When you want to be entertained, go to the theater — or at least theater Twitter. The most fascinating, low-stakes, deliciously not-at-all-connected-to-the-decline-of-American-democracy news story of the summer is the casting drama in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl, now playing in New York.
Here we have a tale of bitterness and intrigue, of years-long grudges and petty jealousies, of rumor and heartbreak and dreams deferred. Beanie Feldstein was in and then she was out! Lea Michele was out and now she’s in!
The Funny Girl controversy revolves around the role of Fanny Brice. In real life, Brice was one of the most celebrated performers of her era, and when her life became the basis for a musical in 1964, the part made an icon out of a young Barbra Streisand. It’s a notoriously difficult role.
“The woman who will play Fanny Brice must have an unforgettably thrilling voice with a big range (E below middle C to a high F; Mezzo with a high mix or belt) and great comic skill, masking deep insecurity and pain,” went the casting notice for a planned Broadway revival of Funny Girl that never reached stages. “She is a once-in-a-generation talent, and must have excellent comedic timing.”
The casting requirements don’t just stop with “once-in-a-generation talent.” In a Broadway landscape increasingly reliant on celebrity casting, the actress playing Fanny Brice has to have the kind of cachet that pushes people to buy tickets. Traditionally, that means she’s a star.
But which star should she be?
Lea Michele, the Broadway actress from 2006’s Spring Awakening who became a household name starring on the musical comedy TV show Glee, spent years publicly campaigning for the part. But when the first Funny Girl Broadway revival in 58 years opened this spring, it was headlined by Booksmart star Beanie Feldstein. Now, though, producers have announced that Feldstein is set to leave the show, and Michele is going to take over her role in September.
This is, to be clear, extremely juicy news — but to get what makes it so fascinating, it helps to have spent a few years steeped in theater kid gossip.
If you haven’t, that’s where we come in. Here’s a full timeline of all the backstory that led up to this week’s shocking casting announcement. And we do mean all of it.
2009: Glee premieres; Lea Michele begins a six-year audition for Funny Girl.
If you took one thing away from Glee, it might be that showrunner Ryan Murphy thought Lea Michele would be a perfect Fanny Brice, and Michele agreed with him.
In season one’s midseason finale — originally crafted to stand as a series finale — Michele’s character Rachel Berry saves the Glee Club from sure defeat at Regionals with her solo performance of the musical’s showstopper “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Michele would reprise the performance in real life at that year’s Tony Awards.
When the show went on to run for a full six seasons instead of ending after those 13 episodes, Michele performed six different Funny Girl songs. In season five, Rachel gets cast in a Broadway revival of Funny Girl, playing Fanny Brice.
2011: Lea Michele misses her first shot at Fanny Brice
In 2011, Broadway director Bartlett Sher began a nationwide casting search for a planned revival of Funny Girl. “This is the hardest part I’ve ever had to cast,” he told the New York Times of Fanny Brice. But one thing was for sure: He wasn’t going to put Lea Michele in the role.
“I don’t see how she could possibly be available because she is doing Glee,” Sher said at the time. In 2022, he would acknowledge that Michele had made a play for the part despite her Glee schedule, but he decided to cast Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose as Fanny instead.
Regardless, the planned revival would never see the stage. Sher couldn’t raise enough cash from investors to get the show into a theater, with rumors swirling that producers doubted Ambrose was a big enough name to draw in the kind of ticket sales they wanted.
2014: Ryan Murphy nabs the rights for a Funny Girl revival
At the same time that Rachel Berry was starring in a Funny Girl revival on Glee, Ryan Murphy acquired the rights to mount a Broadway revival of the show in real life. Both he and Michele told press they planned for her to play the lead role, although Murphy was a good deal more circumspect than Michele.
“[Lea] and I have made no mistake of our mutual love for that property,” Murphy told EW at the time, “so if it could come together at a time that she’d be willing to make that commitment to go back to Broadway — which I don’t know that she is right now — it would have to be the right director and the right leading man.”
“We are definitely talking about it now,” Michele told Broadway World. “And, when the time is right and I have had the chance to get some good rest for a while after Glee and I feel ready to do it then definitely we will do it.”
2015: Ryan Murphy nixes a revival
But just after dangling hope before Michele’s nose, Murphy decided to yank it away. The lengthy homage on Glee, he announced, had been enough Funny Girl for him, and he was dropping his plans for a revival.
“We [did] so many of those songs and so many of those scenes [on Glee] that in a weird way, I feel like we did it,” he said in an interview at EW Fest.
2017: Lea Michele sings Funny Girl in Central Park; makes it clear she is ready to do the show at a moment’s notice.
At Elsie Fest, Broadway’s annual outdoor music festival, Michele performed “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in Central Park. A few months later, she told Andy Cohen she was ready for the revival to happen, citing the concert.
“I did like nine Funny Girl songs and turned to Ryan and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to do it. It’s a lot of work and it would be an honor to do it. But if I’m going to go back [to Broadway] that’s what I’d really like to do,’” she said.
But by then, Murphy had already let the stage rights lapse.
2017, elsewhere: Beanie Feldstein has her breakout year on stage and screen
As Funny Girl began to slip out of Michele’s sure grasp, a new contender emerged. While Feldstein had been working steadily as an actress for a while, she began to break out in 2017 with her supporting role in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. The same year, she made her stage debut with the supporting comic role of Minnie Faye in a Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler. (Perhaps a note of foreshadowing here: Hello, Dolly! infamously first premiered in the same season as Funny Girl in 1964 and beat it out for all the major Tony Awards.) “Beanie Feldstein’s Very Good Year” ran the Playbill headline.
2020: Lea Michele is accused of bullying her coworkers
In June 2020, Michele tweeted in support of the Black Lives Matter protests over the police murder of George Floyd. Her former Glee co-star Samantha Ware, who is Black, replied accusing Michele of bullying Ware on the set of Glee.
“Remember when you made my first television gig a living hell?!?! Cause I’ll never forget,” Ware wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “I believe you told everyone that if you had the opportunity you would ‘shit in my wig!’ amongst other traumatic microaggressions that made me question a career in Hollywood.”
Other former coworkers chimed in. “Was she unpleasant to work with? Very much so,” tweeted Glee regular Heather Morris of Michele. “Girl you wouldn’t let me sit at the table with the other cast members cause ‘I didn’t belong there,’” tweeted Glee guest star Dabier Snell. “You were nothing but a nightmare to me and fellow understudy cast members,” wrote former Spring Awakening understudy Gerard Canonico in an Instagram comment.
Some of Michele’s former coworkers, including Glee’s Amber Riley and Matthew Morrison, did feel compelled to clarify: The issue wasn’t that Michele was actively racist, per se. The issue was that she was mean, and she got away with a lot.
“I’m not going to say that Lea Michele is racist. That’s not what I’m saying,” said Riley. “But at the same time, in my inbox there are a lot of Black actors and actresses telling me their stories and letting me know they have dealt with the same things on set, being terrorized by the white girls that are the leads of the show.”
“I honestly think it’s a distraction of the bigger issues that are going on right now,” said Matthew Morrison. He added, “You want to be a good, pleasant person to be around. That’s about all I’m going to say on that.”
On Instagram, Michele issued an apology to Ward and the rest of her former coworkers. “While I don’t remember ever saying this specific statement and I have never judged others by their background or the color of their skin, that’s not really the point,” she wrote. “What matters is I clearly acted in ways which hurt other people.”
One day after Ware’s tweet, the meal kit company HelloFresh dropped Michele as its spokesperson.
2021: Beanie Feldstein snags the lead in Funny Girl; Lea Michele’s name trends on Twitter in response
In August 2021, the news broke. Funny Girl was at long last going to get a Broadway revival — and Lea Michele wasn’t going to star in it. Beanie Feldstein was.
Adding insult to injury: The new revival was going to be directed by Michael Mayer, who directed Lea Michele in Spring Awakening on Broadway in 2006.
“This was someone you could really connect with,” Mayer told the New York Times of Feldstein. “She’s funny and smart and self-deprecating.”
And Michele wasn’t the only one, it developed, who had nursed lifelong Funny Girl dreams. “i went to my third birthday party dressed as fanny brice so sometimes dreams actually come true ,” Feldstein posted on Instagram.
“Yes! YOU are the greatest star! This is going to be epic!” wrote Michele in the comments.
For many onlookers, the schadenfreude was delicious. Michele had spent years publicly campaigning to play Fanny Brice. Almost no one doubted she had the talent to do it. But she had ruined her own chances simply by reportedly being a nightmare to work with, and now she had to reap the consequences. “Lea Michele” trended on Twitter as delighted bystanders imagined her fury.
For her part, Feldstein told SiriusXM’s Radio Andy that she had no idea Lea Michele had ever campaigned for the role. “I don’t know the woman whatsoever,” she said.
April 2022: Funny Girl premieres on Broadway, starring Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice
In April, Funny Girl opened on Broadway. The reviews were mixed.
There was one major flaw that all the critics were narrowing in on: While Beanie Feldstein was charming and funny, she was not the Broadway-caliber singer you need for a powerhouse role like Fanny Brice. She had been, reviewers concluded, miscast.
“You root for her to raise the roof, but she only bumps against it a little. Her voice, though solid and sweet and clear, is not well suited to the music, and you feel her working as hard as she can to power through the gap,” said the New York Times.
“The role that gave Streisand some of her staples — People and Don’t Rain on My Parade, Funny Girl’s showstopper that Feldstein visibly musters every ounce of strength to blare — requires a power singer,” said the Guardian. “Feldstein simply isn’t one.”
“In song after song, Feldstein’s voice lets her down,” said Vulture. “When it comes to function, Fanny’s songs are the whole caboodle: They must explain Brice’s titanic success, they should carry the narrative forward, and they need to do something painful to our hearts. Feldstein cannot sing them. It seems brutal to place a woman in such an exposed position, where a whole Broadway production rests on notes she can’t sustain.”
May 2022: The Tony Awards snub Funny Girl
The Tony Awards, which recognize the best of Broadway, are the biggest ad the industry gets all year. In 2022, they offered Funny Girl very little love. When the nominations dropped in May, all the show netted was a nomination for Jared Grimes as Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
The Tonys telecast did take the time to honor someone else, though. Appearing with the original cast of Spring Awakening in a special anniversary tribute performance was none other than Lea Michele.
May 2022, elsewhere: Lea Michele begins her redemption tour
In May 2022, HBO premiered a documentary about Spring Awakening, the show that launched Michele’s career. Michele took the opportunity to make her way back into the public eye for the first time since 2020 with a little good-natured oversharing about her close friendship with Spring Awakening co-star Jonathan Groff.
June 15, 2022: Funny Girl announces Beanie Feldstein is leaving
A tweet from the official Funny Girl Twitter account put her departure date at September 25, just six months after opening.
At once, speculation began over who would take Feldstein’s place as Fanny Brice. Lea Michele leaped to the top of the rumor mill, but she wasn’t the only choice. Feldstein had recently been out sick with Covid, and in her absence, her understudy, Julie Benko, had been a hit. But Benko, like Lauren Ambrose before her, wasn’t a big name.
“The hope is Beanie’s understudy, Julie Benko, who’s filled in a lot for her, will get the permanent job,” reported Showbiz 411. “Everyone who sees her raves about her work.”
“By all reports, I’ve heard from people who have seen it (and from the various shouty people who love to post about these things on cursed message boards) that Benko has been killing it as Beanie’s understudy,” argued Vulture. “Yes, she’s not a name yet, but in a moment when people have pushed for more recognition for understudies, why not seize the narrative?”
July 2022: Funny Girl’s ticket sales slump
Broadway shows are expensive, and they have to make a lot of money in order to earn back their investments. Variety reports that a show of Funny Girl’s scale and budget would have to net about $1 million a week to make its money back.
And Broadway greeted Funny Girl’s highly buzzed-about opening with healthy ticket sales: according to Variety, the theater was on average 97.8 percent full, and it was averaging revenues of $1.2 million a week.
But as the summer went on and the news about the show got grimmer, ticket sales began to fall. By July, it was filling just 74.8 percent of the theater, while peers like the Company revival were maintaining audiences at a rate of 84.1 percent. Weekly revenues dropped to $743,213.
July 10, 2022: Beanie Feldstein announces she’ll be leaving Funny Girl even earlier than planned
“Once the production decided to take the show in a different direction, I made the extremely difficult decision to step away sooner than anticipated,” Feldstein wrote on Instagram. Her final performance would be on July 31, not on September 25 as planned.
Lea Michele’s casting was beginning to seem more and more like a done deal. “It’s just a little while longer until we find out
Lea Michele will be playing Fanny who will be playing Fanny,” wrote Vulture (strikethrough in original).
July 11, 2022: Lea Michele announces she’ll be taking over as Fanny Brice
“A dream come true is an understatement,” Michele posted on Instagram, announcing that she would be taking over the part on September 6. Julie Benko will play the role in the interim between Feldstein and Michele.
Michele’s past as an alleged nightmare coworker remains in the air, with some onlookers raising eyebrows at the other big casting shake-up happening in Funny Girl. Jane Lynch, who appeared with Michele on Glee for six seasons, had been playing Fanny’s mother with Feldstein on Funny Girl and was scheduled to remain with the show until September 25. The same day it was announced that Michele would be joining the cast on September 6, Lynch announced that she would be leaving September 4.
Samantha Ware, the former Glee actor who first accused Michele of bullying in 2020, posted a heartfelt reaction to the casting news on Twitter. “Yes, I’m online today. Yes, I see y’all. Yes, I care. Yes, im affected. Yes, I’m human. Yes, I’m Black. Yes, I was abused. Yes, my dreams were tainted. Yes, Broadway upholds whiteness. Yes, Hollywood does the same. Yes, silence is complicity. Yes, I’m loud. Yes, I’d do it again,” she wrote.
But audiences are apparently ready to see Michele take on the role. Variety reports that ticket prices for Michele’s first scheduled performance have skyrocketed to $570 at the low end and as much as $2,500 at the high end. Only Hamilton at the height of its hype has reached similar prices.
As Fanny likes to sing: Her turn at bat, sir.