As “Funny Girl,” the 1964 Broadway musical turned 1968 movie, begins, aspiring performer Fanny Brice just can’t catch a break. It’s hard not to see parallels in the current Broadway revival, which has received more time in the media spotlight than usual.
Fanny Brice, Beanie Feldstein, the show’s original cast, announced on social media on Sunday that they were leaving months earlier than planned, citing the “production’s decision to take the show in a different direction.”
Less than 24 hours later, that direction has been revealed: Lea Michele, who was quickly named Feldstein’s successor and will join the Broadway cast on September 6. Until then, the lead role will be played by stunt double Julie Benko, who appears to be starring in a “Funny Girl” type story of her own, with Benko continuing to play the role once a week after Michele steps in. Benko describes himself on his Twitter profile as “the luckiest reserve in the world.”
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Why is there so much drama in this comedy? What happened with Feldstein and why such a stir for this particular show? Salon breaks down what you need to know about “Funny Girl” and the elaborate casting drama.
With a score by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill and a book by Isobel Lennart, “Funny Girl” tells the semi-true story of actor, comedian and Broadway star Fanny Brice. Born Fania Borach, Brice, daughter of Hungarian and Alsatian Jewish immigrants, dropped out of school to take up burlesque. She found fame on stage, then on radio and television. She also had a series of rocky marriages.
“Funny Girl” in particular dramatizes her marriage to Nicky Arnstein, who was a professional gambler and con man with multiple aliases. Sentenced for “fraud”, he served a sentence at Sing-Sing. Brice visited Arnstein, who was married to someone else at the time, in prison every week. Upon his release, he divorced and then married Brice. They had two children. About a decade later, Arnstein served time at Leavenworth, and Brice was divorced when he was released.
As a dramatization, “Funny Girl” takes some liberties with Arnstein (and his crimes) as it does with Brice and their relationship. Omar Sharif played Arnstein in the film version. And Barbra Streisand originated the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway and in film.
It was hard to imagine the show without its first star, who shone so brightly that the flaws of the story’s continuation appeared in relief, like a spotlight illuminating the dusty backstage.
The Babs Effect
Streisand was already famous when “Funny Girl” opened. She had gotten her start in New York nightclubs and in comedies. While still a teenager, she made her Broadway debut with “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” for which she received a Tony Award nomination.
In some ways, “Funny Girl” seemed to parallel Streisand’s early career. While Brice dropped out of high school, Streisand graduated early at 16 and lived on her own as she tried to make it as a performer. Streisand changed his name (removing one of the “a’s”), repeatedly faced negative comments about his appearance, and was advised to get a nose job done. She refused.
In “Funny Girl”, the character of Brice is told that she is not pretty enough to be on stage, certainly not as a star. She almost gets fired because her legs are too skinny, and once she lands a major role — as Ziegfeld’s daughter, no less — she almost sabotages it by turning the very glamorous part into a joke. She’s so used to people laughing at her that she can’t stand being the lovely center of attention if it’s not a punchline (or cushion that makes her a very pregnant bride ).
Streisand won a Best Actress Oscar for the film version of “Funny Girl,” after being nominated for a Tony for the musical. With the exception of a West End production in 2016, there have been few notable revivals. It was hard to imagine the show without its first star, who shone so brightly that the flaws of the story’s continuation appeared in relief, like a spotlight illuminating the dusty backstage.
Other reviews weren’t as friendly. The Guardian wrote that Feldstein was “struggling”.
As Roger Egbert wrote in his review of the film, “The problem with ‘Funny Girl’ is almost anything but Barbra Streisand. She’s gorgeous… It’s impossible to over-praise Miss Streisand.” The New York Times wrote in its 1968 review: “When she sings – in a wondrous scene on roller skates – when she throws a line, or shrugs, or looks funny or sad, she has a power , a softness and intensity that rather knocks all the props, sets and camera angles on their ear.”
The “not great” cast of the revival
Of the new Broadway revival, The Times was less enthusiastic, calling it “sweet” and writing “without a terrific Fanny to delight and entertain, the musical’s myriad flaws become painfully obvious”. The critic calls Feldstein, who took Brice’s place, “not prodigious…She’s good. She’s quite funny in places.”
Other reviews weren’t as friendly. The Guardian wrote that Feldstein “struggled” while Variety called the production “uninspired”, calling Feldstein’s performance “a wide-eyed woman-child, by turns stubborn, clumsy and silly. nuanced.”
Feldstein is best known for her work in film and television, starring in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, 2017’s “Booksmart,” for which the actor earned a Golden Globe nomination, and in ” Lady Bird” by Greta Gerwig. She had a recurring role in the TV adaptation of “What We Do in the Shadows,” which garnered rave reviews, and starred as Monica Lewinsky in FX’s “American Crime Story: Impeachment.” She made her Broadway debut in 2017 in “Hello Dolly!” revival, which also received rave response, and is set to appear in Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Feldstein’s replacement, Michele, is best known for starring in “Glee,” the TV musical that ran from 2009 to 2015 and saw her rack up award nominations from two Golden Globe nominations to three nods. of Teen Choice. She began her career as a child actress, appearing in Broadway productions of “Les Miserables” and “Ragtime” before originating the role of Wendla in “Spring Awakening.” She has been very vocal about her desire to play Fanny Brice, and some see her casting as a sort of course correction.
Michele replacing Feldstein comes at a time when Broadway is still struggling after going dark at the start of COVID, hits that keep coming as the pandemic continues to rage.
Alas, a reunion with former “Glee” co-stars Michele and Jane Lynch (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) isn’t on the cards. Lynch is currently playing Brice’s mother in the production but will come out before Michele takes over. Lynch will be replaced by Tovah Feldshuh, who starred in the original Broadway production of “Yentl,” and recently appeared on The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Lynch and Michele could have overlapped in production except for the new schedules. Lynch was previously slated to leave the show after September, but is now leaving weeks early.
Lea Michele in “Glee” Michele replacing Feldstein comes at a time when Broadway is still struggling after going dark at the start of COVID, hits that keep coming as the pandemic continues to rage. A new variant has appeared. Meanwhile, Broadway theaters dropped their requirements for vaccines and masks (a New York Times review of the new revival of “Into the Woods” commented on “masks not worn at all” in the audience of a musical about, in part, helping each other). In the 2021-22 season, Broadway attendance and revenue were less than half of pre-pandemic numbers. As always, old shows keep the lights on. Besides “Into the Woods”, other Broadway covers include “The Music Man”, “Chicago”, and “Company”.
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It’s unclear if a revival of “Funny Girl” with Michele at the helm will draw crowds, if it has the Streisand touch that critics have accused Feldstein of lacking, or if Michele is able to make the coveted role her own. In a statement on Instagram, Michele wrote “A dream come true is an understatement,” echoing Feldstein’s statement about her departure: “Playing Fanny Brice on Broadway has been a lifelong dream of mine, and doing it these past few months has been a great joy and a true honour.”
As Fanny Brice herself says in the film: “For once, I didn’t say too much, I didn’t say too little. I just said what I said and then I market.”
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