Before they were superstars, Joan Rivers kissed and tried to kill a young Barbra Streisand on stage – or so she claimed. Now her tall tale has inspired drama The Funny Girls

In the late 1950s, a 25-year-old struggling actor named Joan Molinsky – later to become better known as the acerbic comedian Joan Rivers – landed a small part as a lesbian stalker in an off-off-Broadway play called Seaweed. “The primary qualification for being cast,” her biographer Leslie Bennetts later wrote, seemed to be “that she had lots of relatives who would come see her in a play”. The significance of Seaweed from a historical point of view is that she was starring opposite another superstar-in-waiting, whom she described in her memoir Enter Talking as “a skinny high school girl with a large nose and a pin that said, ‘Go Erasmus!’”.

This was 17-year-old Barbra Streisand, who played her unlucky victim. Rivers recalled “a big love scene in which I told Barbra I loved her very much and she rejected me and I had a knife in my hand and tried to kill her and then myself”. It’s delicious to imagine these two future divas in a clinch in some airless New York attic in front of an audience “sitting there in overcoats … coughing, like a tubercular ward”, as Rivers put it.

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