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Julie Benko on being ‘Funny Girl’'s new greatest star

Diep Tran
Diep Tran

Before starring as Jewish comedian Fanny Brice in Funny Girl on Broadway, Julie Benko had never seen the iconic 1968 film. Yes, she knows that's hard to believe. "I don't know how that happened, that a Jewish musical theatre girl didn't see Funny Girl growing up," she says, with self-deprecating charm. "I watched the movie after I found out I got a callback. So I've seen the movie once."

It's well-known musical theatre lore that Funny Girl (created by Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Isobel Lennart) made a star out of Barbra Streisand, who performed in the Broadway production in 1964 and then again in the film adaptation. Streisand's mark on the material was so strong that the show has never been revived on Broadway until now. 

For Benko, not having a strong prior relationship with Funny Girl has been an asset: "I was able to just bring myself to the role and not do an impression [of Streisand]."

Benko started out as the understudy for Beanie Feldstein, but word-of-mouth about her performance was so strong that Benko is now playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl until September 4. But even when Lea Michele steps into the role full-time beginning September 6, Benko will still perform the part every Thursday, as Michele's alternate.

But that's not the only thing Benko is up to this August. She's also releasing an album with her husband, composer Jason Yeager, called Hand in Hand, on August 26. The couple will celebrate the album's release with a concert at Birdland Jazz Club on August 29 (it's on a Monday, on Benko's night off from Funny Girl). Hand in Hand is a mix of jazz standards, Broadway showtunes, and songs about New Orleans (a favorite city for the couple and the source of their favorite morning coffee). And if you want to hear Benko sing a Funny Girl song in stereo, the album contains a bolero-inspired cover of "People," which Benko says the duo recorded "before [she] ever even knew about booking" the show.

Benko hasn't met Michele or the new Mrs. Brice, Tovah Feldshuh, yet. But she says she still has a close relationship with Funny Girl's departed star Feldstein, who has given her tips on how to pull off eight shows a week in the demanding role. "Playing Fanny is an Olympic sport," she says with a chuckle. "I remember texting Beanie... I was like, 'Everything hurts! How much Tylenol is normal to take when you're playing Fanny?'" The answer from Feldstein? "A lot!"

Below, Benko talks about how she managed to put her own spin on Fanny Brice and how she recorded an album during the pandemic.

Get Funny Girl tickets now.

Since you never saw the film, what helped you figure out the character of Fanny Brice?

I did a lot of research on the real Fanny Brice. I read two biographies of her. And I wrote to one of the librarians at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, and he ended up finding some special footage that had never been seen before, in the Gypsy Rose Lee archives. So I went to go watch the real Fanny.

That's been really helpful because there are little things. For example, the real Fanny Brice wrote in her diary that she believes no one should ever see you cry. And that if you need a good cry, you should go into a room by yourself and cry it out. That's actually been a really useful acting tool because I know that whatever I'm feeling inside, even if it's deeply painful, I have this active intention to play, which is, "Don't let them see you cry."

Another thing I found her saying was something along the lines of, she always felt that the audience was her best friend. To allow herself to be vulnerable only in front of the audience is a magical nugget that you can hold on to. When I sing songs like "I'm the Greatest Star," I get to communicate with the audience like they're my best friend. And I got that from Fanny's own experience of living a life in the theatre.

What about the songs? How did you keep yourself from doing a Barbra impression?

Barbara did a lot of her own melodic interpretation [of the original score]. And our music director, Michael Rafter, worked with Jule Styne for a number of years. So he was very intent on honoring the way that Jule Styne wrote the music and saying, "I don't want you to rewrite the melody. I want you to sing the melody that Jule Styne wrote." And so that made it easier to infuse the music, Jule Styne's melodies, with my own inflections and my own interpretation, rather than copying the way that Barbra sang each thing.

Why did the Funny Girl producers decide to have you as Lea Michele's alternate?

Honestly, I don't know exactly where it came from, whether it was Lea's choice or the producer's. But I think it's a very smart decision to preserve vocal and physical health. Playing Fanny is an Olympic sport. It's not just vocally incredibly demanding, it's also physically incredibly demanding. You almost never leave the stage. When you leave the stage, you're only leaving the stage to change your clothes quickly in the wings and then rush back on. I mean, It's physically so hard on your body, it's hard on your voice. It's emotionally draining and that's what makes it so challenging and therefore rewarding. It's certainly the hardest thing I've ever done.

You sing "People" on your new album, but it's a different rendition. It's very dreamy and not as belty.

We were in the middle of recording the album before I ever got cast in Funny Girl. In fact, when I got an audition for Funny Girl, we learned the song "People" because Jason, my husband, was playing the piano for my self-tape audition. And we learned the song, which we never knew, and we were both like, this song is amazing! I can't believe how late we were to the game. But I'm like, this song is amazing, we should record it — before I ever even knew about booking it. 

And the album came out of the pandemic. When the pandemic started, we were doing what we called "Quarantunes," which was a series of us sitting in our living room playing songs that we knew, or requests that came in via Facebook and Instagram Live. And we would pick a charity every week and we would collect tips, and we would donate half of the tips to a different charity. And as we did that, these song arrangements developed as duo arrangements. Part of the reason that it's not a big belting album, and why it is so sort of dreamy and cozy, is that we basically developed all of these arrangements in our living room, and sang it to our living room. We weren't imagining, "Let's fill a big theatre." It was meant to feel like a very soothing and cozy connection with people who were sitting at home in their living rooms in a time of great uncertainty.

Get Funny Girl tickets now.

Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

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