Fifteen years ago, Lea Michele was sulking in her “Spring Awakening” dressing room, heartbroken over a guy, when the Broadway show’s director offered her a bit of advice.
The director, Michael Mayer, suggested that she watch “Funny Girl,” which, he explained, was about a performer learning to not let a man drag her down.
“I gave it to her as a kind of comfort,” Mayer said in a phone interview last month. “You’ve got this great career, you’re the lead in this significant new musical, and you’re young still.”
Michele watched the movie that night. Dazzled, she watched it again the next night, resolving to one day land the lead role of Fanny Brice. A few weeks later, she gushed about “Funny Girl” and its star, Barbra Streisand, at dinner with a television producer, Ryan Murphy, who went on to create a new series, “Glee,” with Michele in mind.
This is where it gets meta: Playing a glee club captain who graduates to become a striving theater actress, Michele’s character lands her dream role in the first Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” since its debut in 1964.
Murphy’s plan to transfer Michele’s Fanny Brice from the TV screen to stage never materialized. But on Tuesday, a tale that feels to many like life imitating art culminates with Michele’s first performance as Brice, a 20th-century Jewish performer, at the August Wilson Theater.
Like the two other actresses who occupied the lead role this year (first Beanie Feldstein, then her standby Julie Benko), Michele must seek to avoid the shadow of Streisand’s star-making performance in the original musical and movie.
Unlike the other actresses, Michele, 36, must contend with another shadow: her past self. Two years ago, she faced a wave of criticism from former colleagues who publicly accused her of bullying behavior and a prima donna attitude. And she must step into a show whose behind-the-scenes machinations and cast changes have been one of the juiciest running stories on Broadway this summer, prompting reams of coverage and gossip.
“I feel more ready than I ever have before, both personally and professionally,” Michele said in an interview three weeks before her debut. She spoke from a dressing room vacated by the actress Jane Lynch, who ended her run as Brice’s mother earlier than planned, ensuring that the former “Glee” co-stars would never perform together onstage.
The allegations prompted an “intense time of reflection” about her conduct at work, Michele said — which, she believes, has equipped her to be a part of, and lead, a Broadway company for the first time since leaving “Spring Awakening” in 2008.
“I really understand the importance and value now of being a leader,” she said. “It means not only going and doing a good job when the camera’s rolling, but also when it’s not. And that wasn’t always the most important thing for me.”
For Michele, who temporarily stepped away from performing after the birth of her son, Ever, in 2020, the explosive internet reaction to her “Funny Girl” casting was not, perhaps, the return-to-Broadway narrative she had imagined.
Before the news was announced, Feldstein, who had generally received underwhelming reviews in the role, said on Instagram in July that she would be leaving the show two months earlier than expected, writing that the production had “decided to take the show in a different direction.” The announcement fueled speculation that Feldstein’s departure had something to do with Michele, who was rumored to be taking over the part.
Rebukes of Michele resurfaced online, with some questioning whether she should have been offered the role at all.
To go back to June 2020: After Michele tweeted a message with the Black Lives Matter hashtag, Samantha Marie Ware, a Black actress who appeared on “Glee,” said Michele had been responsible for “traumatic microaggressions” toward her, saying that Michele had threatened to get her fired and made a humiliating remark in front of castmates.
A deluge of criticism followed, including from former “Glee” actors who described Michele as exclusionary and demeaning to colleagues. The meal-kit company HelloFresh, saying it “does not condone racism nor discrimination of any kind,” ended its partnership with her.
Another co-star from “Glee,” Heather Morris, tweeted at the time that it had been very unpleasant to work with Michele, writing that “for Lea to treat others with the disrespect that she did for as long as she did, I believe she should be called out.” (Morris did not respond to an interview request.)
Michele apologized in 2020 for her past behavior. In the interview last month, she declined to address the specifics of Ware’s account, saying she doesn’t “feel the need to handle things” through the media. Ware declined to comment, but shortly after Michele’s “Funny Girl” casting was announced, Ware posted a tweet in which she said, “Yes, Broadway upholds whiteness.” Her account and tweets have since been made private.
Michele now acknowledges that her work style is intense, sometimes to a fault. “I have an edge to me. I work really hard. I leave no room for mistakes,” she said. “That level of perfectionism, or that pressure of perfectionism, left me with a lot of blind spots.”
She traced that psychology to her days as a child actress on Broadway, where, she said, the expectation to perform at a consistently high level often put her in a “semi-robotic state.”
Her performance career started unexpectedly when she was 8, living in Tenafly, N.J., with her father (a Jewish deli owner) and her mother (an Italian-Catholic nurse). As Michele tells it, her mother was asked to drive a friend’s daughter, whose father had just had a heart attack, to an audition for the Broadway production of “Les Misérables.” Michele insisted on coming along, and she ended up landing the dual role of Young Cosette and Young Éponine. Hungry for more, Michele was 9 when she was cast in the new musical “Ragtime.”
At 14, she met Mayer when she landed the role of Wendla in a workshop of “Spring Awakening.” The role, as a teenager exploring her sexual desires within the strictures of a 19th-century German household, left no questions about her dedication to the theater. Michele was beaten with a switch onstage by her co-star, Jonathan Groff, and when she was older, she was asked to bare her chest and simulate sex onstage.
Groff, who formed a close bond with Michele during the run, remembers Michele being upset by the uncomfortable laughter that beating scene would elicit from audiences.
“It would really crush her,” he said, “like, ‘Oh gosh, are we not doing the scene well enough? The people are laughing!’”
Groff was the person who invited her to dinner with Murphy, setting the stage for Michele’s “Glee” role. At 22, Michele became known to the world as Rachel Berry, an anal-retentive high school glee club member whose middle name, Barbra, is after a certain Brooklyn-born diva.
By the time Berry lands the “Funny Girl” role in the series, her affinity for the musical is well established, having already sung “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and the movie-specific “My Man.” In the show’s fifth season, Berry belts “I’m the Greatest Star” on a Broadway stage, with Lynch watching from the audience.
You can be forgiven for mixing up which plot points belong to Michele and which to Berry. “It all kind of morphed together a little bit,” Michele said.
In a moment of Rachel Berry-like perfectionism, she admitted that during a “Glee” concert tour, she asked that “Don’t Rain On My Parade” be removed from the set list because she had messed up during a live performance.
Behind the scenes, Michele said, she was getting a “quick education on addiction” while dating Cory Monteith, her co-star who had long struggled with substance abuse. Monteith died in 2013 of a combination of heroin and alcohol, devastating Michele and other cast members.
Not long after, Michele got within reach of her dream role, as Murphy snagged the rights to a Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.” It was a difficult time, Michele said, and she felt uncertain about the plan because she had just performed many of the show’s songs on TV.
“I didn’t feel like there was anything new that I could bring,” she said.
The new emotional material came in the years since — when, like Brice does in the show’s second act, Michele got married and had a child, reordering her priorities.
Her friends started to notice changes. Groff recalled that at Michele’s wedding to Zandy Reich, a businessman, in 2019, Murphy, who officiated, told a story about his first dinner with them as a couple. According to Groff, Murphy lightheartedly said, “This was the first time I’ve had dinner with Lea where the main topic of the conversation wasn’t about her, what she wanted to do next creatively.” (A representative for Murphy said he was unavailable to comment for the story.)
Michele gave birth to Ever the next year after months of pregnancy complications. He was still a baby when the team behind the London production of “Funny Girl” was casting for the transfer to Broadway. Mayer said that even though Michele was at the top of the list for Brice, he sensed she would not be ready to return to work.
After the show cast Feldstein, Mayer had a conversation with Michele to explain the decision. “I said, ‘Look, I know this probably isn’t what you want to hear, but this is what we’re doing,’” Mayer remembered telling Michele.
Down the road, he added, “‘I would love to do ‘Funny Girl’ with you some time.’”
Michele said she had not been set on returning to Broadway until November 2021, when she performed in a one-night-only “Spring Awakening” reunion concert. Around that time, she said, she had another conversation with Mayer, in which she said that if Feldstein’s run ended, and they wanted a replacement, she would be “honored” to step in.
After Feldstein initially announced her planned departure in June, the wheels for Michele to take over were set in motion, Mayer said. He added that he loved Feldstein’s performance and stands by her “100 percent.” Asked why Feldstein decided to leave earlier than expected, he said he was unsure.
“I haven’t spoken to her about it,” Mayer said. “I think it was hard for her once she knew she was going to be leaving and that someone else was taking over.” (A representative for Feldstein didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Mayer said Michele’s deal went through relatively quickly because she and Feldstein had the same agent, who already knew the details around the show. By late July, Michele was in the rehearsal room. Benko took over as Brice for the month of August, with the assurance she’d perform one show a week in the role after Michele’s debut.
On one of Michele’s first days with the full cast, she sang “Don’t Rain On My Parade” onstage, and an ensemble member, Leslie Blake Walker, said she remembered watching her perform the song on “Glee” — Walker’s first exposure to “Funny Girl.”
Rehearsing “Greatest Star” onstage last month, Michele played Brice with the character’s feverish energy dialed up a bit higher than the two Fannies before her this year. The comedy was her way of taking things to the extreme: grabbing a fistful of Jared Grimes’s sweatshirt when trying to convince him of her talent, or hoisting herself on top of the piano, as Mayer suggested, standing partially on the keys.
The structure of the show itself will see some changes, including a new interlude of a Brice song, “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You,” that Streisand sings in the movie.
Michele, like her predecessors, has tried to remove the pressure of the comparison, saying, “I will never be as good as Barbra Streisand.” Whatever performance she delivers, it will not be eligible for a Tony: Only the originating actress in that production, Feldstein, can be considered for the award.
But the pressure on her to save this revival is hard to dismiss. Mayer said he sees this as a “second chance” for “Funny Girl,” whose ticket sales had been on the decline, dropping to an average weekly gross of about $760,000 in Feldstein’s final month from $1.2 million in the first two, according to data from the Broadway League. Prices have now skyrocketed for Michele’s debut: The most expensive ticket on her first night is more than $2,600, as of Wednesday.
Despite the evident star power, Michele seems aware that she should avoid behaving like a diva.
“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 said.
A humbling element of the process is that she had to learn how to tap dance from square one, practicing with a nursery rhyme tap video one of the show’s choreographers, Ayodele Casel, sent her. (After the first tap rehearsal, she said, she cried in the bathroom, wondering if she really could pull this role off, before the steps eventually clicked.)
Still, Michele admits that she is only just learning how to be publicly vulnerable. Online hatred of her can verge on gleeful, and she fears that if she responds to criticism — or a bizarre rumor that she is illiterate — it will fuel the fire.
“I went to ‘Glee’ every single day; I knew my lines every single day,” she said. “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.”
Right now, Michele said, she is focused on what’s in front of her: inhabiting the role, and this time, doing it as a wife and mother rather than a fame-hungry former glee club captain.
Maybe Rachel Berry would throw a fit if her performance was ineligible for a Tony Award, but present-day Lea Michele insists that she isn’t bothered.
“You might think that’s the biggest piece of bull that I’m going to say to you all day,” Michele said, using the stronger version of the word, “but I really don’t care about that at this point. It’s just about being able to play this part.”