is two-acts of Fanny recounting actual events from her life.
Joel: Who was Fanny Brice?
Esther: Fanny Brice was the most famous and highest paid female comedian in America in the early Twentieth Century. Made famous by Barbara Streisand’s portrayal of her in the musical Funny Girl, Fanny Brice was the forerunner and inspiration for women like Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, and Carol Channing. She performed in Burlesque, on Broadway (most notably the Ziegfeld Follies), in movies, and for more than 12 years on the radio as the character ‘Baby Snooks.’ In addition to her successful career as an actress, singer, and comedian, she was also well known for her 15-year tumultuous relationship with crook and con man Nick Arnstein. She was also a devoted and loving mother of two children. Fanny Brice died in 1951 at age 59 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Joel: Why did you want to play Fanny Brice?
Esther: Honestly, the desire to play Fanny Brice was initially no different than my desire to play any character. I find that each role I play helps me further develop my skills as an actress so I’m always thrilled to be cast in any role. As I learned about Fanny Brice, the excitement and apprehension grew exponentially. I mean, she was the funniest woman in America, which is a wonderful opportunity to improve my comedy chops and to be given a great deal of artistic license to just play and have fun with the role. Yet there is also the huge challenge of playing a factual person, especially a fairly contemporary one, because there are many people who remember her, saw her perform, and knew her and I wanted to make sure I preserved the integrity of who she was, even without my personal knowledge of her.
Joel: How do you relate to Fanny?
Esther: I do find that I certainly relate to Fanny Brice, particularly when it comes to my own desires and insecurities. She was never considered beautiful, yet she has a very unique look and is a very pretty woman. I’ve heard similar things my whole life. She hated her nose (so much that she had rhinoplasty late in her career) and I’ve never been too fond of mine (no rhinoplasty for me though… yet). She had three siblings and was the second daughter, which is the same in my family. She adored her father and was always able to see only the good in him, despite some huge personal flaws, which I can definitely relate to in my own life. She was never afraid to take risks and was never too proud to take any role offered her. And she worked so stinkin’ hard her entire career. She never became complacent or assumed that fame would always be hers. Up until the day she died, she was working.
I definitely echo her work ethic. She was a devoted friend, wife, and mother, almost to a fault. Her marriages didn’t last, mainly because the men in her life knew they could take advantage of her and she’d love them anyway. I’m still single and have no children, but I do consider myself to be an extremely devoted friend. Hopefully not to a fault, but I do understand why she would continue to love these people who hurt her so much. She really was generous with her love. Fanny also spent a number of years trying to get casting directors and producers to notice her talent and give her – her big break. Fanny did get her big break eventually. I’m still waiting for my big break… (This is meant to be a huge hint to all the casting directors out there.) J
Fanny spent her entire life doing what she loved. She found out what she was good at and was determined to become the best at it. She knew her limitations and while she overcame many of them, she also was realistic enough to know that sometimes it’s better to not fight what you can’t change but to accept it and find another avenue to pursue.
I, too, love what I do. I’m so blessed to have found a career that energizes and excites me. Going to work for me is a real pleasure. I’m still learning what I’m good at, but when I do find those skills, I have that same determination that Fanny did to excel and continuously improve and hone those skills.
And, like Fanny, I also recognize my limitations. It’s often frustrating to be type-cast or eliminated because of type-casting, but it’s just another reason to pursue other creative avenues and ventures and it serves to charge me up to work even harder. I’m so impressed with Fanny’s work ethic. She worked so hard her entire life. She never expected anything to be handed to her. She worked for every success she had and that integrity has been very inspiring and something I would like to believe I emulate in my own life.
Joel: How different is your Fanny Brice than the one that Streisand played in the stage and film versions of Funny Girl?
Esther: I remember seeing “Funny Girl” when I was a young teenager, but I haven’t seen the movie since then. I deliberately didn’t want to watch the movie as part of my preparation for this show. Barbara Streisand is such an American icon and that movie is so dear to so many people and should be preserved as such. I wanted to make the character my own, as she did with her own version of Fanny Brice, and in order to do that, I kept my research and preparation strictly based on Fanny Brice herself and no other performer’s interpretations of Fanny. So I’m assuming my performance is quite different from that of Barbara Streisand, but hope that it’s equally engaging and captures the essence of Fanny, like she did in that role.
I do know that the movie is less factual than One Night with Fanny Brice and that most of the songs in the film were written specifically for the movie and were not actual songs Fanny Brice sang. It also focuses primarily on Fanny’s career during the time of her romance with Nick Arnstein and doesn’t deal as much with her early performing career or her life after her divorce from Nick as this show does.
Joel: How did you prepare for this role?
Esther: Since I knew very little about Fanny Brice before this production, I had a lot of work to do. Prior to rehearsals, one of the main things I had to do was, obviously, learn the material. The original script was 75 pages and I would give myself a deadline of memorizing two pages a day. I never went anywhere without my script and thanks to the amount of time I spend sitting at red lights in rush hour traffic, free time at work, and many free evenings due to a lack of dating life, I was able to pace myself with the script and learn the whole thing fairly quickly. I spend a great deal of time in my car and whenever I was driving, I would review the script over and over. Luckily, I’m a piano player so I was also able to learn the music on my own pretty easily so that by the time I actually began rehearsals, I already knew all the music and had the entire show memorized.
I am grateful that there are so many photographs, recordings, and video performances of her so that I could study how she moved, talked, sang, etc. and try to incorporate those elements into my performing.
I read several biographies written about Fanny Brice (“Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl” by Herbert Goldman, “Funny Woman: The Life and Times of Fanny Brice” by Barbara Wallace Grossman, “The Fabulous Fanny” by Norman Katkov), watched her movies (Be Yourself!, Ziegfeld Follies, and The Great Ziegfeld). YouTube was a huge resource as well for performance clips, newsreels and recordings, including almost all her radio “Baby Snooks” performances.
I also watched several films made around the time she was performing to learn more about burlesque and Broadway in the early twentieth-century so I could have a frame of reference for the world she was surrounded by. I even made a trip to New York via train so that I could see the neighborhood where she grew up (across the street from Penn Station in Newark, New Jersey) although it’s much different now, of course. There were the many hours of rehearsal, too, but that’s a given.
Joel: I can’t imagine the pressure of performing a one-person show.
Esther: You are right. So much of acting revolves around the interaction with the other actors and in this show, there are no other actors to interact with. While there are a number of characters in the show, Fanny is portraying them all so it’s been challenging figuring out how to make each character different and also how and when to react off of what the other characters say. I also know I can’t rely on anyone else so it’s just me, sinking or swimming, on the stage each show.
Tom is a big support musically, but he’s very limited in what he can do. When preparing for this role, it was also very challenging not having an audience because this is a show where Fanny talks directly to the audience. Without having that audience, it was difficult at times to know how the script would go over or how successful the pacing or staging would work, especially since we were constantly editing the script. Ellen and Tom could offer a great deal of feedback but they were both so enmeshed in the show that it was difficult for them to know how people unfamiliar with the show would receive it. Ellen was very good with bringing in people to rehearsal occasionally to watch and offer their feedback. That definitely helped us to shape the show.
Joel: Have you met playwright Chip Deffaa?
Esther: I have not met Chip but we are friends on facebook and have sent several emails back and forth. He has never offered anything in terms of my interpretation or how I should play Fanny, but has been so supportive. There has only been one previous production in New York earlier in the year and Chip has communicated with Director Ellen Dempsey and Jack Marshall that he is looking forward to seeing what we do with it. We did a podcast in late October that he listened to and emailed me that he thought my voice was perfect for the role, but other than that, he really has not offered any type of opinion. He has been so kind, though, and let me know from the start how excited he was that I was going to be playing the role.
Joel: Tell us about the script Chip wrote for this production.
Esther: Since there has only been the one other production of the show, I would say that the script has been a work in progress. We have made many changes, mainly to edit down because the show is quite long. It is obvious that Chip did a ton of research when writing the play and really has been able to capture Fanny on so many levels through the moments from her life that he has included in the script. Most people only know Fanny from her comedy acting but know virtually nothing about her life (other than her romance with Nick Arnstein) and the script shows a much more serious side of Fanny. She shares with the audiences the moments that shaped her life and most of these moments are rather serious and poignant. Chip did add in, though, many lines and stories where Fanny is able to bring out her love for comedy and to laugh at herself. And the songs, of course, were all songs that Fanny really sang, which nicely accent these important moments in Fanny’s life.
Joel: What are some of the challenges performing the show in The Rosslyn Spectrum space?
Esther: The space at the Spectrum is actually perfect. The stage is just large enough to be free to move and explore, but not so large that I am dwarfed by the open space. The house is large, which can be intimidating and difficult to fill that space, but the audiences thus far have been great and with each performance, it becomes more comfortable and less intimidating to have such a large house space.
Joel: What’s your favorite song in the show?
Esther: My favorite song to perform is actually one that was my least favorite when we began the rehearsal process. It’s called “Ja-da” and is performed when Fanny is in court, being grilled about just how much she knows about Nick Arnstein’s criminal dealings. I enjoy performing this song so much is because it was originally written as a cute little throw-away type song that seems to have been placed there simply to break up the dialogue and provide some musical underscoring. We worked it into a number that really does a lot to heighten the emotional and that almost provides a climax to Fanny’s understanding of what Nick has put her through. Choreographer Gia Mora and Ellen Dempsey were true visionaries with this number and they worked it into a very sharp and poignant number that sort of becomes the culmination of Fanny’s frustration with Nick and the first moment where Fanny, even though she defends Nick throughout the scene, really recognizes the hell he has put her through and realizes she deserves better. The lighting for this scene is very reminiscent of classic movie police investigations and Gia added some cool rhythm tap into it and I just look forward to that number every performance.
The most emotional song for me is “Baby, Won’t you Please Come Home” which Fanny sings the first time Nick is sent to prison. It’s her vocalizing the true longing, hurt and disappointment she is feeling, yet also has such an underpinning of love for him which is why she is hurting so much there. It’s a beautiful melody and one that I’m able to connect with every performance.
Joel: What did you learn about Fanny Brice that you didn’t know until you worked on this show?
Esther: All I knew about Fanny Brice prior to this show is that Funny Girl was about her, that she lived in the early twentieth century and that she was funny, so the entire life of Fanny Brice was pretty new to me. I don’t know if this was a help or a hindrance, but it allowed me to approach the show with pretty much a blank script. I’ve always loved biographies and biopics and so I was thrilled to be able to learn so much about this fascinating and wonderful woman.
One thing that I find to be true with so many female performers of this era (and earlier in time) is that their key to success was dysfunction. Acting, and comedy in particular, was not a profession that ‘respectable’ women would participate in. The comic roles, especially, were usually reserved for ‘low-brow’ societal stereotypes. For Fanny to even have the opportunity to perform such roles, she almost had to come from a background where ‘propriety’ and being ‘respectable’ were not the main focus of her upbringing.
Fanny Brice did come from a challenging background. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mother was very stern and demanding and her father was an alcoholic and gambler who wasn’t around much. She had three failed marriages, and spent a good part of her life defying normal societal standards. And thank God she did! Her gift for performing and her contribution to the comedy world is eternal and continues to live today.
Joel: How did Director Ellen Dempsey help you with your performance?
Esther: The whole process, at many times, was so overwhelming for me and Ellen was always so supportive with talking me ‘off the ledge’ when I had no confidence in my ability to carry the show. I appreciated that she created such a safe environment for me to share my frustrations and to explore during rehearsals. She always let me know what did and did not work and was patient with me during those times where I felt like I was couldn’t do it. This whole show has been humbling in so many ways and I could not have done it without Ellen and her direction. I have been told before that I tend to be ‘in my head’ too much when I act, and while I know that’s a problem for me, she was so good at pointing out those specific times when it happened and worked with me to figure how to get out of that. I’m still working on it, but it was such a big help to have someone hold my hand, essentially, and work individually with me on those moments.
One of the great things about a one-person show is that I got so much individual attention that directors can’t normally offer each actor in a production. To have her work each moment and line with me was so helpful. I was also fearful about portraying someone who is a real person and whose movements, personality and voice are factually documented and available. Ellen did assure me that while it was important to add elements of those into my performance, it was more important to be myself.
The reason Fanny Brice looks so natural in her performance is that it was her being herself and in order for me to look natural, I had to, in essence, also be myself, which would naturally transform me into Fanny. One of the biggest compliments I have received is from several close friends who know me well and who individually told me that they didn’t feel like they were watching Esther on stage, but were watching Fanny. I have Ellen to thank for that.
Joel: I’m a big Baby Snooks fan. Tell my readers about that character.
Esther: Baby Snooks does not feature prominently in the show, but as she was Fanny’s most memorable role, she certainly deserves mention here and does get mention in the show as well. During the height of radio’s popularity in the 1940s and early 1950s, Fanny played (for more than 12 years) a ‘high-spirited six year old exasperating her parents’ (that’s how Fanny describes Baby Snooks in the show). Essentially, she was a forerunner to any wild and precocious child character today, like Dennis the Menace, Ramona Quimby, Bart Simpson, or “Family Guy’s” Stewie Griffin, always getting in trouble because she was curious and smart.
Fanny Brice was in her 50s when she played Baby Snooks, but recordings (which are readily available on YouTube and other sources) offer no hint that Snooks is being voiced by a grown woman and not a child. Baby Snooks was wildly popular on the radio and would surely have continued had Fanny Brice not died in 1951. Although Baby Snooks is little more than a brief mention in the show, I did find ways of incorporating Baby Snooks into the show. When Fanny is reminiscing about her childhood, the voice I use when she’s recounting these specific conversations is the voice of Baby Snooks. I have listened to a great deal of Baby Snooks recordings and find them very entertaining even today. The writing of the shows was superb, the humor still relevant, and Fanny’s performance is so perfect.
Joel: Tom Fuller appears on the stage with you during the whole show. Tells us about working with him.
Esther: The most important thing for Tom was ensuring that the music never got boring. Stylistically, much of the music is similar—set in one key with two verses and choruses with maybe a musical bridge thrown in for variety. But there was not a whole lot of variety in the original arrangements of the songs and Tom worked very hard to find ways to make each song different, be it to put it in a new key or to cut some of the more repetitive verses, or to alter the tempos or arrangements. And while there may be a good deal of underscoring, he actually cut a good deal of it where he felt like the dialogue was more powerful without music underneath it. Tom also worked closely with myself and Ellen to make sure that the music supported the dialogue or action on stage and when we felt like it wasn’t, he would cut those parts of the music (there were actually three entire songs that we cut from the show because they just didn’t support what we were doing). Tom made sure to remain actively involved in the creative process throughout the show, which I’m grateful for.
His role in the show is, obviously, to accompany the singing and to musically underscore other parts of the show. His presence on stage is not something that we wanted to ignore, but playwright Chip Deffaa made it clear that the piano player is not a second character. So while Tom may not be a second character, his presence is accepted by Fanny and by the audience and I do reference him and include him from time to time because he is on the stage and an integral part of keeping the show going.
Joel: This is a work-in-progress. What has changed in the script since the first time you read it? What changes would you like Chip Deffaa to make or add?
Esther: Wow, I hope Chip doesn’t mind my answer, but in offering full disclosure, the script has been changed a great deal for our production. Before and during rehearsal, Chip actually sent at least four different versions, so it certainly is a work in progress for him, too, but we made a lot of changes even from what he sent us.
The original script was 75 pages, which we felt was very long, so much of what we cut was taken out simply to tighten the show and keep it under two hours. Much of what we cut were little anecdotes or reviews of her performances that helped to define and shape the world she was living and performing in, but didn’t necessarily further the main story that Fanny was telling. We did the same with some of the songs that just didn’t seem to add much to the story, but were designed more just to break up the dialogue. If a song or script didn’t further the story, we usually cut it. There were a few instances, too, where songs or parts of the script that Chip had originally included but then cut in some of his later versions were added by us because we felt like they supported our vision for the show. I think we have made the changes we would like Chip to make and look forward to receiving his feedback on it.
Joel: Now, let’s talk about you. When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
Esther: I caught the ‘theatre bug’ when I was five years old. My favorite movie at that time (and today, for that matter) was The Sound of Music and I had memorized the entire film by the time I was five. I was living in Idaho (a very frustrating place to grow up for this wannabe actress because of a near complete lack of opportunities for performance or training) and my parents took me to see a local community theatre production of The Sound of Music. I still recall watching the girl who played the youngest Von Trapp child and thinking “I can do so much better than that” and that was it. I knew I wanted to be an actress from that moment on.
I spent my years in Idaho performing in the annual shows the two community theatre groups would produce, but that was it for any opportunity (the schools didn’t even have theatre programs) which was very frustrating because I knew there was so much more and I wanted it! I moved away from Idaho when I was 16, which was wonderful because my new high school had a great theatre program and so I was able to actually start getting some training and some greater opportunities.
When I went to Ricks College (Brigham Young University–Idaho) my parents didn’t allow me to get a BFA in theatre because they felt it was important for me to get a ‘real’ degree (and they were paying for school so their desire won out over mine), but still performed where I could and was cast in my first professional production in 1999 in the National Tour of The Garden. From there, I was cast at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Fiddler on the Roof (with Tony-award winner Michael Rupert who is currently in The Happy Elf at Adventure Theatre). I then decided to go to graduate school to study theatre, which my parents were fine with because I still had that ‘real’ degree (in public relations, which incidentally, I have never worked in).
Joel: When did you move to DC?
Esther: In 2003, after finishing graduate school, I moved to Washington DC, which I intended to be a short layover on my way to New York. However, I immediately fell in love with the DC area, mainly because of the amazing theatre community, and have absolutely no plans to move to New York. I do believe I’m here to stay because I love it here so much. My first job in DC was an actor with Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Programs and I spent two years with them, which really helped me learn the area and to feel out the theatrical dynamic in this beautiful area. I left that theatre company in 2005 and have been acting pretty much full-time as a role player for a number of companies, schools, agencies, and organizations, which I love! Locally, I have performed with Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, the Wayside Theatre, Toby’s Dinner Theatre, Landless Theatre Company, Imagination Stage, Theatre on the Hill, and American Century Theatre (obviously!). I also play the piano professionally and am a Washington DC Tour Guide.
Joel: What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing One Night With Fanny Brice?
Esther: On the most basic level, I would hope they would leave thoroughly entertained and having enjoyed their experience at the show. Beyond that, though, I would hope that this would become some sort of springboard for further action in their life, be it to independently learn more about Fanny Brice, Nick Arnstein, Flo Ziegfeld, early American theatre, etc. because their curiosity was piqued, or maybe it instilled in them a desire to dig out old records and dance around their living rooms, etc.
I have received a fair amount of personal feedback from patrons and one woman told me that my show renewed her faith in theatre and she planned on attending more shows in the area. Others have mentioned their joy in spending two hours reminiscing about the music of their childhood. I’m thrilled that this show is having this type of effect on many people. I would hope that people would consider this an afternoon/evening well spent and if it leads to further good times with classic music, Funny Girl, or at another show in the area, then that’s even better!
Listen to a podcast with Esther Covington, Director Ellen Dempsey, Musical Director Tom Fuller, and The American Century Theater’s Artistic Director Jack Marshall
One Night With Fanny Brice plays through November 27th at The American Century Theater at The Rosslyn Spectrum, in Arlington, VA.