In July, Mitchell Butel will direct a concert version of the hit Broadway musical Funny Girl for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with not one, not two but nine of Australia’s leading ladies sharing the role of Fanny Brice.

The line-up, which includes both musical theatre stars and pop divas, features Michala Banas, Casey Donovan, Virginia Gay, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Dami Im, Zahra Newman, Caroline O’Connor, Queenie van de Zandt and Megan Washington. O’Connor has previousy played the role for The Production Company in Melbourne, winning a 2016 Green Room Award. Other cast members include Trevor Ashley, Nancye Hayes, and Don Hany as Nicky Arnstein.

Caroline O’Connor with David Hobson in The Production Company’s 2016 production of Funny Girl. Photograph @ Jeff Busby

Funny Girl opened on Broadway in 1964 with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by Isobel Lennart. It is loosely based on the life and career of Ziegfeld Follies star and comedian Fanny Brice, telling the story of her stormy relationship with entrepreneur and gambler Nick Arnstein. Barbra Streisand famously played the lead role in the original Broadway production and went on to star in the 1968 film. Songs from the show include People, I’m the Greatest Star and Don’t Rain on my Parade.

Butel, who is a highly regarded, versatile actor, is fast proving himself an equally fine director, winning plaudits for productions of the musicals Violet at the Hayes Theatre Co and Spring Awakening for ATYP. He also directed a well received, semi-staged production of Porgy and Bess for the SSO in November 2016.

Speaking to Limelight about the SSO’s Funny Girl the Musical in Concert, and his decision to have more than one person play Fanny Brice, Butel says: “It’s such an iconic role and an iconic show, and it’s such a vehicle for one woman. It’s an incredible journey from innocence to success to heartbreak, and very few people have attempted to do it since Barbra Streisand. Sheridan Smith did a smaller version in London, and there was going to be Broadway revival with Lauren Ambrose from Six Feet Under that Bart Sher was going to direct about six or seven years ago that fell over. So I think people are terrified,” he says.

“Caroline has done it for The Production Company, but there’s this fear, and I thought ‘why not embrace the fear?’ Fanny Brice is this kind of emblem of womanhood generally, of vulnerability, of self-loathing, but ultimate triumph of confidence. I thought it’d be great, particularly at the moment, to celebrate the notion of talent more generally, but also the notion of sisterhood [and] how we deal with these men, like Nicky Arnstein, who we love but are very flawed and dysfunctional.”

Funny Girl, Mitchell ButelMitchell Butel. Photograph supplied

Butel recalls seeing a production of Sweet Charity at WAAPA some years ago in which four performers, including Lucy Maunder, shared the role of Charity.

“It’s actually a really good idea because we know what the story is. And concert versions are already one step removed from the need to be totally linear or Aristotelian about unity. So I thought ‘let’s really have fun with that and celebrate all these great Australian leading women with this great show’. So that was my central leaping point for it,” says Butel.

“I started with 50 amazing women on my list, so it became about what I think is the right mix of women. We’ve got [a line-up who are] all incredible singers, and a mix of dramatic skills and torch song skills and comedic skills. So, basically they’ll all get a scene and a song each, and they’ll be moments throughout the show when the whole gang of them will combine to provide a tsunami of incredible talent and power. Obviously there’s one particular song where they’ll all combine. It’s a party to celebrate the show and the brilliant Fanny Brice, but also the brilliance of these women and this orchestra.”

It was Butel who took the idea to the SSO. “I wouldn’t want to do this show at the Hayes, as much as I love the Hayes, because it’s got this massive horn and string kind of sections to all of the music. It kind of needs to be done with a big sound. So I took the idea to Mark Sutcliffe [SSO’s Head of Commercial Programming] and he’d been looking to do a more traditional musical within the commercial section of SSO so I said ‘I have this idea that’s really weird but what about this?’ and he’s like “yep, let’s do that’.”

As to whether there will be any costuming, Butel says: “It won’t be like a full-out stage version but there’ll be certain elements that will help us highlight what we want to about the scene. Certainly there are some vaudeville moments in the show that you have to honour, you can’t just do them in a beautiful sequinned dress. You have to help the audience out a bit. But there’ll be glamour throughout the evening.”

Butel will work on the concert version with choreographer Amy Campbell who worked on Violet and Spring Awakening with him.

“I think she’s a genius,” he says. “There’ll be some interesting design elements to the staging which will allow for some dance stuff and bigger numbers and whatnot. So it’s going to be a pretty crazy ride I think. But all the women have displayed great faith already, no one’s like ‘I have to sing this song or I have to sing that song’. Everyone’s just gone, ‘yep, I’m on board and I’ll do whatever’, which surprised me actually. It’s great, no one’s said ‘I’ve got to sing Don’t Rain On My Parade“. They’re all up for the challenge,” says Butel.

“But also I want to have a bit of fun with it too, like whoever gets the first pash with Don Hany, then maybe the next person playing Fanny might want to repeat those 20 seconds of stage time just so they also get a pash with Don Hany! There’ll be a very conscious passing of the baton during the evening I think.”

Funny Girl the Musical in Concert plays at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, July 12 – 14