Broadway glee: dazzling Lea Michele delivers in Funny Girl

After months of rumors and gossip, the controversial star takes the reins from Beanie Feldstein and stars in the role hallowed by Barbra Streisand

Unless you truly believe all press is good press, it’s been a tough six months for Funny Girl. Critics, myself included, were lukewarm on the first Broadway revival of the musical when it opened in April, and particularly on the singing abilities of star Beanie Feldstein, best known as a solid screen actor in Booksmart, Lady Bird and Impeachment: American Crime Story. As Fanny Brice, a character (and real-life vaudeville star) whose talent is so undeniable it overcomes her klutzy nature and plain face, Feldstein nailed the physical comedy but just didn’t have the singing chops to stand in Barbra Streisand’s formidable shoes.

I wrote at the time that the presence of Glee star Jane Lynch as Fanny’s mother offered an unfortunate reminder of who could sing the musical’s showstopper, Don’t Rain on My Parade: Lea Michele, whose numerous performances of Funny Girl standards (on Glee, at the 2010 Tony Awards, more Glee) basically served as a years-long public audition. I wasn’t the only one to wonder; speculation of a Michele recast began in earnest when, amid rumors of dissatisfaction backstage and lagging ticket sales (as well as no Tony nominations, and praise for Feldstein’s understudy Julie Benko), Feldstein and Lynch announced earlier-than-expected ends to their Broadway runs.

Things really devolved into gossip spectacle in midsummer, after Gawker reported Michele’s signed deal, citing an unnamed production source. Feldstein then announced an even earlier departure, to the apparent surprise of producers. A Daily Beast article detailed the mess behind the scenes as negotiations between producers and Feldstein over her exit deteriorated, forcing an early announcement of Michele’s casting (as well as Lynch’s replacement, Tovah Feldshuh). The show was struggling, and Michele was positioned as its only savior – as a “senior show source” put it to the Daily Beast: “For the show to survive, Lea has to be so good that people who have seen the show already will say, ‘Oh, I heard she’s fabulous, you have to see the show again.’ Lea has to be that good.”

Michele debuted in early September to seven standing ovations, and a press review performance in October confirmed the hype: she is that good. For better or worse, considering her reputation for allegedly being a bully on the set of Glee, it’s Michele’s show. (Michele has since said her intense perfectionism borne out of child stardom on Broadway “left me with a lot of blind spots”.)

Michele’s achievement is clearest in the full-belt, triumphant diva moments Feldstein’s tenure could not deliver – standing center stage, arms rising as her emphatic voice gilded the rafters, Michele took full advantage of the numerous opportunities to put an exclamation point on her command of the role. Whether for the drama or from the inherent thrill in seeing someone lunge for the top and grasp it, the audience ate it up; half of Michele’s capstone notes were nearly drowned out by cheers.

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

Singing aside – and, as Fanny successfully makes her case for fame in a song called I’m The Greatest Star, singing is most of the point – Michele also handily carried the show’s vaudevillian humor and Fanny’s transformation from chorus line wannabe to young bride to seasoned star with a combustible marriage. Whereas Feldstein played Fannie as more precocious and naive, even after her marriage to gambler Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), Michele’s Fanny is more scrappy and sensual; she’s a much more convincing partner, emotionally and physically, to Karimloo’s suave, older Nicky. Michele’s Fanny brims with determination and potent self-delusion – the kind one needs to become a star, the kind that propelled both her character on Glee (who went on to star in a fictional revival of Funny Girl) and Michele’s own fraught celebrity. It is, in other words, a very good fit of actor and character, and the type of meta pop culture moment that delivers the thrill of feeling fated.

The production, directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Ellenore Scott, shines brighter with Michele holding up the big moments. Jared Grimes’s virtuosic tap dancing is still mesmeric and rousing, Karimloo still convincing as a man dissembled by wounded pride, Susan Hilferty’s splendent costumes still memorable, especially for the ensemble. Feldshuh, in her 50th year on Broadway, brings a hammy charm to Fanny’s mother, a wizened tavern owner with a soft, disarming core.

In retrospect, blame for the drama ultimately falls to the producers, who set Feldstein up to fail: casting her – a good singer, but not a power one – in the role hallowed by Streisand, bungling management of her replacement, and failing to keep news of Michele’s deal under lock and key. That is too bad. But love it or hate it, the end result of the mess is undeniable: Michele delivered, and Funny Girl has leveled up.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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