Lea Michele’s return to Broadway leading the revival of Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theatre was a long time coming. Between numerous performances of the score’s biggest songs on TV’s Glee—in which Michele starred for six seasons as the fiercely driven Rachel Berry—and a rumored, but never-realized, revival built around her, Michele has been headed towards bringing real-life vaudevillian Fanny Brice back to the Main Stem for years.
“I watched Funny Girl for the first time in 2008 when I went through a breakup,” remembers Michele, who at the time was starring on Broadway in Spring Awakening—in another full-circle moment, that show was also helmed by Funny Girl director Michael Mayer.“ Michael told me, ‘You need to go home and watch Funny Girl.’ My career was rising, and I went through this heartbreak, and it was very mirrored to Fanny. I immediately fell in love with the story. I really connected to Fanny’s drive and determination, her ambition, her energy.”
That drive and determination led to a long private and public campaign to play the role. Michele’s Glee character ending the series starring in a fictional Broadway revival of the Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Isobel Lennart musical, and a performance of the show-stopping act one finale “Don’t Rain On My Parade” at the 2010 Tony Awards was seen by many as a public audition. Brice’s drive is also the centerpiece of Michele’s unique take on the role.
“Something that I want to bring to my version of this role is Fanny’s inability to stop moving. I want to be buzzing and flying and running around the stage as much as I can—and that's something that I can really relate to, especially when I was in my late teens and early 20s.”
This concept led to changes in the production that will debut with Michele (and Tovah Feldshuh, who joins the company with Michele as the new Mrs. Brice), including updated and expanded choreography—and a new song, “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You.” The tune, performed by the real Brice in the 1928 movie musical My Man, was sung by Barbra Streisand in the 1968 film adaptation of Funny Girl, but is becoming part of the stage musical for the first time.
Between the changes—a rarity for an open production—and an already incredibly demanding role, the experience has the stage and screen star flexing some new and untested muscles—such as tap dancing alongside some of Broadway’s top dancers, a first for Michele—but she says the only way to navigate uncharted waters is to dive right in.
“I'm not dipping my toe. I'm jumping into the deepest deep end, playing one of the most iconic female roles in Broadway history. With Glee, we would just get a script and it would say ‘and now Rachel is doing a number on pointe in pointe shoes.’ There was no time to stop and say, ‘I don’t do pointe. I'm not a ballerina.’ You just had to say, ‘Okay. I'm gonna just roll with this.’ That’s really helped me, especially with this show’s tap dancing, because there's no time to fight through my insecurities or my fear or my self-doubt.”
Fortunately, Michele has found joining the supportive company of Funny Girl to be a particular joy.
“I cannot tell you how grateful I am to every single one of the cast members of this show for being so open and kind, and so available for me through this whole process, not just on the stage, but off the stage as well. I had heard from everyone that this was an exceptional cast, their gifts and talents, and they're extraordinary every single night—but I was also told how kind they were, and it just exceeded my expectations with how warm everyone is and excited for me to come into the show.
I'm just so excited to be back on a Broadway stage, a place where I've felt at home for so many years, since I was eight years old. And to be welcomed back by the Broadway community after 15 years of being gone is the greatest honor.”