Julie Benko has a lot in common with the person she’s currently playing on Broadway. In the latest Broadway revival of Funny Girl, Benko stars as Fanny Brice, a real-life actor and comedian who rose to fame in the first half of the 20th century. As famously portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the musical’s original 1964 production and 1968 film adaptation, Brice was an unknown talent who, after years of dedication to her craft and comedy, became a star. In the musical, Brice is a larger-than-life presence who sings and dances her way to the top of the entertainment industry.
“She worked on the road and worked her way up in the chorus when she was a teenager, and that really resonates with me because I’ve spent a lot of my life on a similar trajectory,” Benko, 33, tells TIME in a phone interview ahead of her second week playing Brice in a month-long stint before former Glee star Lea Michele takes over the role Sept. 6. Even though it’s Benko’s second consecutive week in the role, she’s very familiar with it. Benko has been preparing for this moment since March, when she started as a cover for Beanie Feldstein, and now has top billing since Feldstein left the production at the end of July. Once Michele joins the cast, Benko will continue to play the role on Thursdays.
While cast changes are common for Broadway, the situation at Funny Girl became something of an Internet spectacle. Upon opening night in April, Feldstein faced harsh reviews from critics, and announced in June that she’d be leaving the production in September. In July, Feldstein then shared that she’d be leaving at the end of that month, stating that “the production decided to take the show in a different direction.” Days later, The Daily Beast delved into the creative team’s decision-making process, and reported that after the April reviews, “a minority of the producers wanted to eject Feldstein from the role quickly.” Instead, the team stood by her, but things devolved into chaos after Gawker leaked that Michele had been cast. The casting drama inspired a wave of TikToks (#funnygirl has over 889.6M views on the app) and has been covered by several outlets including the New York Times, Slate, Vox, and CNN.
Throughout all of this, Benko began to amass a following, particularly through her TikToks, which she began posting in March. On the platform, she shares lighthearted and funny content about working on Broadway and has gained over 22,000 followers so far. Now, in the spotlight for the rest of the month and with a dedicated weekly performance to follow, Benko gets to explore new sides of the character and make it her own. The actor, who is also releasing the album Hand in Hand with her husband Jason Yeager on Aug. 26, spoke to TIME about her experiences playing Fanny Brice, what she’s learned from the character, and how she’s managed to stay away from the show’s behind-the-scenes drama.
TIME: With your first week of performances as top billing in the rearview, how do you feel?
Benko: Pacing myself is definitely a learning experience. During Beanie’s COVID leave, I did 11 shows in a row, so I’ve done the 8–a-week show before, but this week was particularly exhausting. There were a lot of fans who bought tickets specifically for Tuesday because they wanted to celebrate what felt like a new opening. That energy was just so wildly exciting. Playing Fanny is like an Olympic sport. It’s really tiring, but the challenge is what makes it a thrill.
Has your relationship to the character changed after all of these months of playing her?
Having the opportunity to do everything over and over consecutively just makes it easier to relax and trust yourself a little more. Every time I would go on after a break, if it had been two weeks since my last show, the first show back, there’s a little part of your brain that’s just worried that you’re gonna forget the next line. You know it, but you have to find that balance of being open in the moment to new things and to your scene partners, but also maintaining focus. When you get to do it a bunch of times in a row, that feeling starts to go away and you can feel a little more free and playful.
This is obviously an iconic part that is basically synonymous with Barbra Streisand—how do you deal with the pressure that comes with embodying this role?
I try to tune out a lot of the outside stuff that other people say and focus on enjoying this once in a lifetime tour de force opportunity. It can be very easy to get pulled into the feeling of pressure but I try to remember what a gift it is to have a character who is so complex and multifaceted and that I get to explore so many different parts of that person’s life.
Fanny is such a rich character. What have you learned about yourself from playing her?
One of her iconic lines is “I’m a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls.” She is authentic and never lies—she never tries to be an onion roll, she knows she’s a bagel and embraces that. She says what’s on her mind and that’s why people are so drawn to her. I’ve learned from her how to just stand on your own two feet, truly be yourself and not try to be something else. Like, with my TikToks. It’s a silly thing. I’m not trying to put on a show, I’m just trying to show what it is really like backstage. Also, there’s the strength that she has to keep going even when she’s facing all sorts of loss in the second act and she finds her home in the theater.
There are obviously parallels between you and Fanny and how you’ve recently been thrust into the spotlight. How has your day to day changed since taking on this part?
My husband and I went out for dinner last night, and I was on vocal rest. He was ordering for me and explained to the waiter “she’s on vocal rest, I’m not being misogynist because she’s resting her voice.” Then the waiter was like, “I’m actually going to the show tomorrow. I won the lottery and I’m really excited.” People are part of the story now, so that’s very different. I created my TikTok in March. I never had it before. Now I connect with a lot of strangers. TikTok is my favorite of all of the platforms because it’s the most creative. I feel like I’ve actually made some friends on social media, which people told me they did before and I didn’t understand. But now I have.
Do you plan your TikToks out or are they more spur of the moment?
I usually don’t plan them, but I’ve started now that I’m doing it regularly. Intermission is the only time I have a second to relax, so at intermission if something interesting or funny happened then I’ll record it from my dressing room. I don’t have as much time to do the more involved TikToks I did when I was standby. I have some ideas that involve a little more planning. I want to do one showing some of the backstage quick changes. Some I don’t plan, like the one when I was at the stage manager calling desk. That was during my photo shoot when they were grabbing some production photos of me as Fanny. Normally I would never have had time to make that kind of video backstage. It was all just improvised.
How often do you interact with fans on social media, and do you feel any pressure to do so?
I like to get back to people. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to leave an email unanswered. It feels like pressure because I don’t want to let somebody down. But I have learned that I have to shut it off. I try to stay off my phone after an evening show as much as I can. I can’t sleep if I’m up on Instagram after the show. It extends that adrenaline rush of doing the show and then I can’t calm down.
Read More: Inside Broadway’s Jubilant Homecoming (2021)
Obviously, this show has attracted a lot of attention recently, but I’d really love to hear what it was like to be a member of the production when Beanie announced her departure. Can you talk a bit about the mood at that moment?
Well, we found out before the announcement came. Everyone just wanted to support Beanie. Everybody adores Beanie. She’s one of the kindest people we’ve ever met. It’s also our workplace and people who work on Broadway for a long time are used to cast changeovers. Those are a pretty regular occurrence. Everyone was very professional and they came in and did their job. It’s a lovely community of people. It was not the way that some outlets necessarily made it out to be.
Normally Broadway casting announcements make news in the theater community but don’t necessarily take over news cycles. And yet even if all of this was complicated, it still brought a lot of attention to the production. In the end does that feel like a positive thing, if it attracts more people to come see the show?
My mom was texting me like, “You’re in People en Español!” She’s a Spanish teacher, so that was exciting. But the more that Funny Girl is out there and that people know about the production is ultimately a good thing. All of the women who are playing Fanny—Beanie, me, Lea, Ephie, who is the understudy—everybody’s so wonderful and talented. Like the Pokemon reference, you gotta catch ’em all. It’s fun to see how different people interpret a role that’s as big and complex as this. It’s not about rating them, it’s just about experiencing the character through different prisms. There’s not one way to do things.
What is it like to be mixed up in this kind of news cycle that can, frankly, get a bit nasty, when you’re just trying to keep your head down and make a good show?
Well, I didn’t like it. I remember saying to a friend, is this what it’s like to be Jennifer Aniston? It’s stressful! But you just do your best to stay focused on the task at hand.
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