Julie Benko Was the ‘Funny Girl’ No One Had Heard of, Until Now
Early on in the musical “Funny Girl,” a young and determined Fanny Brice sings a line that anyone even slightly acquainted with the show will be familiar with: “I’m … (deedle-dee deedle-dee) the greatest star … (deedle-dee deedle-dee).”
“I am by far,” she goes on, with endearing chutzpah. “But no one knows it.”
Those five words — “but no one knows it” — have been a source of comfort to Julie Benko, who covered for Beanie Feldstein’s Brice in the Broadway revival of the show. Benko is well aware of the disappointment some audience members may have felt when they opened their Playbills and saw that white slip of paper fall out: “The role of Fanny Brice will be played by …”
But by the second scene, in which Brice, an ungainly interloper with dreams of a stage career, tries to land a job alongside a bunch of leggy chorus girls, Benko said she has felt a sense of relief.
The song gives Benko, the actress, a chance to level with the audience: Sure, perhaps you’ve never heard of Julie Benko, but no one had heard of Brice in the beginning, either, so why not give her a shot?
“You feel them start to root for you, you feel them on your team,” Benko said in a recent interview near the August Wilson Theater, where the Broadway revival is currently running. “And then by the end of ‘I’m the Greatest Star,’ they’re so excited to be there because they feel like they’re part of the journey, part of the story.”
At least for now, Benko, 33, can relinquish the anxiety that comes with that white slip of paper.
For a monthlong run that started Tuesday night, she will be the Fanny Brice that audiences will expect. After Feldstein announced that she would be departing the role on July 31, nearly two months earlier than scheduled, the production tapped Benko to take over until Sept. 4, after which the former “Glee” star Lea Michele will step in. The events have put Benko near the center of a media obsession that she said she has tried to mostly ignore, instead choosing to focus on the opportunity for the role of a lifetime.
In the fall, Benko will be guaranteed top billing once a week, on Thursdays — a promotion that seems, at least in part, a nod to the fact that she has proved herself to be much more than a placeholder over the past several months. Benko has filled in for Feldstein at 26 performances since “Funny Girl” opened in April. Along the way, she has established herself in theater-loving circles as a performer worth seeing.
It started with a few adoring comments on Broadway message boards. Then her TikToks gave the public a window into the harried process of being called to do a show on short notice, multiplying the public’s awareness of her existence. These days, she said, she gets recognized by a stranger almost every day in the city.
Among the Broadway fans at the first show of her run on Tuesday, Benko was a known entity. Younger ticketholders tended to know her from her viral TikToks, while older ones had heard about her through their theatergoing grapevines.
At a time when it seems as if Broadway producers are hyper-focused on hiring big-name celebrities who they hope will rake in ticket sales, a segment of the industry’s cognoscenti is excited to celebrate the success of a relatively unknown actress who has worked as an understudy for Broadway-level productions since she was 19.
“She must be on top of the world — I’m psyched for her,” Tucker Christon, 48, a lifelong Broadway fan, said during intermission at Tuesday’s performance. “Could it run through the fall without a big name? I don’t think so. But give her four weeks and, hello! She could do anything she wants after this.”
It also happens to be a time when Broadway has been more vocal about its appreciation for understudies and swings — performers who, during the pandemic, have been more crucial than ever. In an email praising Benko, Michele called her commitment to the production “a savior” to the show amid Covid and the casting transition.
“People have been celebrating the fact that understudies keep the shows running in a way that I don’t think they did before,” Benko said.
Growing up in Fairfield, Conn., Benko began imagining a career in musical theater after a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at a local J.C.C., in which her father played the innkeeper and her mother played a villager. She was 14, and the show was directed by Tobi Beth Silver, a professional acting coach known for instructing young performers on Broadway, including cubs in “The Lion King.”
“It was clear to me that day: This girl’s going to make it,” Silver said, recalling when she saw Benko audition.
Cast as Hodel, the second-oldest daughter in “Fiddler,” Benko had her first kiss during the J.C.C. production. The performance also secured her the opportunity to study with Silver, who helped prepare her to audition for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and introduced her to her first talent manager.
Benko’s time as an undergraduate studying musical theater was punctuated by stints on tour. After her freshman year at Tisch, she understudied five roles in the national “Spring Awakening” tour in 2008, and later joined the “Les Misérables” tour, where she worked her way up from roles like understudy, “whore” and “innkeeper’s wife” to become Cosette.
Her career came full circle in 2015 when she worked as a swing in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” which meant she had to be prepared to step in as any of four of Tevye’s daughters, as well as four ensemble roles, on a given night.
But not even that could prepare her for all that it would take to play Fanny Brice.
“I’ve covered eight roles in ‘Fiddler,’ and I feel like Fanny is more than all that put together,” Benko said, adding, with Brice-like playfulness: “Plus Tevye maybe.”
Unlike Feldstein and Michele, who both have said they had long dreamed of playing Brice, Benko had no such fantasies. It was a bug that she had somehow avoided catching, despite being a Jewish girl obsessed with musical theater. When she got a callback to be Feldstein’s standby last year, she decided it was time to watch the original 1968 film, which Barbra Streisand shot after her success in the original Broadway production turned her into a star.
But Benko was careful not to pay too much attention to the Hollywood version. Streisand’s iconic, Oscar-winning performance had played no small part in the difficulty Broadway producers had had over the decades in reviving the musical. Benko wanted to be careful not to attempt an impersonation, a sentiment that Feldstein shared.
Once she landed the job, Benko was more intent on learning the quirks and mannerisms of the real Fanny Brice on which the musical is based: a comic actress who rose to stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies and fell in love with the slippery gambler and con man Nick Arnstein (played by Ramin Karimloo). Before rehearsals began in February, Benko read biographies of Brice and excerpts from her diaries. She worked with an archivist at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to watch old footage of Brice doing goofy dances and contorting her face into silly expressions.
“She has an insatiable appetite for the world of the play, for the world of the story,” Brandon Dirden, who taught Benko when she returned to N.Y.U. for graduate school, said of his former student. “She doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”
As Feldstein rehearsed, Benko sat on the sidelines taking notes, recording details about pacing and the intent behind lines of dialogue. After rehearsals ended, Benko would run lines with her husband and musical collaborator, Jason Yeager, in their living room. She sang through the entire score nearly every day to build stamina, and would practice the tap sequences of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” in a full-length mirror, Yeager recalled.
The rehearsals were primarily focused on the main cast, so it wasn’t until the day of her first performance, on April 29, that Benko got to run through a stage rehearsal with costumes, lights and microphones.
When she walked onstage that night, Benko was shocked to be greeted by entrance applause — entrance applause! “It was probably the most thrilling moment of my life,” she said.
She was comfortable with the choreography onstage, but it was the offstage choreography — in particular, the show’s many costume changes — that had been more difficult to practice. The show, which follows Brice from her late teens to her early 30s, packs in four wigs and 21 costumes, 19 of which are quick changes that need to happen in as short as a minute.
Onstage, Benko’s research into Brice is evident. She expands her large, expressive eyes into saucers of shock or disbelief, and, while dancing, she rolls them around, exaggeratedly, as if to say, “Aren’t I such a lady?” In the old footage, some of which she found on YouTube, Benko drew inspiration from a zany little dance in which Brice wiggles her arms and shuffles her feet like a wannabe ballerina.
“You saw the vulnerability, you saw the intelligence,” said Bartlett Sher, the Tony-winning director who worked with Benko on “Fiddler” and was at one point the creative force behind a “Funny Girl” revival that did not ultimately come to fruition. (In 2011, he told The Times that Brice was the hardest part he had ever had to cast.)
“I think everything that I love about ‘Funny Girl’ came through in seeing her play the part,” Sher said of watching Benko. “When you do one of these parts, you hook the whole company up to your back and you pull and pull everyone ahead — and she really did that.”
Benko recognizes that the pressure that comes with that responsibility could become all-consuming if she let it. But instead of projecting perfection, she has opted to be open about her mistakes. She sometimes even draws attention to them, like when she posted a TikTok about a performance in which she bungled a lyric in “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” singing “get ready for me love, ’cause I’m a hummer,” instead of “’cause I’m a comer.”
Earlier in her career, she said, she would have tortured herself over such a mistake. But after more than a decade in the industry, she has learned to laugh it off and accept it as part of the process.
“I finally hit a point where I decided that if I wanted to make myself miserable, I should pick something that makes me rich,” she said.
As Michele prepares to inherit the role, Benko will soon be tasked with learning any changes that the actress might adopt: tweaks to dialogue, blocking or key changes. When Michele arrives, Benko’s title will switch from “standby” to “alternate,” to reflect her regularly scheduled appearances. But for the next month, she will have the opportunity to fully settle into her portrayal of Fanny Brice and relax enough to let some natural playfulness emerge.
“When you get the chance to play such an amazing role, there’s no need to take it too seriously,” she said. “You just have to enjoy it.”