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That’s Life in the Theater

Casting changes, conspiracy theories, and a lead actress on a potentially undeserved comeback tour—the ‘Funny Girl’ revival roller coaster has become complicated, dense, perfect fodder for the pop culturally inclined

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The booming crowd at Lea Michele’s much-anticipated debut in the Funny Girl revival feels decidedly local. A few days prior, when understudy Julie Benko took the stage with her name above the title for the final time, the most common sighting in the crowd were mothers and daughters in coordinating midi skirts, overcome with an unmistakable anxiety to get to their seats. But on September 6, as 7 p.m. approaches, people are still milling about and running into unexpected friends while the sconces flash faster and faster. Several attendees had just gotten their tickets earlier that day. “Not my most prudent spend,” my line-mate tells me of his mid-three-figures whim, followed by the men in front of us bashfully flashing the much-lower-priced tickets they lucked into before Michele was even announced. But the one thing everyone who’s arrived on a drizzly Tuesday night has in common is that we could not miss this parade—whether it was a rainy mess or a revelation.

I hear Harvey Fierstein before I see him. The actor, producer, and Broadway legend floats down the orchestra aisle tossing out hellos to acquaintances and fans, then takes his seat beside me, accepts a Blow Pop from a friend, and notes how many gay men are in the audience tonight. It is, indeed, notable. The two most anticipated gay men of any evening involving Lea Michele—her loyal best friend Jonathan Groff and frequent employer Ryan Murphy—are the last to take their fourth-row center seats, mere moments from leading the crowd in its first of seven standing ovations once Michele takes the stage. It’s impossible to confirm that the trench coat Murphy’s wearing is a reference to the line from Funny Girl about Fanny Brice getting a standing ovation from “one guy in the mezzanine wearing a trench coat,” but it must be. Because it would not only be a prophetic reference, but also proof that at least someone in this crowd is feasting upon the turducken of camp, irony, and conflict that is Lea Michele starring in Funny Girl on Broadway (non-Glee category), lest we all get swept away too quickly by the easy comfort of enormous talent.

Because while Tuesday night may feel like an opening night on Broadway, of course it is not. Critics aren’t even being accommodated until later this month in order to give the full company (including another exciting addition, Tovah Feldshuh) time to perform together before the show is officially reviewed. Well, re-reviewed. Still, there are plenty of not-technically-critics from plenty of not-technically-theater-publications in attendance for Michele’s debut performance. BuzzFeed News asks to interview me in line outside the theater, and when I flash my own recorder, they happily move to the man behind me, who gives a perfect quote about why he’s there: “I needed to feel the chaos, the talent, and tension.” Funny Girl is five months into its Broadway run, and Lea Michele is its third headlining Fanny Brice. This revival’s story is the real-life version of Smash, NBC’s own campy drama about casting the perfect lead; from previews to present day, Funny Girl has been Broadway drama made for TV, played out by TV actors with Broadway voices.

Fifty-eight years after Funny Girl’s original Broadway opening and subsequent Hollywood film made Barbra Streisand a star so colossal that she now has a TCBY in her personal home basement, it was announced that the first official Broadway revival of Funny Girl would debut in 2022. Beanie Feldstein would star in the titular role as Roaring ’20s comedienne Fanny Brice. Feldstein was already a rising star in her own right, having charmed movie audiences in films like Lady Bird and Booksmart, impressed TV critics playing Monica Lewinsky in the Ryan Murphy–produced American Crime Story, and garnered her Broadway revival bona fides as Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly! (in which she was, by all accounts, delightful). But from the moment the Funny Girl revival was announced, Feldstein found herself in a very public entanglement between three Fannys: her own, Streisand’s, and Michele’s.

Beanie Feldstein, third from left, during a curtain call for Funny Girl’s opening night in April
Bruce Glikas/WireImage

There are plenty of good reasons Funny Girl hasn’t made its way back to Broadway until now, and some would say those reasons haven’t lessened five months into the revival’s run. The original book by Isobel Lennart, while in possession of some solid “life in the theater” themes, very much revolves around an enormously talented woman downplaying her own flourishing career in order to accommodate the ego of a hubristic man-child (Nicky Arnstein—what a frustrating, frustrating character). The incredible songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill that nearly make up for the plot are notoriously difficult to sing, let alone belt out eight times a week. And most looming of all is the fact that the original production was tailor-made to Streisand’s singular voice and talents, as is the collective memory of Funny Girl even decades later.

Playing a role originated by Streisand is every theater kid’s greatest dream and worst nightmare—and if it’s not the latter, then it should be. A casting notice for an earlier attempt at a Funny Girl revival that ultimately never came to fruition stated that its Fanny Brice must be “a once in a generation talent,” as well as in possession of “an unforgettably thrilling voice with a big range (E below middle C to a high F; Mezzo with a high mix or belt) and great comic skill, masking deep insecurity and pain.” With all that in mind, a crew of producers including Sonia Friedman, Scott Landis, David Babani, and director Michael Mayer ultimately cast Feldstein, describing her as “very modern and fresh and Jewish and hilariously funny and a brilliant actress and a lovely singer and an unlikely but fantastic dancer.” In an attempt to avoid the unavoidable comparison altogether, Feldstein wasn’t meant to be a Streisand replica—that was the entire point. But charting a completely new course wasn’t an option for many, because for a certain streaming generation (and a certain TiVo generation before it), Lea Michele had already become just as inextricable from the role of Fanny Brice as Streisand was before her: a strange and twisted fact that this Michele-less revival proved more true than ever before.

In Ryan Murphy’s Glee, which ran like a freight train on a slushie-slicked track from 2009 to 2015, Michele starred as Rachel Berry, an uptight, immensely talented, Streisand-obsessed musical theater geek who refused to let her light be dimmed, and even more resolutely refused to learn from her mistakes. It was from Lea Michele that many 2000s teens heard their first rousing rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in the Glee midseason 1 finale; it was Michele who performed “My Man” with such emotion in Season 2 that Kurt Hummel whispered his now infamous line, “She may be difficult, but boy can she sing”; it was Lea Michele who taught millions of theater kids the fundamental fact that Barbra Streisand’s first name contains only two A’s. Each chapter of Michele’s 2014 book, Brunette Ambition (more recipes, beauty tips, and pictures of Michele in her closet than memoir), opens with a quote from Streisand. And in Season 5 of Glee, Lea Michele as Rachel Berry was cast to play Fanny Brice in the Broadway revival of—you guessed it—Funny Girl, during which time Ryan Murphy even held the rights to the stage play, though nothing ever came of it outside of the TV show. Lea Michele had been not-so-quietly auditioning to play Fanny Brice for upward of a decade.

And so, when the Funny Girl revival was announced in August 2021 with Feldstein set to lead, Michele’s name trended on Twitter with 280-character fan-fiction odes to her presumed rage at not getting the part. And when the less-than-glowing reviews for the production and Feldstein’s vocal performance within it—“It’s simply not a sound you expect to hear on Broadway,” wrote Helen Shaw at Vulture—dropped in April 2022, Michele trended again with thousands of versions of the same joke about Jonathan Groff reading his (allegedly illiterate) bestie the negative reviews. And in June, when Funny Girl announced that Beanie Feldstein and Jane Lynch—oh yes, in a very special twist of the knife, Michele’s frequent Glee foil actually was cast in the Funny Girl revival—would be departing the show in September, just six months after it opened, Michele’s name trended beyond Twitter and into the actual Broadway rumor mill.

With ticket sales in a major slump after the show was mostly shut out at the Tonys, and with Feldstein leaving early (whether by choice or heavy suggestion), there was much talk of who would replace her. It could be her understudy, Julie Benko, who had received rave reviews when she’d taken over the role in Feldstein’s absence but did not have the box-office draw the show would need to stay afloat. And, of course, there was always Lea Michele. Over the next few weeks, the Broadway drama that erupted was surely an upsetting circus for Beanie Feldstein and the rest of the Funny Girl cast. But for “annoying people,” as perfectly described by Izzy Bohn at the time, the weeks of showtune speculation was nothing short of pop culture perfection.

It takes determination to follow the timeline on how beloved but miscast talent Feldstein was ultimately replaced with the internet’s plaything Michele by a team of legendary Broadway producers via a process that can only be described as bumbling. But no group has the dedication (and occasionally misguided energy) of grown-up theater kids matrixing the unverified gossip of Reddit, Twitter, and Broadway World message boards. Watching those rumors then become reality in real time felt like a rare, gratifying treat to the highly online. But once the hubbub dies down, all we’re left with is reality.

On June 30, Gawker posted an article saying that Michele really was in talks to replace Feldstein after her departure in September. According to a subsequent Daily Beast exposé on the disastrous Fanny Brice transition plan (spoiler alert: there was no plan), Feldstein stopped communicating with producers after the Gawker article came out. Before the show could announce that Michele would replace Feldstein when she left in September, Feldstein announced on her own Instagram that she had “made the extremely difficult decision to step away sooner than anticipated” after the production “decided to take the show in a different direction,” and would be leaving even earlier, on July 31. The next day, Funny Girl announced that Benko would take over the role for the month of August, and then, beginning on September 6, Michele would finally play Fanny Brice on Broadway (non-Glee edition).

Gleeks and haters alike planted a seed on Twitter, and now a tree grows at the August Wilson Theatre. It’s why, on Tuesday, I find myself sitting next to Harvey Fierstein as a recording of his own voice comes over the loudspeaker to instruct a buzzing audience to quiet down (a must) and mask up (a suggestion). We all briefly hold our breath to see whether Michele sinks or swims in her first leading Broadway role since she left Spring Awakening 14 years ago, but the quiet doesn’t last long. The lights go down, the orchestra plays the overture, and from the moment that Michele garners her first standing ovation by simply arriving onstage as Fanny Brice after over a decade of striving to do so, nothing is ever the same. This debut audience, at least, has clearly chosen “swim”—a somewhat surprising reveal, given the conversation that’s circled Michele’s Funny Girl debut, and the way the words “chaos” and “drama” bounced off the lobby walls on the way into the theater. My line-mates, who seemed skeptical enough going into the show and who got their tickets less than an hour before they arrived, are now sitting front-row center. At intermission, they call Michelle “a fireball, a force” and rave about the self-assured way she’s slipped into Fanny: “She doesn’t even sweat!”

Indeed, Michele is built to play the part. She’s “a natural hollerer,” as they say, and the endless roaring applause, which could be unsettling to some, is fuel to her fire. As Fanny, she’s indignant and scrappy, ferocious and sincere. She’s not outrageously funny, but she is fun, and that’s a new color on the self-proclaimed perfectionist. Most importantly—she sings the ever-loving shit out of these songs. You can feel the entire audience lean forward in their seats for “People,” refusing to disengage except to rise to their feet after she’s floated out that final “luckiest people in the ... woooorld.” Neither Streisand imitation nor Rachel Berry reprisal, the vocal performance is simply extraordinary. It’s what she was brought in to do, after all—but no matter how good I assumed “Don’t Rain on My Parade” would be, it was better. And, unfortunately for the skeptic in me and the many skeptical people I have to report back to, that goes for Michele in the entire role, as well.

What I really hadn’t prepared myself for was Michele’s emotional capacity in the more dramatic—and typically less engaging—second act. In Glee, Michele was a young adult playing a teenager; in Funny Girl, she’s an adult playing a teenager who grows into a woman, and it’s the latter she nails most, which, as it turns out, is what Funny Girl requires to shine as a story. Watching Michele in the role, I believe that Nick’s is the only music that makes Fanny dance, frustrating as that may be. Her anger at him is gratifying, and her attraction to him is … palpable. Ramin Karimloo as Nick Arnstein kisses like Nick Miller (the highest compliment possible), and uses his hands like weapons of seduction. His chemistry with Michele jumps off the stage in a way chemistry so often does not in live theater. And yet, the dominant love story of this debut performance is not so much the one between Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein, but the one between Lea Michele and her enraptured audience.

Whether a successful debut really merits six standing ovations, and a three-minute seventh one to end on (eat your heart out, Cannes), may come down to personal preference. Most people I spoke to before, during, and after the show reiterated that they’ve been to a lot of Broadway shows, and they’ve never seen anything like this audience reaction; we’re well aware that we’ve been swept up in a tide, and yet no one seems to want to return to land.

Stephen Carella, who I later find out was deemed the “twink in opera gloves” during one of the show’s many live-tweet threads (a moniker he proudly claims), says that Groff may have been leading the orchestra in standing ovations, but he made sure the mezzanine followed suit. (A friend we make outside the stage door, Madeline Corley, tells us that she didn’t realize she was sitting directly in front of Groff until she looked to see who was sobbing behind her.) Carella and his friend Katie Lemmen—both actors trying to make it in the city, “just like everybody else”—came for the pop culture moment that would be Lea Michele taking over the role of Fanny Brice, but found the entire show electric: “That’s the only way to describe it.” Both friends also came to the show during previews in April, and they say their ability to follow and enjoy the story tonight was “night and day—it’s a different show entirely.”

It’s a ringing endorsement for a production that was approaching financial disaster just a few months ago. As for Michele, the sweeping sense is that this could be the beginning of a resurgence, though it’s impossible for that sort of gushing to not come with a tacked-on hedge: “I just hope that she’s grown.” Because most of the reasons that Michele’s detractors held on to for why she shouldn’t have been cast as Fanny—she’s just a Barbra impersonator, she doesn’t have the comedy chops, she can’t make the role her own, she won’t blend in with the rest of the cast—evaporated on Tuesday night. And finally, we’re left alone with the only hesitation that ever really mattered: Does Lea Michele deserve a comeback?

Lea Michele during her first Funny Girl curtain call last week
WireImage

It cannot be overstated how popular Glee was in its early seasons; likewise, Spring Awakening, which Lea Michele workshopped and starred in from ages 14 to 22, was as successful as it was groundbreaking, basically serving as a feeder system for young Broadway stars to become even bigger stars (Groff, Skylar Astin, John Gallagher Jr.). So with two high-profile projects under her belt, it became more and more notable that Michele’s career trajectory was not continuing upward after six seasons of Glee. The rumored consensus had long been that Michele was a diva in the traditional sense of the word: high talent, high demands, poor manners, distaste for sharing the spotlight. But in June 2020, rumors of a bloated ego ratcheted up to documented allegations of even more offensive behavior.

When Michele tweeted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, there was a swift backlash from her former Glee costar Samantha Marie Ware. Ware, who is Black, tweeted that Michele made her life “a living hell” during Season 6 of the show, as well as a much more specific accusation: “I believe you told everyone that if you had the opportunity you would ‘s— in my wig!’ amongst other traumatic microaggressions that made me question a career in Hollywood.” Other members of the Glee cast backed Ware up via surreptitious likes and suggestive GIFs, as well as statements confirming that Michele was unpleasant to work with. Understudies and ensemble members from Broadway shows dating as far back as when Michele was 12 years old, commented on Instagram and Twitter to say that Michele made sure they always felt beneath her, outright telling them they didn’t belong. One of the more troubling stories—and one that cannot be swept under the rug of youth or dramatics—is from trans model Plastic Martyr, who recalled on Instagram that years ago, at an Emmys ceremony when she “wasn’t 100 percent as ‘passable,’” Michele barked at her to leave the women’s restroom as she washed her hands. “I remember going from feeling so beautiful that day to walking out of that bathroom feeling so self-conscious and embarrassed,” Martyr wrote.

To the abundance of accounts, Michele posted a Notes app apology on Instagram, saying that she was focusing “specifically on how my own behavior toward cast members was perceived by them.” Seemingly addressing Ware’s perception of her behavior, Michele wrote, “While I don’t remember ever saying this specific statement and I have never judged others by their background or the color of their skin, that’s not really the point. What matters is I clearly acted in ways which hurt other people.” Michele lost her HelloFresh sponsorship and slipped away into the privacy of her own life. But she was hardly canceled as much as she was relentlessly clowned for being a bad person.

That clowning, however, was soon overtaken—and then completely consumed—by a formerly niche joke that Michele can’t read. Michele’s alleged illiteracy is a conspiracy theory that appeared mostly out of thin air in 2017 when pop culture podcasters Jaye Hunt and Robert Ackerman read a section of the late Naya Rivera’s book, Sorry Not Sorry, in which she recounted how Michele refused to improvise with TV legend Tim Conway and made his granddaughter cry. Hunt and Ackerman presumed that since Michele hadn’t responded to the accusation, then she must have been incapable of reading Rivera’s book at all—and like clockwork, proofs of concept suddenly appeared all over YouTube and Twitter.

But more than documenting evidence that Michele can’t read (notably, Michele’s limited rebuttals haven’t exactly provided great evidence that she can read), tracking this increasingly omnipresent joke reveals an odd relationship with how even bad-faith humor can create a platform for someone who was meant to be cast out. When Feldstein was cast in Funny Girl, and later, when she was critiqued for her performance, Michele reemerged into the pop culture conversation. Not about how she’d been exposed for doing horrible things to her coworkers less than a year ago—but about how she couldn’t read, with countless jokes about how that would have affected her reception of these Funny Girl updates.

The mark of a great internet villain is one that we can at least have a good time disliking. Katharine Quinn, a multi-hyphenate theater artist and studier of industry trends on her popular Broadway TikTok channel, says that she feels like the meme has given us some weird permission to like Michele again: “Introducing humor makes something less scary, and inherently less frightening.” Some much-deserved ribbing about a conspiracy theory that definitely (probably) isn’t real has now gone on long enough to serve as a kind of unexpected on-ramp back into the general public’s decent graces. “Making a joke about somebody can make you feel more powerful in a situation,” Quinn says. “It almost gives people permission to talk down to her and tolerate her simultaneously.”

But Michele isn’t laughing along. As was well-documented during her debut performance, Fanny’s line “I haven’t read a lot of books,” got an unexpected laugh when performed by its new lead. Well, at first it was a laugh … then a sort of choking … then a shushing and tittering as the final audience members finally realized what they’d missed. But in that lengthy response time, Michele didn’t do anything to ham it up or ad-lib like she had with the laughs and cheers at other prescient lines such as, “You think they’re gonna like me, mama?” I ask Carella whether, as an actor, in Michele’s shoes, he would have engaged with the audience’s reaction, and he confirms he would have: “But I’m just a little more camp.”

Lea Michele has never leaned into the joke or the camp of how pop culture perceives her, because leaning in would necessitate owning up to the role that she plays as a white woman who’s been given a speedy second chance at redemption. In an interview with The New York Times ahead of her Funny Girl debut, Michele described herself as someone who has “an edge” to her hard work and leaves no room for mistakes: “That level of perfectionism, or that pressure of perfectionism, left me with a lot of blind spots.” If Michele acknowledges that those blind spots have historically harmed people, it’s not made clear in the wording. “Yes, I’m online today,” Ware tweeted after Michele’s casting was made official in July. “Yes, I see y’all. Yes, I care. Yes, I’m affected. Yes, I’m human. Yes, I’m Black. Yes, I was abused. Yes, my dreams were tainted. Yes, Broadway upholds whiteness. Yes, Hollywood does the same. Yes, silence is complicity. Yes, I’m loud. Yes, I’d do it again.”

A combination of Michele’s being invited to perform at the 2022 Tonys in a special anniversary tribute with the rest of the Spring Awakening original cast, as well as showcasing her always-charming friendship with Groff in HBO’s Spring Awakening documentary in May 2022 opened up a reputational loophole just in time for the Funny Girl cast shake-up. But Michele can’t exactly be blamed for accepting her dream role when producers came calling. That ire is better directed toward the industry of people making these decisions, says Chris Peterson, founder of the long-running Onstage Blog and a public critic of Michele’s casting. “God love performers,” he says, “but in the scheme of things, they have very little power to actually change the industry as a whole.”

Peterson and Quinn agree that, even after endless conversations about creating more opportunities for inclusivity and diversity during the social unrest of the pandemic, Broadway returned to a status quo in which the majority of rooms are still run by the same 20 producers with the same systems and structures in place. That’s why Peterson encourages every high school and college student he encounters to keep exploring careers in theater, even after they’ve realized they may not be the next onstage star: “Because we need this generation that’s coming up to be equipped: to be able to be a producer, to be an artistic director, to be designers who could actually impact that change.”

After the applause has finally died down and a tear-soaked Lea Michele has left the stage, Harvey Fierstein jokes, “If I only had the energy, I’d write this book.” It’s a funny thing to say given that he quite literally revised this book. But he clarifies that he’d like to write a book about Funny Girl’s many attempted iterations: from Streisand, to Paris, to London, to Broadway—to Beanie, to Benko, to Michele. “I mean, I wrote [the revised book] eight years ago for this little theater in London, never thinking this,” he says. “But here we are, and it ain’t over yet.”

It surely isn’t—because this is the story that will not quit, not even at the stage door, where Michelle greets her fans and signs autographs before ultimately retreating into a car that Groff is overhead saying is so full of flowers she’ll simply have to sit on top of them. Four days and three performances into Michele’s triumphant Funny Girl debut, she tested positive for COVID. She’ll be out through September 20. The Instagram and Twitter cries of “karma!” were as swift as they were vague.

In its long, twisted, and dramatic story, it seems that Broadway’s Funny Girl revival has found only one Fanny whose parade cannot be rained upon: Julie Benko. The understudy and frequent production savior will step back into the role of Fanny for the 10 days that Michele is out, just like she did for the month interim when producers bungled the Feldstein-Michele transition, and just like she’s signed on to do every Thursday night for the duration of Michele’s run. Her trajectory to Broadway’s underdog darling of the season feels like the living embodiment of the Funny Girl line: “That’s life in the theater!”

Benko has no bigger fans than “the Cornet Girls,” a group of five young women who’ve used the rush ticket system to see the Funny Girl revival 20 times in the past two months (unfortunately rush tickets ended when Michele’s much-anticipated run began). They love all the Fanny Brices they’ve seen—Beanie Feldstein five times, Julie Benko 13 times, and swing Ephie Aardema both times she’s gone on as Fanny—but of Benko, May Rasaw says that she “was made for that role, and I will say that till the day I die.” The Cornet Girls will soon cement their Funny Girl bond with matching tattoos of a star they had Benko draw for them. Haley Keizur references a conversation from the play where Fanny describes her relationship with the audience using a Yiddish word: heimish, meaning familiar or comfortable. “I think no one encapsulates that the way that Julie does with the audience,” says Keizur.

It’s the kind of comfort, the kind of trust that takes time and work to establish. When I get on the subway a few hours after the show has ended, I see a different group of young women across the tracks huddled around a phone. The sounds of a bootleg recording of Lea Michele singing “Rain on My Parade,” echo across the station. They’re listening and staring intently, until Michele hits the bridge and one of them finally exclaims, “You better work, bitch.” It’s an affirmation, but it’s also solid advice.

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