In news that theater people are calling their Jan. 6, their Infinity War, and their 9/11, this week it was announced that actress Lea Michele will be joining Broadway’s Funny Girl in the lead role in September. Even for theater, this reaction is a little dramatic, no? If you’re one of the people having trouble understanding why a simple casting announcement is a big enough deal to draw such comparisons, we’ve got you covered.
Let’s start with the basics. What even is Funny Girl?
I’m glad you asked, because the history of Funny Girl is one reason why this is such a juicy story. Funny Girl is a musical comedy about the early-20th-century Broadway actress Fanny Brice. It debuted on Broadway in 1964 and is widely credited with making Barbra Streisand, who played Brice and eventually won both an honorary “Star of the Decade” Tony and an Oscar for the role, a marquee name. Given that it was a star-making role for one of Broadway’s most enduring icons, it’s a highly sought after part that also leaves notoriously big shoes to fill, shoes that many actresses have coveted over the years, including, very publicly, Lea Michele. But when the show was revived on Broadway for the first time since its original run earlier this year, the role of Brice went not to Michele but to Beanie Feldstein, an actress best known for her work in films like Booksmart and Lady Bird.
Was it a snub when Lea Michele didn’t get the role in the first place?
Enough people thought so that Michele’s name trended on Twitter when Feldstein landed the role, and Vox recently referred to Michele’s time on Glee as a “six-year audition for Funny Girl,” and her hat had definitely been in the ring going back at least as far as its first season. Glee, the TV show about a high school glee club that aired from 2009 to 2015, also had a huge internet following and was a formative experience of internet fandom for many so-called Gleeks, which is another reason this is such a big topic of conversation this week.
You mentioned that Michele has been gunning for the role for years?
She has, though just as significantly, her character on Glee has, too. Michele’s character, Rachel Berry, performed the Broadway show’s signature song, “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” in Glee’s first season, and the character went on to perform many other songs from it over the show’s run. There was always a fair amount of blurring between Berry the character and Michele herself, so when viewers saw a striver type who made it clear she would do anything to be a Broadway star, and who especially modeled herself on Streisand, they associated those qualities with Michele as well—an impression further cemented by Michele’s performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” at the 2010 Tony Awards. The fifth season of Glee also featured a plotline where her character moved to New York and actually got cast in a Funny Girl Broadway revival, one that Glee creator Ryan Murphy had at one point discussed mounting in real life (which Michele signaled in interviews she very much wanted to star in), making this casting a full-on life-imitates-art situation. However, in real life, Murphy never staged the revival, and when someone else did, Michele didn’t get the part initially, despite her widely recognized talent and interest in the role and at least one personal connection: Funny Girl’s director, Michael Mayer, directed Michele in Spring Awakening, the 2006 hit show that made her a Broadway star and set her up for her role in Glee, which would make her a mainstream one.
Why didn’t Michele initially get the part?
Though it hasn’t been officially confirmed that Michele was seriously in the running, speculation for where she went wrong has centered on her reputation for diva behavior and worse. In 2020, after Michele posted on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a Black co-star of hers from her Glee days, Samantha Ware, called out how Michele had treated her on set, and several other actors backed up Ware’s accusations with further charges of bullying and cruelty. Michele later apologized.
Why is Feldstein getting replaced?
By all accounts, she was not good. Reviews were brutal, making plain that Feldstein’s voice was not strong enough to carry the show. (Michele’s name trended again when people imagined her gleefully reading the reviews—or perhaps having them read to her.) Ticket sales were reportedly underwhelming following the bad reviews. The show got just one nomination at this year’s Tonys, and it wasn’t for Feldstein.
Wait, why would Michele need the reviews read to her?
Why would people think Michele is illiterate?
The theory goes back several years to a 40-minute video of a PowerPoint presentation put together by two pop culture podcasters, but it went viral again on TikTok a few months ago. In the video, the podcasters essentially claim that because Michele was a child star, she never learned to read, and they present “evidence” like photos that seem to show assistants using Michele’s phone for her, her supposed over-reliance on emojis rather than words in her own social media posts, a photo where she looks confused about how to sign her name, her only appearing in Ryan Murphy projects so she doesn’t have to work with other producers who will find out her secret, etc. When asked about the rumors, Michele has mostly laughed them off.
What was Michele actually up to while Feldstein’s Fanny Brice was crashing and burning, besides having Feldstein’s reviews read to her? And if Michele is so disliked, why would people find such glee (sorry) in her taking over the role?
In April, Michele appeared in an HBO Max documentary that centered on a reunion concert for the 15-year anniversary of Spring Awakening, and the cast reunited again to perform at this spring’s Tonys, the same ones that had very little love for Feldstein’s Funny Girl. So while Feldstein was up against the ropes, Michele got the chance to remind the theater world of why she became such a big star in the first place.
Did Feldstein decide to leave Funny Girl of her own volition?
The Daily Beast reported that it was her choice to end her contract early, and that, once the situation went sideways, it was also her decision to move up her end date even earlier.
That sounds complicated. Can you recap?
In mid-June, it was announced that Feldstein would leave the show in September. Right away, speculation about who would take over for her got going, and Michele’s named was of course in the mix. According to the Daily Beast, Michele “started meeting with producers individually to say she was available and interested in taking over from Feldstein,” but the timeline of when this happened is unclear: At least one source insisted no meetings took place until after Feldstein announced she was leaving, but the deal was reportedly already signed by the week of June 20. On June 30, Gawker reported that Lea Michele was in as the next Brice, and all of this getting out so soon made what could have been a difficult-but-privately-handled situation into a messy, public shitshow, hence Feldstein’s choice to move up her last day after that. She’ll now be exiting the show at the end of July, and after she announced her decision on Instagram on Sunday, Funny Girl’s social media accounts told followers they could watch out for exciting news on Monday. Michele’s dream-come-true announcement came that Monday afternoon.
What’s it like backstage? This all sounds like a real mess!
The Daily Beast and other sources report that tensions are, predictably, high—imagine all of this going down and still having to put on the show for the next three weeks.
According to the Daily Beast, after the Gawker post, Feldstein started communicating with producers exclusively through her representatives. (The Daily Beast also reported the rather amazing fact that Feldstein and Michele have the same theater agent.) Producers reportedly only learned of Feldstein’s decision to move up her final performance shortly before she announced it publicly.
Why would Feldstein be mad at the producers if it was her decision to leave?
According to one inside source who spoke to the Daily Beast, Feldstein apparently believes she didn’t receive enough support. “It was her first big role on Broadway carrying the show,” the source said. “I don’t think we equipped her with how to do that.” When Feldstein’s understudy, Julie Benko, posted on social media about filling in for her and received praise, that further added to Feldstein’s feelings that she wasn’t being supported. The source who spoke to the Daily Beast also said that the situation was exacerbated by a lack of decisiveness, with producers hesitating to get rid of Feldstein even though it was clear that they had made a mistake in casting her and she needed to leave.
Are Feldstein and Michele actually in a beef with each other?
Aside from sharing an agent, the two may not have ever even met, so they’re not exactly in a feud (or a season of Ryan Murphy’s Feud), or at least not yet. According to Feldstein, when she was cast and Michele’s name trended, with Michele even leaving an encouraging comment on Feldstein’s initial announcement that she would be taking on the role, Feldstein was confused, saying on Andy Cohen’s radio show, “All of a sudden people started explaining it to me, and I was like, ‘What?’ Like … ‘I didn’t understand.’ … I don’t know the woman whatsoever.” According the Daily Beast, producers are speculating about what they can do to make the handoff between the two seem friendly, but they’re aware it may be a lost cause.
Are there other reasons people are so obsessed with this saga?
Well, yes, because there are even more Glee connections. Starring alongside Feldstein in Funny Girl in the role of Fanny Brice’s mother had been none other than Jane Lynch, who played frequent glee club antagonist Sue Sylvester on the show. Lynch, too, will be leaving Funny Girl, to be replaced by Broadway veteran Tovah Feldshuh. Gleeks have attributed to Lynch’s leaving a certain pettiness befitting her Glee character—as if she’s only leaving to avoid having to share a stage with Michele. For what it’s worth, Lynch has publicly wished Michele the best and said that it makes sense to leave the show to make way for the two new principals at the same time.
How are the people who accused Michele of bullying feeling about her triumph?
Samantha Ware posted a reaction to the news on Twitter, and she is unsurprisingly disappointed:
Other theater watchers have expressed disapproval in the show’s decision to reward Michele. “To see her fulfill this lifelong dream could have been so cool if only she weren’t an awful person,” one former Glee fan told NBC News. A Daily Beast source chalked up Michele’s bad behavior to youth and pressure and said all would be fine if she brought in ticket sales. In that one regard, at least, the show is already doing well.