After Beanie Feldstein's departure, can Lea Michele really save 'Funny Girl'?
Not everybody follows Broadway gossip. But for people who do, the unraveling of the current revival of the musical Funny Girl has been a big deal.
The short version: Beanie Feldstein was cast as Fanny Brice, and the show opened in late April. The reviews were bad. Meanwhile, Lea Michele, both during her time on Glee and at other times, had made clear her eagerness to play Fanny. After it was announced that Feldstein would leave the show in September, but before any official public naming of a successor, Gawker published a piece on June 30 breaking the news that Lea Michele would, at last, get the role she pursued for so long, replacing Feldstein. The producers later confirmed it.
Any effort to cast this as an uplifting dream-come-true story for Michele, however, is complicated (to say the least) by the fact that she has been accused of appalling on-set behavior by some of the people she worked with on Glee, including Samantha Ware, who said Michele's "traumatic microaggressions" made her question her whole career, and who said, apparently in response to Michele's casting in Funny Girl: "Yes, Broadway upholds whiteness. Yes, Hollywood does the same."
This week, The Daily Beast published what is mostly a single anonymous "senior show source" account of what transpired, part a tale and part a commentary. It's all very soapy and scandalous, all about hurt feelings and terrible communication. (It also glides extremely quickly over the allegations against Michele.) There's other gossip: that Feldstein and Michele have the same theater agent (!), that everyone is very concerned about Feldstein's feelings, that everyone has tiptoed around her to their (and her) detriment. But the theme that comes through loud and clear is framing the debate around whose fault it is that they didn't replace Feldstein sooner. It is genuinely amazing how successful the effort has been, across the board, to lay the entire blame for a panned production's failure at the feet of one performer, the better to entice audiences back by replacing her.
It's not much remembered anymore, and it isn't making it into many of the current stories about the situation, but the reviews of this revival, while they most definitely were critical of her performance, did not say Feldstein was terrible and everything else was terrific. This is what S.S. Source would like you to believe – that they just needed to swap out the leading lady immediately and all would have been well.
Consider the actual reviews at issue: Jesse Green in The New York Times said that Feldstein, while not "stupendous," as the role requires, was "good." Faint praise, of course, but if you doubt he meant to convey that it wasn't fair to blame her for the show's problems, consider that he said, "You can't blame Feldstein for the show's problems; that would be like blaming the clown for the elephants." (S.S. Source blames her, or at least the failure to immediately fire her, for the show's problems.) Green criticized the book, he criticized the staging in general, and he criticized the sets in particular. Adam Feldman said in Time Out New York that Feldstein wasn't up to the role, but he also said the other performances were bad, the direction was wobbly, and the book didn't work. Frank Rizzo in Variety said some of Feldstein's numbers came off well and some didn't, but – here's this problem again – he said the book of the show just doesn't work, and he also didn't like the sets or the costumes.
These reviews didn't suggest to me that they just needed to dump Beanie Feldstein real quick and keep going. They also didn't suggest the show wasn't failing. What they suggested to me is that everyone involved needed to put this effort down, give it a dignified closing, and accept that not everything works out and that everybody who didn't revive Funny Girl for decades (partly for the lack of an available substitute for Barbra Streisand) was probably right.
But – and admittedly, my cynicism is creeping in here – nobody wants to do that! It is much better for the producers and the show's financial future for the issue to be narrowed to one actor, so that if you replace her – particularly with lots and lots and lots of fanfare and attention, which you get when you make recasting a role all about a problematic try-hard having a triumph over a woman who stopped being warm and friendly enough – it seems like a full solution. "Oh, thank goodness," we are all encouraged to think, "they fixed what was wrong with the Funny Girl revival. I must buy a ticket!" It's so easy to get an incomplete narrative to take off when it's all about drama between and among women, it's almost ... well, funny.
Did they fix any of the other things critics complained about? I don't really know. Like most people who are following all this, I haven't seen the show, but I know what I read, and I am precisely the kind of person they would like to persuade to come see the show post-replacement. But why would I? The consensus about Feldstein was that you practically have to be Barbra Streisand to pull this off, and she isn't Barbra Streisand. But that doesn't mean Lea Michele is Barbra Streisand. Even if Michele has the singing voice Feldstein lacks and the ability to perform Funny Girl songs in concert, it's entirely possible she will turn out to lack some of the comedy chops and the flirty charm that some critics noted Feldstein did have, which the role also needs.
Productions are complicated. I was recently reminded that Ethan Hawke's Broadway debut was in a 1992 production of The Seagull that also starred Laura Linney among others, and that was critically walloped. Things happen; talented people flop. Circumstances let you down, choices you didn't make let you down, choices you did make let you down, dreams do not materialize. It is alchemy, creating things, and that is what makes it special and terrible and scary and delightful. Much of the drama of Broadway, and of theater, and of creative people in general is not narrowing in on who's to blame. It's respecting the vexing, mysterious, sometimes unpredictable ways in which things work or don't work. At any rate, one of the things S.S. Source says in the Daily Beast piece is that it will be important to get the show "re-reviewed." Now that will be interesting.
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