Lea Michele in Funny Girl: a very good fit of actor and character, and the type of meta pop culture moment that delivers the thrill of feeling fated. Photograph: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

After months of whispers and chitchat, the controversial actor replaces Beanie Feldstein and assumes the iconic role made famous by Barbra Streisand

Unless you really think that all news is positive press, Funny Girl has had a difficult six months. When the original Broadway production of the musical debuted in April, the reviews, including mine, were mixed. In particular, they weren’t impressed by star Beanie Feldstein’s vocal prowess; he is best recognized for his roles in Booksmart, Lady Bird, and Impeachment: American Crime Story. Feldstein mastered the physical humor as Fanny Brice, a character (and real-life vaudeville star) whose brilliance is so evident that it transcends her clumsy personality and plain looks, but just lacked the vocal abilities to fill Barbra Streisand’s big shoes.

I stated at the time that Lea Michele, whose numerous performances of Funny Girl standards (on Glee, at the 2010 Tony Awards, and more Glee) essentially served as a years-long open audition, could sing the musical’s show-stopping song Don’t Rain on My Parade. Jane Lynch, who stars on the hit show Glee, plays Fanny’s mother. I wasn’t the only one who wondered; rumors of a Michele recast picked up steam when Feldstein and Lynch announced earlier-than-expected terminations of their Broadway runs amid rumors of backstage unhappiness and slow ticket sales (as well as no Tony nominations and praise for Feldstein’s understudy Julie Benko).

Midway through the summer, when Gawker publicized Michele’s signed contract, citing an anonymous production source, things truly turned into a gossip circus. To the apparent amazement of the producers, Feldstein then made an even earlier resignation announcement. As discussions between producers and Feldstein over her departure worsened, necessitating an early announcement of Michele’s hiring (along with Lynch’s successor, Tovah Feldshuh), a Daily Beast piece described the turmoil that developed behind the scenes. According to a “senior show source” who spoke to the Daily Beast, the program was in trouble, and Michele was considered as its last hope. “For the show to survive, Lea has to be so good that people who have already seen the show will say, ‘Oh, I heard she’s fabulous, you have to see the show again.'” Lea needs to be that talented.

Early September saw Michele make her stage debut to seven standing ovations, and a press-review performance in October proved the rumors true: she really is that excellent. It’s Michele’s show, for better or worse, given her repute for supposedly being a bully on the Glee production. (Michele later said that having been a child star on Broadway, her extreme perfectionism “left me with a lot of blind spots.”)

Michele’s success is most apparent in the victorious diva moments that Feldstein’s reign was unable to produce. Standing in the spotlight with her arms raised and her forceful voice gilding the rafters, Michele made the most of the many occasions to lay an emphasis on her mastery of the part. The crowd gobbled it up, whether for the drama or for the natural joy of seeing someone dive for the top and grab it; shouts virtually drowned out half of Michele’s capstone notes.

Lea Michele and the cast of Funny Girl

Michele and the cast of Funny Girl. Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

Apart from singing—which, as Fanny persuasively argues in the song “I’m The Greatest Star,” is mostly the point—Michele expertly conveyed the show’s vaudevillian comedy and Fanny’s progression from chorus line hopeful to newlywed to seasoned star with a volatile marriage. Although she is married to gambler Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), Michele’s Fanny is more feisty and sensual, making her a lot more credible spouse, both emotionally and physically, than Feldstein’s portrayal of Fannie who was more impressionable and innocent. The type of self-delusion required to become a star, the kind that fueled both Michele’s own troubled notoriety and her Glee character Fanny (who later starred in a fake revival of Funny Girl). In other words, it is the kind of meta-pop culture moment that gives the rush of feeling predestined and a really excellent match between actor and role.

With Michele supporting the major moments, the production—directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Ellenore Scott—glows more brilliantly. Karimloo is still credible as a man beguiled by wounded pride, Jared Grimes’s acrobatic tap dancing is still mesmerizing and stirring, and Susan Hilferty’s exquisite costumes are still noteworthy, particularly for the ensemble. In her 50th season on Broadway, Feldshuh gives Fanny’s mother, a wise old tavern owner with a sweet, unassuming center, a hammy appeal.

In hindsight, the producers deserve the most of the responsibility for the drama since they deliberately set Feldstein up for failure by putting her in the iconic Streisand role, handling the management of her replacement poorly, and failing to keep Michele’s contract information a secret. That is a shame. Nevertheless, whether you like it or not, Michele delivered, and Funny Girl has improved as a consequence of the chaos.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story. 


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