About halfway through the first act of Funny Girl, Lea Michele, playing the titular funny girl Fanny Brice, makes an innocent, self-decrepitating remark towards Nick Arnstein, her high-flying love interest. Acknowledging her lack of education, Fanny notes she stopped attending school after the third grade and, therefore, “didn’t read many books.” Both actors then paused for a raucous 60 seconds of audience laughter, breaking character ever slightly with quick, repressed smiles.
This joke is best viewed as untethered to the ups and downs of Fanny, Funny Girl’s irrepressible star. Instead, it’s best interpreted as a subtle nod to Lea Michele’s own journey, a recently fraught path involving allegations of illiteracy, mean-girl tendencies, and the loss of the original Fanny Brice role to fellow actress Beanie Feldstein. What has transpired, since Funny Girl’s opening earlier in 2022, has been a rare set of opportunities to address widespread criticism and perform a role that, since her days on Glee, Lea Michele had been destined to inhabit.
While Beanie Feldstein was originally cast to play Fanny Brice, lackluster reviews, mis-matched vocal capabilities, and frequently missed performances led to Feldstein awkwardly parting ways with Funny Girl’s production team. The role was then presented, rather quickly, to Lea Michele, who had been originally considered and ultimately passed over for the role.
Lea’s hotly anticipated debut would provide immediate answers to some of Broadway’s most searing questions—could Lea save the production? Would Lea bring her bully-like tendencies to Broadway? Could a possibly illiterate Lea read and memorize her lines? If we could answer these questions using just the number of standing ovations that occurred during Lea’s second night onstage, it’s clear that the production is headed, finally, in the right direction.
Lea brought undeniable energy, individualism, and pure talent to the role of Fanny Brice. Her vocals were outstanding, her comedic timing impeccable, and her Brooklyn accent both consistent and believable. The audience was clearly in love. After nearly every song performed by Lea, the audience would shoot out of their seats, rewarding the actress with quick, fervid ovations before settling back down to let the show continue.
It is such a shame that Lea Michele cannot be considered for a Tony Award for her role as Fanny Brice, as her performance seems so clearly at the caliber of Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. But instead of shedding tears for awards not won, I recommend you do what I did, and shed a tear in the final scene, following the low-lows and high-highs of Lea’s “Finale” number.