NEW YORK — Lea Michele was 21 when she first saw “Funny Girl.” She was starring on Broadway in “Spring Awakening,” but all was not well in her personal life.
“I had just gone through a horrible breakup,” she recalls. “I didn’t care what was happening for me in my career. I was so heartbroken and I couldn’t believe that I had to pick myself up and go on stage every night.”
Michael Mayer, her “Spring Awakening” director, noticed a forlorn Michele and prescribed a special theater cure: a big dose of Barbra Streisand as vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice in the movie musical “Funny Girl.” It was the story of a woman refusing to let a man drag her down.
That did the trick: “I fell in love with it. And I fell in love with the story and I fell in love with the music. And, of course, Barbra.” Michele would go on to star in “Glee,” where she would sing songs from “Funny Girl” and also serenaded Streisand at a tribute with a “Funny Girl” song.
Michele, now 36, finds herself stepping into the role Streisand made famous by taking over the role of Fanny from Beanie Feldstein in the show’s first revival on Broadway, with Mayer again her director. It’s a dream come true, but it has also created waves.
The high-profile casting change rocked the Broadway community this summer, with Feldstein leaving early after Michele was announced, giving the impression that things backstage were strained at best. Michele noted that one actor replacing another on Broadway is nothing new.
“People leave shows and people come into shows. I think that the media is really drawn to drama and especially pitting women against each other, which I think is so unfortunate,” said Michele. “All I can say for me is how grateful I am to have been accepted with such open arms into what I know has been a lot of just different changes.”
Michele praised Feldstein — “I think that Beanie was fantastic” — as well as her understudy, Julie Benko, who will play Thursday performances — and threw herself into rehearsals. For someone who knows the musical so intimately, even Michele was stunned to realize how much work she needs to do.
“I think that I had potentially an expectation that I would just come into this and everything would be super-easy,” she said. “But then there are also other parts of it where I had to take the car and break it down completely and take out all the nuts and bolts and then look at everything, which is extremely scary because you’re like, ‘Wait a second, I have to go on in two weeks. How am I going to put this car all the way back together now and then drive it high speed across the country?'”
Fanny, to be fair, is one of musical theater’s more difficult roles to cast, needing both a set of pipes, some physical comedy skills and a spunky charm, perhaps why it has taken so long to revive it on theater’s biggest stage since Streisand starred in it on Broadway in 1964 and then won an Oscar in the 1968 film version. It has the songs “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
“I’ve always wanted to play this role. But I know that I couldn’t have played it at any other point in my entire life. I think that it’s the experiences. It’s what I’ve been through in my life,” said Michele, citing marriage and motherhood as deepening her approach.
Broadway veteran Ramin Karimloo, who plays Brice’s love interest in “Funny Girl,” worked with Feldstein and said Michele brings a different Fanny to the show — not better, just different.
“It just feels like embarrassment of riches. I had one version and now I’ve got this version,” he said. “There’s a new injection of life and a different life coming in. And so I get excited for that.”
Michele making her debut on Tuesday isn’t the only casting change. Four-time Tony Award nominee Tovah Feldshuh will replace Emmy-winner Jane Lynch as Fanny’s mother.
It’s a remarkable full-circle moment for Feldshuh, too, since she she recalls watching Streisand live in the role on Broadway in 1964. “I think that Fanny Brice is the greatest role ever written for a woman in the American musical theater,” she said.
“This is Lea’s karma,” added Feldshuh. “This has been marinating in her ever since ‘Glee’ and the rollercoaster ride that the show took, for better or for worse — for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health — it did never stop. And it has come through a different tunnel now. And hopefully the audiences will continue to enjoy it.”
The replacement is another step toward respectability for Michele after former “Glee” castmates in 2020 accused the actor of behavior that was interpreted as racist and bullying. While unable to recall any specific incident, Michele blamed her privilege and “immaturity.”
Another person cheering on the Broadway changes is Jared Grimes, who earned a Tony Award nomination as a featured actor in a musical. He said he has watched as Michele “grabbed the role by the horns.”
“It was as if I was watching someone who had been preparing for this role in this project her entire life. It was very instinctive. It was really captivating to watch,” he said. “She left no meat on the bone.
“I was just like, ‘OK, cool. We’re bringing in some heavyweights and it’s time to just have more fun in a different way.'”