Start spreading the news! Rachel Berry … I mean Lea Michele is going to be the next “Funny Girl”!
On July 11, “Funny Girl” on Broadway announced via Instagram that Michele will take on the iconic role of Fanny Brice this fall, joining the cast midway through the Broadway season. Though Michele will certainly pull off the role — something her six seasons on “Glee” and personal Broadway record make clear — audiences do not support her as the next Brice.
So why cast her in the first place? Like everything else in the Broadway world, the answer comes back to the Tonys.
2022 Tony Nominations
The success of any Broadway show depends on its Tony treatment. First established in 1947, the Tony Awards recognize excellence in live Broadway theater by nominating current musical and play productions for awards in various categories.
Think of nominations like recommendations: If the Tonys like a performance, they will tell others to go see the show by nominating it for an award. This nod from the Tonys all but guarantees a show will have a good season, so nominations are very important.
When the 2022 list came out for Tony nominations, the theater world expected “Funny Girl” to dominate the season. After all, this is the first (and only!) time the show has been revived in the U.S. since its original Broadway run in 1964. But “Funny Girl” only received one nomination, and in a modest category at that. The show didn’t even make the cut for Best Rival of a Musical.
In a world where Tony nominations practically produce ticket sales, the Broadway world took notice of the play’s single nomination. More and more seats sat empty in the August Wilson Theatre, and producers started to sweat. Not long after, the show announced it would take things in a “new direction.”
Act One: Failed Expectations
Since the show opened at the end of April, lackluster reviews started pouring in. Though the entire production received mediocre ratings, critics focused their negativity on the leading lady of “Funny Girl”: Beanie Feldstein.
Most known for her central roles in “Booksmart” and “Lady Bird,” Feldstein made her Broadway debut in 2017 as Minnie Fay in “Hello, Dolly!” Working alongside legend Bette Midler, Feldstein received much praise for her role in the production. So, what changed?
For most, the claim comes down to failed expectations. Barbara Streisand, who originally played Brice on Broadway and won two separate Tonys for the portrayal, is a powerhouse performer, to say the least. Following in Streisand’s footsteps would be hard for any actress, and few have succeeded in the attempt. Feldstein went into “Funny Girl” under high expectations and, like reviewer Adam Feldman said, “falls on her Fanny.”
Act Two: Reviving the Revival
Producers quickly realized they needed to make a memorable quick change if they wanted to save their failing production of “Funny Girl.”
Feldstein, who was originally slated to leave the show at the end of September, took to Instagram a week ago to announce that she will now depart a month earlier than expected. “Once the production decided to take the show in a different direction,” she said in her post, “I made the extremely difficult decision to step away sooner than anticipated.” Feldstein’s last performance will be on July 31.
With the need for a new Brice gone public, social media erupted with Broadway activity. Over the next week, TikTok especially saw a flood of fan theories and speculations as to who would replace Feldstein. First thoughts immediately went to Michele, who has expressed her interest in the role several times since championing the show during her time on “Glee.” But even with all the gossip, fans still thought the casting to be no more than a rumor.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Despite — or, perhaps, because of — fan expectations, Michele scored the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway. Thanks to what many are calling the “Rachel Berry Effect,” the star will follow in her television character’s footsteps and lead the revival of “Funny Girl” in the second half of the season. Starting on Sept. 6, Michele will take to the Broadway stage for the first time since 2008.
Act Three: Casting Controversy
Michele certainly has the musical chops to take on Streisand’s legacy role, but many wonder if she can actually lead “Funny Girl” out of its Broadway rut. Though social media buzz has certainly spiked since the announcement, fans question the producers’ decision to cast Michele as Brice in the first place.
Fanny Brice is more than just a character; she was a real person. Born Fania Borach, Brice was a middle child of Jewish immigrants before becoming one of America’s great clowns. Though The Jewish Chronicle has said that an actress does not need to be Jewish to play Brice, the original performer gained her fame by “exploiting her Jewishness and caricaturing her ethnicity.” As a religiously non-Jewish actress, audiences question Michele’s legitimacy to portray Brice.
But faith isn’t fans’ only concern with Michele’s new role. The actress is notorious for her abuse both backstage and behind the screen, specifically when it comes to her minority castmates.
Samantha Ware, a Black actress with her own Broadway stage credits, shared the screen with Michele during the final season of “Glee.” Though Ware says she was nothing but kind to the show’s Prima Dona, Michele still made regular threats against her job. “It’s scary,” Ware said in an interview with Variety. “When I tried to speak up for myself, [Michele] told me to shut my mouth. She said I don’t deserve to have that job.”
Even as a child, Michele was a terror to work with. The actress was 15 when she started regularly attending workshops for future Broadway hit “Spring Awakening,” and by the time the show opened in 2006, Michele was a bad dream made living. Understudy Gerard Canonico said to Michele, “You were nothing but a nightmare to me and fellow understudy cast members. You made us feel like we didn’t belong there.”
Terrorizing Her Way to the Top
By casting Michele, “Funny Girl” may just be raining on its fans’ parade. Producers hope that Michele’s star power and musical track record can finally meet the high expectations for their Broadway revival, but with a resume riddled with power plays and blatant bullying, even “Glee” fans are wary to accept Michele as the next Brice.
Yet, ticket sales for the Broadway production have gone through the roof since Michele joined the cast. In just a few weeks, “Funny Girl” prices have skyrocketed, with the best seats selling for upwards of $2,500. It seems that, no matter the controversy, people are still going to come out to hear Michele perform. In the words of “Glee” character Kurt Hummel, “She may be difficult, but boy can she sing.”