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Early on in the musical “Funny Girl,” a younger and decided Fanny Brice sings a line that anybody even barely acquainted with the present will likely be conversant in: “I’m … (deedle-dee deedle-dee) the greatest star … (deedle-dee deedle-dee).”
“I am by far,” she goes on, with endearing chutzpah. “But no one knows it.”
Those 5 phrases — “but no one knows it” — have been a supply of consolation to Julie Benko, who lined for Beanie Feldstein’s Brice in the Broadway revival of the present. Benko is nicely conscious of the disappointment some viewers members might have felt after they opened their Playbills and noticed that white slip of paper fall out: “The role of Fanny Brice will be played by …”
But by the second scene, wherein Brice, an ungainly interloper with goals of a stage profession, tries to land a job alongside a bunch of leggy refrain women, Benko mentioned she has felt a way of aid.
The music provides Benko, the actress, an opportunity to stage with the viewers: Sure, maybe you’ve by no means heard of Julie Benko, however nobody had heard of Brice in the starting, both, so why not give her a shot?
“You feel them start to root for you, you feel them on your team,” Benko mentioned in a latest interview close to the August Wilson Theater, the place the Broadway revival is at present working. “And then by the end of ‘I’m the Greatest Star,’ they’re so excited to be there because they feel like they’re part of the journey, part of the story.”
At least for now, Benko, 33, can relinquish the nervousness that comes with that white slip of paper.
For a monthlong run that began Tuesday night time, she will likely be the Fanny Brice that audiences will anticipate. After Feldstein introduced that she can be departing the position on July 31, practically two months sooner than scheduled, the manufacturing tapped Benko to take over till Sept. 4, after which the former “Glee” star Lea Michele will step in. The occasions have put Benko close to the heart of a media obsession that she mentioned she has tried to principally ignore, as a substitute selecting to give attention to the alternative for the position of a lifetime.
In the fall, Benko will likely be assured prime billing as soon as every week, on Thursdays — a promotion that appears, a minimum of partially, a nod to the proven fact that she has proved herself to be way more than a placeholder over the previous a number of months. Benko has stuffed in for Feldstein at 26 performances since “Funny Girl” opened in April. Along the method, she has established herself in theater-loving circles as a performer value seeing.
It began with a couple of adoring feedback on Broadway message boards. Then her TikToks gave the public a window into the harried strategy of being referred to as to do a present on short notice, multiplying the public’s consciousness of her existence. These days, she mentioned, she will get acknowledged by a stranger virtually every single day in the metropolis.
Among the Broadway followers at the first present of her run on Tuesday, Benko was a recognized entity. Younger ticketholders tended to know her from her viral TikToks, whereas older ones had heard about her via their theatergoing grapevines.
At a time when it appears as if Broadway producers are hyper-focused on hiring big-name celebrities who they hope will rake in ticket gross sales, a section of the business’s cognoscenti is worked up to have fun the success of a comparatively unknown actress who has labored as an understudy for Broadway-level productions since she was 19.
“She must be on top of the world — I’m psyched for her,” Tucker Christon, 48, a lifelong Broadway fan, mentioned throughout intermission at Tuesday’s efficiency. “Could it run through the fall without a big name? I don’t think so. But give her four weeks and, hello! She could do anything she wants after this.”
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It additionally occurs to be a time when Broadway has been extra vocal about its appreciation for understudies and swings — performers who, throughout the pandemic, have been extra essential than ever. In an e-mail praising Benko, Michele referred to as her dedication to the manufacturing “a savior” to the present amid Covid and the casting transition.
“People have been celebrating the fact that understudies keep the shows running in a way that I don’t think they did before,” Benko mentioned.
Growing up in Fairfield, Conn., Benko started imagining a profession in musical theater after a manufacturing of “Fiddler on the Roof” at a neighborhood J.C.C., wherein her father performed the innkeeper and her mom performed a villager. She was 14, and the present was directed by Tobi Beth Silver, an expert appearing coach recognized for instructing younger performers on Broadway, together with cubs in “The Lion King.”
“It was clear to me that day: This girl’s going to make it,” Silver mentioned, recalling when she noticed Benko audition.
Cast as Hodel, the second-oldest daughter in “Fiddler,” Benko had her first kiss throughout the J.C.C. manufacturing. The efficiency additionally secured her the alternative to review with Silver, who helped put together her to audition for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and launched her to her first expertise supervisor.
Benko’s time as an undergraduate learning musical theater was punctuated by stints on tour. After her freshman 12 months at Tisch, she understudied 5 roles in the nationwide “Spring Awakening” tour in 2008, and later joined the “Les Misérables” tour, the place she labored her method up from roles like understudy, “whore” and “innkeeper’s wife” to change into Cosette.
Her profession got here full circle in 2015 when she labored as a swing in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” which meant she needed to be ready to step in as any of 4 of Tevye’s daughters, in addition to 4 ensemble roles, on a given night time.
But not even that might put together her for all that it could take to play Fanny Brice.
“I’ve covered eight roles in ‘Fiddler,’ and I feel like Fanny is more than all that put together,” Benko mentioned, including, with Brice-like playfulness: “Plus Tevye maybe.”
Unlike Feldstein and Michele, who each have mentioned that they had lengthy dreamed of enjoying Brice, Benko had no such fantasies. It was a bug that she had someway averted catching, regardless of being a Jewish lady obsessive about musical theater. When she bought a callback to be Feldstein’s standby final 12 months, she determined it was time to observe the unique 1968 movie, which Barbra Streisand shot after her success in the unique Broadway manufacturing turned her right into a star.
But Benko was cautious to not pay too a lot consideration to the Hollywood model. Streisand’s iconic, Oscar-winning efficiency had performed no small half in the problem Broadway producers had had over the a long time in reviving the musical. Benko wished to watch out to not try an impersonation, a sentiment that Feldstein shared.
Once she landed the job, Benko was extra intent on studying the quirks and mannerisms of the actual Fanny Brice on which the musical relies: a comic book actress who rose to stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies and fell in love with the slippery gambler and con man Nick Arnstein (performed by Ramin Karimloo). Before rehearsals started in February, Benko learn biographies of Brice and excerpts from her diaries. She labored with an archivist at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to observe outdated footage of Brice doing goofy dances and contorting her face into foolish expressions.
“She has an insatiable appetite for the world of the play, for the world of the story,” Brandon Dirden, who taught Benko when she returned to N.Y.U. for graduate faculty, mentioned of his former scholar. “She doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”
As Feldstein rehearsed, Benko sat on the sidelines taking notes, recording particulars about pacing and the intent behind traces of dialogue. After rehearsals ended, Benko would run traces along with her husband and musical collaborator, Jason Yeager, of their front room. She sang via the total rating practically every single day to construct stamina, and would follow the faucet sequences of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” in a full-length mirror, Yeager recalled.
The rehearsals have been primarily targeted on the fundamental forged, so it wasn’t till the day of her first efficiency, on April 29, that Benko bought to run via a stage rehearsal with costumes, lights and microphones.
When she walked onstage that night time, Benko was shocked to be greeted by entrance applause — entrance applause! “It was probably the most thrilling moment of my life,” she mentioned.
She was snug with the choreography onstage, but it surely was the offstage choreography — specifically, the present’s many costume modifications — that had been harder to follow. The present, which follows Brice from her late teenagers to her early 30s, packs in 4 wigs and 21 costumes, 19 of that are fast modifications that must occur in as brief as a minute.
Onstage, Benko’s analysis into Brice is clear. She expands her massive, expressive eyes into saucers of shock or disbelief, and, whereas dancing, she rolls them round, exaggeratedly, as if to say, “Aren’t I such a lady?” In the outdated footage, a few of which she found on YouTube, Benko drew inspiration from a zany little dance wherein Brice wiggles her arms and shuffles her toes like a wannabe ballerina.
“You saw the vulnerability, you saw the intelligence,” mentioned Bartlett Sher, the Tony-winning director who labored with Benko on “Fiddler” and was at one level the artistic drive behind a “Funny Girl” revival that didn’t in the end come to fruition. (In 2011, he told The Times that Brice was the hardest half he had ever needed to forged.)
“I think everything that I love about ‘Funny Girl’ came through in seeing her play the part,” Sher mentioned of watching Benko. “When you do one of these parts, you hook the whole company up to your back and you pull and pull everyone ahead — and she really did that.”
Benko acknowledges that the stress that comes with that accountability may change into all-consuming if she let it. But as a substitute of projecting perfection, she has opted to be open about her errors. She generally even attracts consideration to them, like when she posted a TikTok a couple of efficiency wherein she bungled a lyric in “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” singing “get ready for me love, ’cause I’m a hummer,” as a substitute of “’cause I’m a comer.”
Earlier in her profession, she mentioned, she would have tortured herself over such a mistake. But after greater than a decade in the business, she has discovered to giggle it off and settle for it as a part of the course of.
“I finally hit a point where I decided that if I wanted to make myself miserable, I should pick something that makes me rich,” she mentioned.
As Michele prepares to inherit the position, Benko will quickly be tasked with studying any modifications that the actress may undertake: tweaks to dialogue, blocking or key modifications. When Michele arrives, Benko’s title will swap from “standby” to “alternate,” to replicate her repeatedly scheduled appearances. But for the subsequent month, she may have the alternative to completely settle into her portrayal of Fanny Brice and calm down sufficient to let some pure playfulness emerge.
“When you get the chance to play such an amazing role, there’s no need to take it too seriously,” she mentioned. “You just have to enjoy it.”
Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.