All through the roiling saga of Beanie Feldstein leaving Broadway musical Funny Girl, and Lea Michele being announced as her replacement in the role of Fanny Brice, they have been represented by the same theater agent, The Daily Beast has learned.
David Kalodner, of top agency WME’s theater department, declined to comment to The Daily Beast on how he had balanced both actors’ interests in the backstage negotiations that have led Michele to replace Feldstein in the Broadway show, now more noted for its drama offstage than on. Feldstein received mostly negative reviews for her performance, particularly her singing abilities, after the show opened on April 24.
A senior show source, who requested anonymity, also revealed that Michele—famed for very publicly hungering for the role, and performing Brice’s songs in Glee and at the 2010 Tony Awards—was officially signed on to play Brice “a week and a half” after this year’s Tony Awards, before an internet-inferno-causing Gawker article on June 30 that reported she was “set to take over the role.”
At that moment, the deal was already done and signed, the source said. The article caused “great upset” to Feldstein, they said, adding that after its publication, show producers were prevented from talking to Feldstein directly as they had been able to up until then, and instead were told to go through her representatives.
On Sunday, Feldstein caused another internet firestorm when she announced via Instagram that she was leaving the show on July 31, not September 25 as had been announced last month: “Once the production decided to take the show in a different direction, I made the extremely difficult decision to step away sooner than anticipated.”
Her much-praised understudy Julie Benko will take over the role until Michele’s first performance on Sept. 6, and will play Fanny every Thursday from then on.
Glee star Jane Lynch who plays Fanny’s mother in the show, had been announced in June as leaving on Sept. 25 alongside Feldstein. But on Monday, producers revealed her final performance will be on Sept. 4, and that her replacement, Tovah Feldshuh, will be joining the production on Sept. 6 alongside Michele, meaning the two former Glee stars will not be reunited on stage.
Producers were “shocked in the moment,” but not surprised by Feldstein’s Instagram post on Sunday announcing her sudden departure from the show, the show source said. “There has been an ongoing conversation with Beanie and the team, and it hasn’t been fruitful and it hasn’t been kind. As soon as the Gawker story appeared about Lea, it got very contentious. She stopped speaking. Up until then it was very much one-on-one. Anyone could speak to her, she had been very light and lovely, and felt she had the support of the entire team. She knew we were all doing what we could for her. If not that day then the day after, we were told we could not speak to her, and to go through her reps. That was the first negative shift. Everything went downhill very quickly after that.
“After Sunday, everything is tense at the theater. One person working there told me, ‘No one knows what to say to Beanie.’”
Representatives for Feldstein, Michele, Kalodner, lead producer Sonia Friedman, and the production of Funny Girl did not return requests for comment for this article.
There was disagreement among producers after the negative reviews of the show appeared. The Daily Beast understands that a minority of the producers wanted to eject Feldstein from the role quickly; a majority, led by Friedman, wanted to stand by her, which is what happened.
“I remember our meeting about ads for the show the day after the reviews came out,” the source said. “It was brutal. We went through what we could say. The decision was made to double down on Beanie, and the joy and fun she was having. It was crazy to say that given what had been written, but that’s what we did. Another strategy was to say how more like Fanny Brice Beanie was than Barbra Streisand had been. We found the few good things people had said, stood by her, and kept going. The critics were not wrong, but we tried to major on Beanie’s sweetness and innocence—but that doesn’t get you away from the brass tacks of ‘You’ve got to be able to sing.’
“We really did stand by her. Everything was great and grand, except everything was not great and grand. The reviews affected Beanie big-time. I don’t think we cared for her enough in that regard. It was her first big role on Broadway carrying the show. I don’t think we equipped her with how to do that.”
Feldstein didn’t talk about leaving the show after the scathing reviews, the source said. “The company rallied around her. She’s very warm, and the company was very warm towards her. She was sick with COVID, and out on scheduled breaks. But when she came to work, she came to work, and everyone appreciated that.”
The source said they had seen Funny Girl in London, thought it “not good,” but had been reassured by Friedman that its Broadway incarnation would be radically improved. “It was not. We had a problem before opening when someone recorded a tech rehearsal. It was admittedly not a good recording, and Beanie’s voice did not sound good. It went around the theater community like wildfire.”
Then came the opening night reviews. “Like others involved in the production I put on my ‘good soldier’ face and stood by it and stood by Beanie,” the source said. “My feeling was the show was going to tank if we didn’t let Beanie go. She should have left, and that handover should have happened three weeks after opening. But I was very much in the minority.”
The source said Benko’s announcements on social media when she was standing in for Feldstein caused ill feeling.
“They were harmless posts, and it was fine until people started saying how amazing Julie was, which didn’t reflect well on Beanie after all the negative reviews. The producers spoke with each other and were evenly split on whether to allow the posts. The producers didn’t shut it down, and maybe they should have. Beanie minded it. She said words to the effect of, ‘I don’t feel supported by you while I’m away.’ This is not an uncommon problem. You want your understudy to be good, but you don’t want them to be better than the star, or seen to be so. That harms the show.”
Michele, the source said, started meeting with producers individually to say she was available and interested in taking over from Feldstein. However, a source close to the production insisted that there had been no contact between Funny Girl’s producers and Michele’s representatives until after the June 15 announcement that Feldstein intended to leave the show on Sept. 25. The deal to sign Michele was reportedly signed in the week of June 20.
“My feeling was to get rid of Beanie and get Lea in as soon as possible,” the show source said. “I was perceived as very cold. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I didn’t know what else you could do. The show was dying, and it was dying because we hadn’t made the right decision early enough in the process. Sonia (Friedman) won’t pull the trigger to fire someone. She just won’t do it. Firing Beanie was not an option, so the question became how would all parties manage themselves out of the situation.”
Diana: the Musical, which also received withering reviews, had a star in Jeanna de Waal “whose voice was amazing, even if the songs were so-so,” the source said. “We didn’t have that same thing, where we could have turned ourselves into ‘the people’s show,’ because our star’s voice was not amazing. People wanted to stand by Beanie, truly, but there were not enough carefully crafted positive things to be said about her. Others on the production team thought the tide could and would turn in her favor.
“Beanie initiated leaving the show and ending her contract early. The question for producers became, how should the situation be handled. The producers needed to advertise Lea as coming into the show, and also protect Beanie while she was in the show. Both things had to happen together.
“The ideal situation, as in other shows, is to have one star happily pass the baton to the next star. The idea is: we hold a wonderful press conference, everyone smiles, one Fanny Brice passes the torch to the next Fanny Brice, the show goes on. But the Gawker article blew that up. Lea’s appointment was so mismanaged. The deal to sign her should have happened in the middle of Wyoming six feet underground in a bunker in the middle of nowhere. Instead, it was front page news from the beginning. It was crazy.”
More discord was caused when producers, knowing that Benko would be being used in two performances a week when Michele was appointed, wanted to trial an understudy for Benko in actual performances. Benko was agreeable to it, but the move caused further speculation as to what was happening in the show.
“We didn’t take swift enough action to remove her”
On Sunday, just before Feldstein made her Instagram announcement, representatives from Feldstein’s team and Funny Girl management spoke to each other. “Shortly after that conversation, we heard the post was happening,” the source said.
If Feldstein had not made her Instagram announcement, the show’s producers had planned to announce Michele and Feldshuh’s appointments in the first week of August, with Michele lined up to do a host of interviews professing her excitement afterwards.
After Feldstein’s announcement, producers moved to lock in Benko for the summer months, from her first performance on August 2 through Sept. 4. Michele and Feldshuh’s start dates were then recalibrated.
In an email to show investors obtained by The Daily Beast sent 15 minutes before the public announcement of Michele and Feldshuh’s appointments, general manager Mark Shacket praised both, and also Lynch and Benko. He wrote: “We are hugely thankful to Jane for her kindness, wisdom and leadership as well, of course, for her amazing performance as Mrs. Brice. She will always be part of our FUNNY GIRL community.” Of Michele and Feldshuh, Shacket says: “We could not be more excited that these incredibly gifted performers will be joining our production and our FUNNY GIRL family.”
Shacket and lead producers, including Friedman, also praised “our brilliant Fanny standby, Julie Benko... We are so incredibly grateful to Julie for everything, and we know how lucky we are to have her step in to the role.”
While Feldstein was not mentioned in this email, a source close to the production told The Daily Beast another email, generous in its praise of Feldstein, had been circulated to investors and producers the night before.
“I and others felt horrible after Beanie’s Instagram post,” the senior show source said. “This is partly our fault, because if we had done what we were supposed to do at the beginning we wouldn’t be here. We didn’t take swift enough action to remove her. It’s also our fault because once we found her replacement we didn’t keep that under wraps and under lock and key. It was also our fault that we didn’t stop her understudy from saying things on social media. We didn’t care for Beanie. Her Instagram post is accurate.
“Some of us involved in the show are in shock it blew up this way. Some of us have a lot of remorse. Some of us blame Sonia. Some support her. It was an emotional decision to keep Beanie in the role. It was ‘We’re going to make this work.’ But this wasn’t one of those ‘Keep your chin up’ moments. It wasn’t working. I feel horrible that we didn’t do the right thing. I say we didn’t care for Beanie in the right way, because ultimately her feelings matter.
“We cared enough to stand behind her when the reviews were bad. But we should have found someone else, and once we found someone, we should have said to Beanie, ‘You can go now.’ There’s a million things we could have said publicly—that she had a family emergency, that she was on vacation, or had gotten sick, or that she had fulfilled her contract. No one had to know anything else.”
For now, producers are trying to move the conversation, and excitement, forward to the new Funny Girl promised land of Lea Michele. Heading into the traditionally slow summer months, only 65% of its tickets were sold last week, with attendance down 9.3%. Variety reports a ticket price surge for the night of Michele’s Sep. 6 debut.
Michele won’t rehearse in any way alongside Feldstein, the show source said, “but there is a conversation happening around what Lea can do to help Beanie in this situation—what could that look like. Does she comment? Praise Beanie? Try to do a picture of them both? Personally, I don’t think there’s much she can do, and there’s not much reason to.” (Another source close to the production said there had not yet been any discussions about the two actors appearing together in any capacity.)
The senior show source said they were not nervous of Michele’s alleged bullying of colleagues and diva antics, putting it down to youth, the “snippiness” that can happen when working under pressure, and the “pressures of fame” as experienced when young.
“Lea is going to rehearse off-site, then come to the building to play the performances,” the source said. “If we do gangbusters from now on, with the announcement of Lea joining the show, that will be great. We’ll see if Lea does something to the box office.” The source said the show had $3.7 million in advance ticket sales; another source close to the production said this was incorrect, and that the amount was “significantly higher” but would not specify a figure.
Michele, the senior show source said, “is the actor that made sense in the role for a long time because of the Glee stuff. Only time will tell if there is the box office demand there for her. If the demand is not there, that’s the end of it. Lea has to come in here, hit it out of the park, and hit it out of the park again. We need to redesign her costumes, and get the show re-reviewed.
“I do think Lea will bring the familiarity to the role that people long for. I think, ultimately, Lea is closest to what Fanny was in the original. She brings that clarity. For the show to survive, Lea has to be so good that people who have seen the show already will say, ‘Oh, I heard she’s fabulous, you have to see the show again.’ Lea has to be that good. If it’s not like that, we’re dead.”