“That seat sucks,” said a kind and nearly blind usher as she pressed my ticket to Funny Girl to her eyeglasses. She shone her flashlight about 20 rows closer to the stage, directing me to row E, and said, “They’ve given me a bunch of extra seats tonight.” It was the 12th-to-last day of Beanie Feldstein playing the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway, and the house was not packed.
I’m a connoisseur of drama in the social sense, so naturally the whirling vortex of Funny Girl casting news had sucked me in. I was aware that Beanie had just recovered from tonsillitis. I was acutely aware she was leaving the production in two weeks, which probably had some bearing on the effort she was putting into her performance. I knew about the Julie Benko TikTok drama and the behind-closed-doors meetings with the producers. I somehow knew that Beanie wrote her sociology senior thesis on child actors, and I also knew that one particular former child star was gearing up to replace her. I even knew of the rumor that said former child star is unable to read Beanie’s thesis.
There’s been so much discussion of fairness regarding this production. Is Beanie’s success fully due to nepotism? Was it ethical for producers to give Beanie this role, one that she arguably cannot carry? Was it fair that Beanie quit earlier than expected? Does her replacement deserve to make a comeback? The easiest way to answer those questions for myself was to buy a ticket. Maybe, as a bonus, something so flagrant would happen at one of the last Beanie-led Funny Girls that I’d get to share with my peers: “I was there, I witnessed it. I got to see the fiery crash up close.” Like the thrill of being a first responder, if being a hater could save someone’s life.
Back in my upgraded seat, the audience had filled out a bit more, though no one was within seven seats of me in row E. There was a moment before the show when we all seemed to ever-so-slightly hold our breath as an announcer stated the evening’s understudies, but no mention of Julie Benko. Beanie it would be. And Beanie it was. And Beanie was…OK. Just as many reviewers told me she would be.
It was in the first act, during “Henry Street”—when Fanny and friends are celebrating her Ziegfeld debut with dancing and revelry—when I literally lost Beanie in the crowd. I thought maybe she’d left the stage before I realized she was front and center, gazing lovingly at Nicky Arnstein. The New York Times had quoted a casting notice from an earlier (failed) Broadway revival that declared Fanny must be a “once-in-a-generation talent.” Beanie wasn’t standing out in a sea of 15 people, let alone a generation.
When I could keep my eyes on her, it wasn’t her much-critiqued voice that bothered me so much—as someone who hails from the Bob Dylan school of music, I find that a voice’s power is less about what notes it can hit and more about the emotions it carries—but I had come to see a Fanny who is as sad and anxious as she is funny. Beanie, I felt, played the part too funny—too goofy and without any sensuality. While she could swap in a susceptible side of Fanny in “People” or “My Man,” she quickly abandoned it for slapstick. A successful Fanny holds onto that undercurrent of vulnerability.
Maybe Beanie demonstrated that capacity for paradox in earlier shows. Now, I imagine there’s a psychic brick wall built in her brain after the sort of career embarrassment she’s weathered, and she can’t quite scale it to depict dimensional vulnerability to over 1,200 strangers a night. Even if she is sad. Even if she is anxious.
My senses were tuned to the micro-reactions from audience members, too. Perhaps I expected someone to boo her—to be outraged that this talented woman was a little less talented in a specific way than anticipated. But the entire audience seemed to be rooting for Beanie. In the lobby during intermission and after the show, I heard a resounding sentiment, repeated like a plea: She is good. She is good. It was good. Only the more times it was repeated, the less confidence I had in whoever was saying it, like they were reassuring themselves after hearing the floor creak in the first half of a horror movie: Nothing to worry about here! It’s good! She is good.
And like a horror movie, somewhere, unseen to us, is Lea Michele wandering around with a butcher knife.
By the end of the show, a lot of the “fairness” questions I had been debating earlier felt moot. The more talented person is the unkind one, people in show business get work through their connections constantly, and sometimes you have to continue doing a job that everyone has publicly said you’re bad at. I am sure Beanie is incredibly nice. I’m also pretty nice. My friend Jenny is very nice. The usher was astoundingly nice. None of us should be leading the revival of Funny Girl. Fanny Brice is a star despite her foibles. Lea Michele, despite being an absolutely unpleasant person, can sing, really well. Sure, it’s absolutely beneficial to be kind. You get a lot more bees with honey than by threatening to shit in your co-star’s wig (allegedly). But at the end of the day, Broadway doesn’t cast for fairness, especially when the future of a beloved show hangs in the balance. Broadway will absolutely rain on someone’s parade if they aren’t bringing in the big bucks.
Any way you look at the Funny Girl drama, there’s a different villain, except in my dreams, in which Barbra gives her dogs a break and clones herself to play the role again. I myself was sadistically fascinated by Beanie living through what must be the most mortifying moment of her career. The confirmation that your talent just isn’t cutting it, that a lot of people around you haven’t been honest about your abilities, must be a nightmare. It’s surely something I’ve lived in fear of, and the biggest stage I’ve ever stepped onto paid me in drink tickets.
Funny Girl gave me the opportunity to abandon questions of fairness and virtue and instead be a mean girl. Not Lea Michele mean, but mean enough to indulge in a $79 ticket—plus guzzle down a Diet Coke in a novelty cup a quarter of that price—to critique a person performing at a caliber I could only accomplish in lucid dreams, through professional turmoil I can’t fathom. It felt mean and awfully satisfying to be a hater, especially when a lot of reviewers, much smarter than me, had already paved the way. Oh! There’s that paradox I harped on Beanie for not capturing.
Lea Michele has been abrasive and, at times, threatening with how much she wants this role. It’s unsightly, that sort of ambition. That wanting is undeniable, and frankly, it’s the same wanting that propels the character of Fanny. That wanting makes her vulnerable, makes us ache and cheer when we see her pushed up against the boundaries of her fate. And that wanting is clearly resonating with folks in some way: The seat that I would have sat in, that I paid $79 for (and according to the usher “sucks”), is already selling for $479 on Lea’s opening week.