Funny Girl on Broadway to Conclude After Controversial Run


Matthew Murphy

Julie Benko stepped into the role of Fanny Brice before Lea Michele joined the production.

Last week, Funny Girl released a statement announcing the closing of its run at the August Wilson Theatre. The run has been tumultuous to say the least. In February 2022, it was announced that Funny Girl, the life story of famed Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, would be revived on Broadway later that year. Beanie Feldstein, comedy superstar, would play Fanny, starring alongside Broadway favorite Ramin Karimloo and Glee legend Jane Lynch.

Although the announcement of Feldstein’s run was met with warmth, many critics questioned her ability to sing the notoriously challenging score. The original Broadway production of Funny Girl was led by one of the greatest singers and actors of all time, Barbra Streisand, and many believe that only she can do the role and score justice. Feldstein’s comedic talent was lost when it came to her singing ability which, although good, was not up for the task of performing such a challenging score for eight shows every week. Critics bashed her performance, and she announced in early July that she’d be departing the show July 25, two months earlier than expected.

In an Instagram post, Feldstein said, “Once the production decided to take the show in a different direction, I made the extremely difficult decision to step away sooner than anticipated.”

It soon became clear that the “different direction” was the decision to replace Feldstein with Lea Michele. When the revival was first announced, the only actor on anyone’s mind to play Fanny was Michele, and for good reason. Michele was the star of Fox’s TV show Glee,which had a massive following of theater kids — and adults. Michele’s character Rachel Berry was a dramatic and self-interested prima donna, but was arguably the most talented member of McKinley High School’s Glee Club. As Berry, Michele sang multiple songs from Funny Girl, including “I’m the Greatest Star” and the timeless “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” In the show, Berry ultimately realized her dream to play Fanny Brice in a Broadway revival of Funny Girl, and as it turns out, Michele shared that dream. Michele had stated for years that she wanted to play Fanny Brice and even told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live in 2014 that she’d be playing the role on Broadway since Glee creator Ryan Murphy had obtained the rights. However, funding fell through, and Michele’s hopes were dashed.

Then, in 2020, Michele was accused by Black actor Samantha Marie Ware, who appeared in the final season of Glee, of traumatic microaggressions due to Ware’s race. Michele apologized publicly and repeatedly affirmed that she has put herself through “an intense time of reflection.” Many saw Michele’s return to Broadway as her redemption arc — a chance to prove to the world that she was no longer the diva of before, but instead a wife and mother seeking to showcase her talent and fully embody the role of  Fanny Brice.

However, before Michele took to the stage, a new superstar assumed the role of Fanny. Julie Benko, the standby for Fanny during Feldstein’s run, was given the opportunity to be Fanny for eight shows a week for one month leading up to Michele’s debut. Benko had already wowed critics in her performances on the nights that Feldstein was out, and the announcement that she would assume the lead role was well-received by the public. Benko continued to amaze while performing on the rigorous schedule.

“There is no harder job in the theater than playing Fanny Brice eight times a week,” Benko said in an interview with the Review. “You spend every moment of every day recovering from it and amping yourself up to do it again. It’s just a huge strain vocally, physically, emotionally, … you name it. The challenge is what also makes it so rewarding, though.”

No matter how challenging her role was, Benko seemed to play it with ease while adding her own twists to the role, to much acclaim. Now, as the alternate for Brice, Benko finds that she has the ideal schedule.

“Now that I’m the alternate, I kind of have the best of worlds,” she said. “I love having a set schedule so I can plan my week around my performance. I know when I can take a break from the disciplined eating I have to do to protect my voice and let myself have some pizza and a cocktail or something — though I do try to be careful most of the time, just in case Lea ends up needing to call out.”

I was fortunate enough to see Michele in Funny Girl last October. I went into the show with high expectations, given the golden reviews Michele had received so far, but nothing could have prepared my ears for what I was about to hear. Alongside Karimloo, who was grounded and the perfect complement, Michele put on the best vocal performance I have ever heard live. Her belted versions of “I’m the Greatest Star,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and “People” were literally show-stopping — the crowd stood on their feet to clap mid-act numerous times throughout the show. Her acting was also top-notch, and she fully embodied the role of Fanny. Tovah Feldshuh, who played Brice’s mother, was hilarious, and her comedic timing and wit was unmatched. The supporting cast, including Broadway and TikTok star Amber Ardolino, was sublime, and I left the theater in awe of what I had just witnessed.

Although her hire was controversial and the drama preceding it was hard to ignore, Michele embraced the role of Fanny with open arms and a creative mind and has continued to blow audiences away. She may have been difficult, but boy, can she sing.