NEW YORK (AP) – Lea Michele has been tapped to step in and lead the Broadway revival of the beleaguered Funny Girl this fall, an announcement made just hours after current star Beanie Feldstein revealed she was leaving the musical sooner than anticipated due to the show taking a “different direction.”
The high-profile casting change rocked the Broadway community and represents another step toward a return to the spotlight and respectability for Michele after former Glee castmates in 2020 accused the actor of behaviour that was interpreted as racist and bullying.
Michele, who started her career on Broadway and starred in the original Spring Awakening recently returned to the work with the documentary Spring Awakening: Those You’ve Known. In many ways, her ascension to playing Ziegfeld Follies comedian Fanny Brice – the role Barbra Streisand famously played on film – was foreshadowed by Michele singing several Funny Girl songs during the run of Glee.
After the show’s formal announcement, Michele hailed her next career step, saying “a dream come true is an understatement” on Instagram. She did not mention Feldstein.
Broadway is usually known for its quiet, seamless transitions after A-list stars depart shows – in part to protect multimillion-dollar shows – indicating that the backstage machinations at Funny Girl have been strained at best.
In an extraordinary step, Feldstein took to social media Sunday to say that while playing the heroine of Funny Girl was a “lifelong dream,” she could no longer continue due to choices by producers and would leave early, on July 31.
“Once the production decided to take the show in a different direction, I made the extremely difficult decision to step away sooner than anticipated,” she wrote. Her Instagram post was notably liked by Broadway veteran Ramin Karimloo, who plays Brice’s love interest in Funny Girl and is staying on.
Fanny Brice standby Julie Benko will perform the title role from August 2 – September 4 – and every Thursday beginning September 8 – and Michele will step in starting September 6.
That is also the date four-time Tony Award nominee Tovah Feldshuh will replace Emmy-winner Jane Lynch as Brice’s mother, meaning there will be no Broadway reunion of Glee castmates Michele and Lynch.
Feldstein has missed several performances in recent weeks, including a weekend matinee. Last month, she missed a string of shows due to a positive COVID-19 test. She had previously said she would depart the show September 25, but now won’t last past the end of July.
Fanny is one of musical theatre’s more difficult roles to cast, needing both a set of pipes, a sense of humour and a spunky charm, perhaps why it has only now been revived on theatre’s biggest stage. Streisand starred in it on Broadway in 1964 and then won an Oscar in the 1968 film version.
The bittersweet comedy tells the tale of a Jewish girl from New York in the 1920s who went from burlesque to Broadway stages despite criticism that she wasn’t conventionally beautiful. Funny Girl is a musical that celebrates the oddballs, the kooky and the misfits, with Jule Styne-penned gems of songs like Don’t Rain on My Parade, I’m the Greatest Star and People.
Feldstein, the Booksmart and Lady Bird actor, considered it one of theatre’s highest honours to play Brice, telling The Associated Press in April that she tried not to think about it too much or she’d “explode.”
Reviews were mixed to poor, with many critics saying that while Feldstein brought excitement and spirit, her voice was simply not up to the task, with the Hollywood Reporter review saying “she never quite makes the material soar, and this is a rickety vehicle that needs a supernova to put gas in its tank.”
Feldstein, who made her Broadway debut in 2017 in the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello, Dolly!, failed to secure a Tony nomination for Funny Girl, and the show itself was brushed off with a single nod – to Jared Grimes, a featured actor in a musical.
Box office revenues have softened of late, with a slow decline since the Tony Awards in June. The latest data shows a weekly take slipping under USD1 million for an eight-performance week with the show performing to a house only 75 per cent filled.
“I feel like this production has been a magnet for drama. In fact, it appears as though it thrives on it. Any press is good press, I guess,” said theatre, film and television historian Mark A Robinson, the author of Musical Misfires: Three Decades of Broadway Musical Heartbreak and writer of the blog The Music That Makes Me Dance.
“I think the whole thing appears to be a PR nightmare, but clearly Beanie Feldstein is ready to move on. The show will only continue to run toward breaking even with a name and someone who can do vocal justice to that glorious score. Michele will do that. It may be messy, but messy creates publicity.”
Michele faced a backlash in 2020 and apologised for being “unnecessarily difficult” on the set of Glee after former co-star Samantha Marie Ware, who is Black, accused her of making her time there “a living hell.”
Michele issued a statement saying that while she didn’t recall any incident or judge anyone by their background, she was sorry and blamed her privilege and “immaturity.”
Reaction on Twitter on Monday was mostly sympathetic to Feldstein, with Ware defiant at the news. “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,” she tweeted.