Hello, Barbra! How Streisand’s Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations reveal the unique pull of her star persona 50 years on

Three popular film adaptations of Broadway musicals reveal Barbra Streisand’s unique influence as an artist in 1960s Hollywood, according to a musicologist from the University of Sheffield.

As the film Hello, Dolly! is re-released into US cinemas this weekend to mark 50 years since it was first seen, the research by Dr Dominic McHugh from the University’s Department of Music highlights how the potency of the young actress’s abilities and persona made their mark.

Notes made by Bob Merrill, lyricist of Funny Girl, during the stage version’s previews reveal his wish that she would not improvise during her performances of the show.

“But spontaneity is part of what makes Streisand’s performances so compelling,” explains Dr McHugh. “An artist of her ability would not want to do the same thing every night during the long run of a Broadway show.

“That’s perhaps why she suits Hollywood so much – she could hone her interpretation of every song and scene to create what she wanted, famously recording 14 takes of her hit song ‘People’ to get it right for the movie.”

Findings from the study also reveal how all three of the screen adaptations of Broadway musicals that Streisand filmed in the 1960s – including On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in addition to Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! – contain drastic changes to accommodate Streisand as the star.

“The surprising example is Funny Girl,” says Dr McHugh. “This is the only one of the three that she appeared in both on stage and screen. You might have thought that it would be a fairly straightforward transfer of what had played on Broadway, but numerous changes were made, such as dropping around 10 songs. And not one number is performed or arranged the way it is on screen, because it’s brilliantly reconceived as a movie adaptation that fully exploits the entire range of Streisand’s artistry.”

A common trope of the adaptations is that the male stars are major actors but weak singers, and often their songs are reduced or completely cut. “Which male actor could compete vocally with Streisand at her peak?” comments Dr McHugh. “It wasn’t easy to find people, so in all three cases they went in the opposite direction and foregrounded her singing as a motor behind the film.”

On the topic of Hello, Dolly!, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Dr McHugh notes: “It’s striking that Streisand was cast in the screen adaptation of Hello, Dolly!, which was then the biggest Broadway hit of all time, despite being 20 years younger than the character she is supposed to play and despite the fact that Funny Girl, her first film, had not yet been released. Her box office clout hadn’t yet been proven but they could see her potency as an artist.

“While the actress has never been very fond of the Hello, Dolly! film, there’s no doubt that both she and the studio worked hard to make it a hit, changing the tempo of her songs to suit her youthfulness and rewriting the story to make her a young widow.

“All of these changes are testament to the remarkable pull of Streisand’s stardom in 1960s America – and we can still see it today when we re-watch the films.”

The research on Streisand’s stage-to-screen adaptations is published as part of the new book The Oxford Handbook of Musical Theatre Screen Adaptations.

A global reputation

Sheffield is a research university with a global reputation for excellence. We're a member of the Russell Group: one of the 24 leading UK universities for research and teaching.