Ahead of her debut as Fanny Brice in the first Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” Lea Michele discussed her nerves about returning to the stage, accusations of creating a toxic environment on “Glee” and, yes, the baseless internet rumor that she’s illiterate.
Michele is replacing Beanie Feldstein in the leading role (originated by Barbra Streisand in Tony-nominated and Oscar-winning turns). In a new interview with the New York Times, she nodded to the controversy around her casting and Feldstein’s abrupt exit from the show.
“Everyone here has been through a lot, and I just have to come in and be prepared and do a good job and be respectful of the fact that this is their space,” she told the Times ahead of her first performance.
Michele’s road to “Funny Girl” was long and winding: Per the New York Times, she discovered the musical as a teenager while performing in the Tony-winning musical “Spring Awakening.” Michele said she fell in love, and shortly thereafter, she was cast as the lead in Ryan Murphy’s TV comedy “Glee.” Her character, the talented but grating Rachel Berry, shared Michele’s real-life obsession with the Streisand-starring musical.
After years of performing songs from “Funny Girl” on “Glee” – Rachel even stars in its revival on the series – and various attempts to bring the musical to Broadway, director Michael Mayer told the Times Michele was considered for the role ahead of the new production but sensed she may not have been ready. (Michele gave birth to her son in 2020 when the musical was being cast.) Michele said she told Mayer, after learning of Feldstein’s casting, that she’d be “honored” to assume the role if Feldstein’s run ended.
And Feldstein’s stint in “Funny Girl” did end – months earlier than she initially announced. The highly anticipated production received mostly negative reviews when it opened in April, and much of them took aim at Feldstein’s vocal abilities. In July, Feldstein announced that she’d leave the musical at the end of the month instead of September. The next day, the “Funny Girl” team announced Michele’s casting.
Hiring Michele as Feldstein’s replacement proved a controversial decision. Many theater fans were reminded of “Glee” actor Samantha Marie Ware’s claims in 2020, when she accused Michele of fostering a toxic environment on the set and said Michele exposed her to “traumatic microaggressions.” When Michele was cast, Ware commented: “Yes, I care. Yes, im (sic) affected … Yes, I was abused. Yes, my dreams were tainted. Yes, Broadway upholds whiteness.”
Michele declined to address Ware’s claims with the Times but said that her work ethic and “pressure of perfectionism left (her) with a lot of blind spots.”
As for the joke that Michele is illiterate, which circulates online whenever Michele makes news, she suggested the joke was made because of her gender.
“I went to ‘Glee’ every single day; I knew my lines every single day,” she told the Times. “And then there’s a rumor online that I can’t read or write? It’s sad. It really is. I think often if I were a man, a lot of this wouldn’t be the case.”
Michele’s first show as Fanny is September 6. Feldstein’s standby, Julie Benko – who took over the role in August, will fill in for Michele once a week for the rest of Michele’s run.