Julie Benko is arguably the biggest star of them all.
The first Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” has been the subject of many a gossip column. First, star Beanie Feldstein said she would be leaving the production prematurely, citing unspecified creative differences. Then former “Glee” star Lea Michele was announced as Feldstein’s replacement. Michele has been open about her desire to play the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway, but her casting has resurfaced complaints about the actor’s previous behavior on set. Meanwhile, the show received mediocre critical acclaim and only one Tony nomination (for supporting actor Jared Grimes), while fellow actor Jane Lynch left the production three weeks earlier, shortly after Feldstein’s departure.
Through it all, though, audiences and critics agree on one thing: Benko, the standby for Fanny Brice, is a Broadway breakthrough. (The difference between a standby and an understudy is that an understudy appears on the show at night as a minor role, while the sole purpose of the standby is to play the lead role when needed.)
Even before Feldstein’s departure and Michele’s casting, Benko played the part a number of times while Feldstein dealt with conditions such as COVID-19 and tonsillitis. When Feldstein left the show early, Benko took charge for the four-week period between her departure and Michele’s joining the cast.
“The audience was incredibly welcoming and supportive,” Benko said in an interview with TODAY. “…They embraced me and embraced my story, which was really cool. I think people really love the meta-theatricality of it all: a star is born. Fanny Brice is this unknown, and then they come to the theater to support this person who has worked her way up as an unknown for so much of her career.”
Even before the casting of “Funny Girl” took center stage, fans supported Benko. When she announces she’s putting on a certain show, fans of the show or Benko’s rush to fill seats. Often spectators are disappointed to learn that an understudy is underway for the lead that evening or afternoon. But in Benko’s case, her vocal prowess and quirky sympathy greatly changed that mindset, especially when a snippet of her “Don’t Rain On My Parade” belt made the rounds on Facebook last week. This rare four-week stint in the role was her longest time as Fanny, allowing her to create her own version of the character first made iconic by Barbra Streisand.
“I’m really excited to discover my own version of Fanny,” Benko says of her character, who starts the show as a Brooklyn stranger and becomes a star for her humor and clowning work. “I’m able to play and explore (the role) night to night. You’re just in your body and you can make (choices) easier because you know you’re going to have a chance to do it again. You can’t do an imitation, whether it’s Barbra or Beanie.’
The biggest difference between herself and Feldstein, Benko says, is when Fanny acts as a clown. That happens in three musical numbers, meaning the actor engages in intense physical comedy while singing beloved musical theater standards.
“It’s such an exhausting show, for your voice and for your body,” Benko said. “It was an experience teaching myself to pace.”
And as for those backstage rumours…
“They don’t match my experience at all,” Benko said resolutely when asked about anonymous production leaks about backstage drama. “When one of those things came out, if I read them I would be very upset, because I found that they were full of lies. … My experience in the theater was that everyone was very professional, did their job and was grateful to do the show.”
Benko said that when Feldstein left “Funny Girl” in late July, the actor “couldn’t have been nicer”, adding that the two have a “beautiful friendship”.
“She’s a great person,” Benko said.