Julie Benko just may be the greatest star of them all.
The first Broadway revival of "Funny Girl" has been the subject of many a gossip column. First, star Beanie Feldstein said that she would be leaving the production early, citing unspecified creative differences. Then, former "Glee" star Lea Michele was announced as Feldstein's replacement. Michele has been open about her desire to play the role of Fanny Brice on Broadway, but her casting resurfaced complaints about the actor's prior on-set behavior. Meanwhile, the show received middling critical reviews and just one Tony nomination (for supporting actor Jared Grimes), while fellow "Glee" actor Jane Lynch departed the production three weeks early, shortly after Feldstein's exit.
Throughout it all, though, audiences and critics have agreed on one thing: Benko, the standby for Fanny Brice, is a Broadway breakout. (The difference between a standby and an understudy is an understudy performs nightly in the show as a smaller role, while the standby's sole purpose is to go on as the lead, if needed.)
Even before Feldstein's departure and Michele's casting, Benko performed the role a number of times as Feldstein dealt with ailments including COVID-19 and tonsillitis. When Feldstein left the show early, Benko stepped into the lead for the four-week period between her departure and Michele's joining the cast.
"The audience has been incredibly welcoming of me and supportive," Benko said in an interview with TODAY. "... They've embraced me and embraced my story, which has been really cool. I think people really love the meta-theatricality of it all: A star is born. Fanny Brice is this unknown, and then they come to the theater to support this person who's been working her way up as an unknown for so much of her career."
Even before the casting of "Funny Girl" took center stage, fans were supportive of Benko. When she announces that she's performing a certain show, fans of the show or of Benko rush to fill seats. Often, audience members are disappointed when they learn an understudy is going on for the lead in that evening or afternoon’s performance. But in Benko’s case, her vocal prowess and quirky likability has greatly changed that way of thinking, especially when a snippet of her belting “Don’t Rain On My Parade” made the rounds on Facebook last week. This rare four-week stretch in the role has been her longest time playing Fanny, allowing her to create her own version of the character first made iconic by Barbra Streisand.
"I have been really excited to explore my own version of Fanny," said Benko of her character, who starts the show as an unknown from Brooklyn and becomes a star for her humor and clown work. "I'm able to play and explore (the role) night to night. You're just in your body and you get to (make choices) with a bit more ease, because you know you're going to get a chance to do it again. ... You can't do an imitation, whether of Barbra or Beanie."
The biggest difference between herself and Feldstein, Benko says, is when Fanny is performing as a clown. That happens in three musical numbers, meaning that the actor is handling intense physical comedy while singing beloved musical theater standards.
"It's such a tiring show, for your voice and for your body," said Benko. "It's been an experience just learning how to pace myself."
And as for those backstage rumors ...
"Those have not matched my experience at all," Benko said firmly, when asked about anonymous production leaks talking about backstage drama. "Whenever one of those things came out, if I read them, I would get very upset, because I found they were full of lies. ... My experience at the theater was everyone being very professional, doing their job, and being grateful to be doing the show."
Benko said that when Feldstein left "Funny Girl" at the end of July, the actor "couldn't have been more gracious," adding that the two have a "lovely friendship."
"She's a wonderful person," Benko said.
My experience at the theater was everyone being very professional, doing their job, and being grateful to be doing the show.”
As August comes to an end, Benko said she is looking forward to the future. When Michele takes over as the role of Fanny, Benko will serve as an alternate for the "Glee" actor, meaning that she'll be scheduled to perform every Thursday night.
"I think that's going to be the best of both worlds," Benko said. "I'll get to be very vocally rested. There's so many things going on, (the show has) like 15 songs, and so as the week goes on you're always checking in with yourself. It'll be a relief to just be able to do the show and have my voice feel rested. I think Thursday nights are going to be fun."
When she's not performing on the stage of the August Wilson Theater, Benko can be found at home with her husband, Jason Yeager, a fellow musician. Benko said their relationship is "full of music." The pair recently released an album together, full of what Benko described as "eclectic songs" -- including the "Funny Girl" standard "People."
"We recorded it last November, before I knew I had booked the role (understudying Fanny,)" Benko said. "I knew the song from my audition, which Jason was my accompanist for."
"Neither of us really had a relationship with the song prior to Julie's audition," Yeager told TODAY. "(For the album,) we just kind of played around with it and came up with this sort of Latin-tinged groove and intimate, seductive vibe."
On Aug. 29, the couple will perform the album together at Birdland, a beloved music venue in New York City. Shortly after that, Benko will wrap up her time as the lead of "Funny Girl." Yeager said that in the past months, it's been "outstanding" to see his wife lead the classic musical.
"I've seen the show several times and plan to see it as many more times as I can," he gushed. "I knew she would do a great job, and that first night she went on, my jaw was on the floor. Each time I see it, the performance gets deeper and fuller and more fully embodied."
" ... I can't even really put into words how gratifying it is to see the entire theater world awakened to not only Julie's talent, but her craft and her incredible dedication," he added. "I'm so happy to see that recognition come her way, because she deserves it."