Lea Michele’s ‘Funny Girl’ Opening Night Got Seven Standing Ovations

Bruce Glikas
Bruce Glikas

My old, dumbass self didn’t think to stretch before attending Lea Michele’s first performance as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl on Broadway.

“Get ready for me love, ’cause I’m a ‘comer,’” she spat from downstage center, where she delivered the climax to “Don’t Rain on My Parade” with such barn-burning fervor that a standing ovation was compelled before the song was over. It would be the fourth of seven standing ovations over the course of the night, this one coming just seconds after the show stopped for raucous applause after her “one shot, one gun shot, and bam!” She stared into the spotlight until the response died down enough for her to belt out the bridge.

If you’ve seen Glee, you’ve already seen Lea Michele torch a rendition of this number. But this opening night, in which she replaced previous star Beanie Feldstein in the role that Barbra Streisand made famous, that song, and each of the standards that she performed, were rousing in a much different way—especially given the headlines that preceded her singing them.

Inside the Broadway Blow-Up Over Lea Michele Replacing Beanie Feldstein in ‘Funny Girl’

Among a clearly welcoming and enthusiastic crowd (Ryan Murphy, Jonathan Groff, Zachary Quinto, and several of Michele’s Spring Awakening co-stars were in the audience), attending Michele’s first Funny Girl performance was an exercise in calisthenics. Super fans and “woo girls” were generous with their shrieks and whooping throughout the night, as was the man near the front who lifted his arms in the air and “raised the roof” (it was truly amazing to learn that anyone still did this) during each of the show’s familiar moments. If someone can manage to fund a spacecraft mission, the ceiling of the August Wilson Theatre is likely still floating somewhere in the stratosphere waiting to be recovered.

This opening night was momentous for several reasons, all of them conflicting.

There’s the backstage drama behind her casting, which has all the trappings of its own Broadway show. It’s been over 50 years since Funny Girl debuted on stage and this is its first revival. Feldstein, who loved the show so much she dressed as Fanny Brice as a costume before she was old enough for kindergarten, was positioned to be the next “greatest star,” as the character sings in the show. Who could measure up to Streisand? No one, but Feldstein was promising to put her own spin on the part.

Then the reviews came in, and were overwhelmingly negative—particularly harsh about Feldstein’s attempts to belt the score. Ticket sales were slumping. The show was largely passed over by Tony nominators. A change had to be made. Enter Lea Michele.

The party line is that Michele has been auditioning to play Fanny Brice her entire career. She performed most of the major songs from the show on Glee. She sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” at the Tony Awards. Heck, on Glee itself, her character, Rachel Berry, wins a Tony Award for playing Fanny Brice in a revival of Funny Girl.

Murphy has said he created Rachel on Glee in the first place with Michele in mind after the two bonded over loving Funny Girl at a dinner in Los Angeles. There are so many layers of art-imitating-life-imitating-art here that they should be serving plates of lasagna during Funny Girl intermissions.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Bruce Glikas</div>
Bruce Glikas

But swapping in Michele for Feldstein before the latter’s contract was over proved to be messy. I encourage everyone to read my colleague Tim Teeman’s report on what happened behind the scenes. It is the most succulent dispatch of theater gossip I’ve read in years; it is juicy. (For starters, both actresses share the same theater agent…)

<div class="inline-image__credit">Mary Ellen Matthews</div>
Mary Ellen Matthews

Some might wonder at this point why Michele wasn’t cast in the first place, if it seemed so obvious and she is so suited for the role that producers are banking on her to basically rescue the struggling show. (Not to mention now that she’s giving a performance that warranted such a rapturous response from Tuesday night’s audience.) That’s the Lea Michele of it all… and the conflicting nature of all this fanfare.

Throughout her career, Michele had a reputation for being a diva. In 2020, revelations escalated that label: For all intents and purposes, she was a monster.

Former co-stars told stories about how she would terrorize them on set and was impossible to work with. Samantha Marie Ware, who appeared on Glee, reported that Michele was routinely responsible for delivering “traumatic microaggressions,” most notoriously that she threatened to “shit in my wig.” Other Glee co-stars relayed harrowing tales. Plastic Martyr, who is a trans model, spoke about a time that Michele allegedly yelled at her for being in the women’s bathroom at the Emmy Awards.

This isn’t diva behavior. It is racist and transphobic behavior. In the wake of these revelations, which came out during the height of the Black Lives Matter moment of the pandemic in summer 2020, Michele essentially disappeared from Hollywood.

Many pieces—an implausible amount, really—had to fall into place in order for this performance of her dream role in Funny Girl to take place.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Mary Ellen Matthews</div>
Mary Ellen Matthews

Feldstein had to have received such unimpressed notices. The Tonys had to snub her. The box office had to be slumping. And, for her part, Michele had to start re-ingratiating herself to not just the business, but the public.

In the HBO documentary about the recent Spring Awakening anniversary reunion concert, she had to be incredibly charming (she was) and remind of just how prodigious her talent is as a singer (it’s huge). She had to deliver a stellar performance during the Tony Awards celebration of Spring Awakening (she did). And, maybe most importantly, enough time had to pass for people to look past those horrific allegations (has it?).

Who is to say if she’s done the work to reform and atone for her past behavior? One would imagine she has; it would be outrageous for her to have this chance and not have changed at all. There are some who, especially after witnessing just how forcefully Michele knocks this role out of the park, are content to compartmentalize the industry reports and embody the viral meme that’s been surfacing so often lately: of Kurt on Glee watching Michele’s Rachel in astonishment and muttering, “She may be difficult, but boy can she sing.”

And there are plenty of people for whom this isn’t an impossible question at all, for whom there are certain transgressions that are unforgivable—especially given the racial politics behind who actually gets chances to redeem themselves in show business. Her explanation for all these accusations in a recent New York Times interview left much to be desired, to say the least.

The fact is, though, that Michele did take the stage at the August Wilson on Tuesday night. She had a seasoned presence that carried the show more confidently than her predecessor. Especially with Tovah Feldshuh also joining as Mrs. Brice, there was both an ease and a gravitas that radiated. It’s wild to say, especially because the notion is that Michele’s casting as Fanny is so obvious, but as good as one assumes she would be, she is somehow even better.

Still, all of that aforementioned drama is omnipresent in the theater. It’s inescapable. There was an uncomfortable moment, for example, when Fanny makes a joke about how she hasn’t “read so many books” and the audience erupted with laughter. A rumor that Michele herself can’t read has been amplified in the wake of the accusations against her, which makes it almost seem implausible that this line hasn’t been excised from her production. The shocked giggling continued until Michele started to sing “People,” one of the emotional high points of the show, making for a whiplash of an audience experience.

(“People” also earned her a standing ovation. The others occurred following her act-one entrance, “I’m the Greatest Star,” “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” her act-two entrance, the finale, and, of course, the curtain call.)

When Michele appeared to take her bow, she was already in tears. “Thank you so much,” she mouthed to the crowd, before waving at her friend, Groff, in the audience and blowing kisses to her co-stars. It was, as if fated, drizzling as the crowd arrived for the performance on Tuesday evening. It’s the kind of thing that you can’t script; it almost writes itself. The last words Fanny sings in Funny Girl are, of course, “Nobody is gonna rain on my parade.”

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