Controversial casting decisions are a dime a dozen, but sometimes one comes along that really makes you stop and say, “…wait what?” While we’ve perhaps grown more used to that happening in television and film, this news serves as a reminder it happens on stages, too. Evidence of this reared its head recently when the already struggling Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” lost their lead actress Beanie Feldstein (“Booksmart,” “Impeachment: American Crime Story“) months before her planned departure. That itself was cause for concern.
But then the production decided to replace her with former “Spring Awakening” star Lea Michele.
The musical is based on the life of Fanny Brice, a female performer on radio, film, television and theater who worked her way up from burlesque shows to being a star on one of the most popular radio programs in the country, “The Baby Snooks Show.” In 1964, “Funny Girl” debuted on Broadway with Barbara Streisand taking on the role of Brice. It was well enough received to score 8 Tony nominations that year. Though it didn’t win any of them, the film version became a smash hit, and earned Streisand an Oscar for Best Actress in 1968.
None of this praise continued with the 2022 revival of the musical, which has been consistently getting at best, mixed reviews. The Guardian criticized lead actress Feldstein for not having a powerful enough voice for the material. This was reflected in the Tony Awards, as the production only scored one nomination for featured actor, Matt Doyle. Additionally, box office figures have fallen since the awards, with some shows only playing to 75% capacity.
Feldstein took to Instagram to reveal she’d be departing the production in July, which is 2 months earlier than her planned departure.
She states the production was trying to take the show in a “different direction.” It’s anyone’s guess as to what that might mean. It could mean cast changes, alterations to the book, dropping certain numbers, rearranging them; who knows? One thing is clear though, Feldstein doesn’t agree with where things are going, and wants out. But in terms of replacing her in a musical that is already struggling, should the producers really have decided to go with Lea Michele?
Michele faced heavy scrutiny in 2020 when several former “Glee” cast members came forward to declare how awful it was to work with her. Michele was accused of racist behavior and creating a toxic work environment. Since then she hasn’t had any major acting credits to her name. This would effectively be her most high profile role in the last two years. But even if Michele should be given a chance at redemption, is that really going to help this production? We know that Lea Michele can sing and act, her career is clear evidence of that, on stage and off. Would the public embrace seeing her again? What would the other cast members have to say about working with her? Has her attitude legitimately changed towards others?
Live theater isn’t exactly a stranger to diva-type personalities. Feldstein was originally supposed to stay with the production until September 25th, but Michele will take her place on September 6th. It’ll be interesting to see if the novelty of Michele’s return to Broadway will cause an uptick in sales, or if her reputation will precede her and further torpedo an already sinking ship.