Julie Benko has a lot in common with the person she’s currently playing on Broadway. This Broadway revival features Funny GirlBenko plays Fanny Brice in the movie. She is a comedian and actor who became famous during the second half of 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. Brice, who is larger than life and sings and dances her ways to the top in the entertainment business, appears in the musical.
“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 September 6: Lea Michele, a star in the role. Even though it’s Benko’s second consecutive week in the role, she’s very familiar with it. Benko started her preparations for this role in March when she was a covering actress for Beanie Feldstein. Now, Benko is the star of the show and has the highest billing ever since Feldstein left at the beginning of July. Benko will play this role every Thursday once Michele is in the ensemble.
Cast changes happen on Broadway all the time, but they are not a common occurrence. Funny Girl The internet became a 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, It 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. TikToks exploded in response to the casting drama. The hashtag #funnygirl is currently viewed over 889.6M times on Twitter and several media outlets have covered it, including New York. TimesCNN, Slate, Vox and Vox
Benko gained a large following over all this. She started posting TikToks in March. Benko shares funny and humorous content about Broadway on the platform and has grown to over 22,000 users. Benko is now in the spotlight throughout the month, and will be performing a weekly show. She can explore different aspects of her character and create her own. Benko, an actor who will also be 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: How do you feel after your first week as the top performer in the rearview?
Benko: I learned a lot from pacing myself. 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. A lot of people bought tickets for Tuesday to commemorate what they felt was an exciting new beginning. This energy was extremely exciting. Fanny can be described as an Olympic sport. It’s really tiring, but the challenge is what makes it a thrill.
How has your relationship changed with the character after so many months?
It is easier to let go of control and to be able to complete everything again and again consecutively. 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. It’s obvious, but it is important to strike the right balance between being present in each moment and being open to other scene partners while still keeping your focus. It’s easier to let go of that feeling when you have to do it several times. You feel more open and free.
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?
It is important to try and ignore the opinions of other people so that I can enjoy this rare 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.
Learn More: Here are the Best Broadway Shows That You Can Watch at Your Home (2020).
Fanny is a very rich character. How have you learned anything about yourself by playing Fanny?
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. You can see 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. Is your life different since this role was taken on?
We went out to dinner with our husband last night and my vocal rest was not helping. 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. My TikTok was created in March. It was something I had never tried before. It’s a great way to connect with 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. Now I do.
Are you more spontaneous or do your TikToks have a plan?
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. Some of my ideas require a bit more planning. One that shows some quick backstage changes is what I would like to do. Some I don’t plan, like the one when I was at the stage manager calling desk. It was while they took some photos of Fanny during my photoshoot. It would have been impossible for me to record that sort of video backstage. All of it was improvised.
Do you communicate with your fans via social media? Are you under any obligation to do this?
People are my priority. 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. However, I’ve learned to turn it off. My phone is the last thing I want to be on after an evening program. 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.
Learn 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. Let’s talk about what the mood was at that point.
It was obvious that we knew this before the announcement. Beanie is loved and supported by all. 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. These are quite common. The staff was professional. They showed up on time and completed their work. It’s a lovely community of people. This was not what some outlets made it seem.
Normally Broadway casting announcements make news in the theater community but don’t necessarily take over news cycles. It was complicated but it brought attention to the production. Is that a good thing? If the production attracts more people to the shows, then it is.
My mom was texting me like, “You’re in People en Español!” She’s a Spanish teacher, so that was exciting. However, there’s more to it. Funny Girlit is known and appreciated by the public. 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! It’s stressful! But, you must do your best and stay focused on what is important.
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