Julie Benko Was the ‘Funny Girl’ No Just one Had Read of, Until Now

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Early on in the musical “Funny Girl,” a youthful and determined Fanny Brice sings a line that anyone even slightly acquainted with the exhibit will be familiar with: “I’m … (deedle-dee deedle-dee) the best star … (deedle-dee deedle-dee).”

“I am by far,” she goes on, with endearing chutzpah. “But no a single is aware it.”

All those 5 words and phrases — “but no just one understands it” — have been a supply of comfort to Julie Benko, who coated for Beanie Feldstein’s Brice in the Broadway revival of the show. Benko is well conscious of the disappointment some viewers associates may well have felt when they opened their Playbills and noticed that white slip of paper fall out: “The part of Fanny Brice will be performed by …”

But by the second scene, in which Brice, an ungainly interloper with desires of a phase occupation, attempts to land a career together with a bunch of leggy chorus women, Benko reported she has felt a feeling of relief.

The music gives Benko, the actress, a chance to stage with the viewers: Sure, potentially you have never ever heard of Julie Benko, but no just one experienced listened to of Brice in the starting, both, so why not give her a shot?

“You truly feel them start out to root for you, you sense them on your team,” Benko said in a the latest interview in close proximity to the August Wilson Theater, in which the Broadway revival is at this time managing. “And then by the conclude of ‘I’m the Biggest Star,’ they’re so thrilled to be there mainly because they sense like they are part of the journey, component of the tale.”

At minimum for now, Benko, 33, can relinquish the stress and anxiety that will come with that white slip of paper.

For a monthlong run that started Tuesday night, she will be the Fanny Brice that audiences will assume. Right after Feldstein announced that she would be departing the purpose on July 31, just about two months before than scheduled, the manufacturing tapped Benko to consider above right up until Sept. 4, immediately after which the former “Glee” star Lea Michele will action in. The events have set Benko around the middle of a media obsession that she reported she has attempted to primarily overlook, as an alternative picking out to target on the prospect for the job of a life span.

In the drop, Benko will be guaranteed prime billing at the time a week, on Thursdays — a advertising that seems, at minimum in section, a nod to the actuality that she has proved herself to be a lot far more than a placeholder in excess of the earlier many months. Benko has stuffed in for Feldstein at 26 performances due to the fact “Funny Girl” opened in April. Together the way, she has established herself in theater-loving circles as a performer worthy of viewing.

It started with a couple of adoring remarks on Broadway information boards. Then her TikToks gave the community a window into the harried process of being called to do a present on shorter observe, multiplying the public’s recognition of her existence. These times, she said, she will get regarded by a stranger just about each working day in the city.

Among the the Broadway fans at the initial display of her operate on Tuesday, Benko was a identified entity. More youthful ticketholders tended to know her from her viral TikToks, whilst more mature kinds experienced heard about her by means of their theatergoing grapevines.

At a time when it appears as if Broadway producers are hyper-concentrated on choosing significant-name celebrities who they hope will rake in ticket income, a section of the industry’s cognoscenti is energized to rejoice the accomplishment of a reasonably unknown actress who has labored as an understudy for Broadway-degree productions due to the fact she was 19.

“She will have to be on leading of the environment — I’m psyched for her,” Tucker Christon, 48, a lifelong Broadway fan, stated throughout intermission at Tuesday’s efficiency. “Could it run via the fall with out a big title? I do not believe so. But give her 4 months and, hello there! She could do nearly anything she wants following this.”

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It also takes place to be a time when Broadway has been far more vocal about its appreciation for understudies and swings — performers who, through the pandemic, have been more important than at any time. In an electronic mail praising Benko, Michele identified as her commitment to the production “a savior” to the present amid Covid and the casting transition.

“People have been celebrating the reality that understudies maintain the displays jogging in a way that I never think they did right before,” Benko stated.

Escalating up in Fairfield, Conn., Benko began imagining a vocation in musical theater right after a manufacturing of “Fiddler on the Roof” at a area J.C.C., in which her father played the innkeeper and her mother performed a villager. She was 14, and the display was directed by Tobi Beth Silver, a specialist acting coach acknowledged for instructing youthful performers on Broadway, such as cubs in “The Lion King.”

“It was apparent to me that day: This girl’s likely to make it,” Silver said, recalling when she observed Benko audition.

Solid as Hodel, the next-oldest daughter in “Fiddler,” Benko had her to start with kiss all through the J.C.C. generation. The functionality also secured her the chance to research with Silver, who served put together her to audition for New York University’s Tisch University of the Arts and launched her to her initially talent supervisor.

Benko’s time as an undergraduate researching musical theater was punctuated by stints on tour. Soon after her freshman year at Tisch, she understudied 5 roles in the nationwide “Spring Awakening” tour in 2008, and afterwards joined the “Les Misérables” tour, where by she worked her way up from roles like understudy, “whore” and “innkeeper’s wife” to come to be Cosette.

Her vocation came complete circle in 2015 when she worked as a swing in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” which meant she had to be prepared to move in as any of 4 of Tevye’s daughters, as perfectly as four ensemble roles, on a offered evening.

But not even that could get ready her for all that it would get to enjoy Fanny Brice.

“I’ve coated 8 roles in ‘Fiddler,’ and I experience like Fanny is a lot more than all that place alongside one another,” Benko said, incorporating, with Brice-like playfulness: “Plus Tevye perhaps.”

Contrary to Feldstein and Michele, who both have explained they had extended dreamed of participating in Brice, Benko had no this kind of fantasies. It was a bug that she experienced someway prevented catching, regardless of being a Jewish girl obsessed with musical theater. When she bought a callback to be Feldstein’s standby final yr, she made a decision it was time to observe the initial 1968 film, which Barbra Streisand shot soon after her good results in the primary Broadway generation turned her into a star.

But Benko was watchful not to spend way too substantially notice to the Hollywood variation. Streisand’s iconic, Oscar-successful overall performance experienced played no smaller element in the problem Broadway producers experienced had above the decades in reviving the musical. Benko desired to be thorough not to try an impersonation, a sentiment that Feldstein shared.

When she landed the job, Benko was much more intent on learning the quirks and mannerisms of the authentic Fanny Brice on which the musical is dependent: a comic actress who rose to stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies and fell in appreciate with the slippery gambler and con person Nick Arnstein (performed by Ramin Karimloo). In advance of rehearsals started in February, Benko read biographies of Brice and excerpts from her diaries. She worked with an archivist at the New York Public Library for the Accomplishing Arts to observe previous footage of Brice accomplishing goofy dances and contorting her confront into foolish expressions.

“She has an insatiable hunger for the planet of the enjoy, for the environment of the tale,” Brandon Dirden, who taught Benko when she returned to N.Y.U. for graduate school, claimed of his former college student. “She does not go away any stone unturned.”

As Feldstein rehearsed, Benko sat on the sidelines taking notes, recording information about pacing and the intent driving lines of dialogue. Soon after rehearsals ended, Benko would run lines with her husband and musical collaborator, Jason Yeager, in their living place. She sang by means of the entire rating practically every single day to develop stamina, and would observe the faucet sequences of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” in a total-length mirror, Yeager recalled.

The rehearsals ended up mainly focused on the primary forged, so it was not until eventually the working day of her to start with overall performance, on April 29, that Benko received to operate by way of a stage rehearsal with costumes, lights and microphones.

When she walked onstage that night, Benko was shocked to be greeted by entrance applause — entrance applause! “It was almost certainly the most thrilling moment of my life,” she stated.

She was cozy with the choreography onstage, but it was the offstage choreography — in specific, the show’s numerous costume improvements — that had been extra tricky to apply. The display, which follows Brice from her late teens to her early 30s, packs in four wigs and 21 costumes, 19 of which are swift adjustments that have to have to take place in as small as a minute.

Onstage, Benko’s investigation into Brice is apparent. She expands her big, expressive eyes into saucers of shock or disbelief, and, when dancing, she rolls them all-around, exaggeratedly, as if to say, “Aren’t I such a lady?” In the previous footage, some of which she identified on YouTube, Benko drew inspiration from a zany tiny dance in which Brice wiggles her arms and shuffles her toes like a wannabe ballerina.

“You observed the vulnerability, you saw the intelligence,” said Bartlett Sher, the Tony-successful director who labored with Benko on “Fiddler” and was at just one position the artistic pressure powering a “Funny Girl” revival that did not in the end occur to fruition. (In 2011, he advised The Times that Brice was the hardest portion he experienced ever had to solid.)

“I assume all the things that I really like about ‘Funny Girl’ arrived as a result of in looking at her participate in the section,” Sher said of seeing Benko. “When you do just one of these areas, you hook the complete organization up to your again and you pull and pull every person in advance — and she genuinely did that.”

Benko recognizes that the force that comes with that accountability could grow to be all-consuming if she enable it. But instead of projecting perfection, she has opted to be open about her mistakes. She occasionally even attracts notice to them, like when she posted a TikTok about a functionality in which she bungled a lyric in “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” singing “get completely ready for me love, ’cause I’m a hummer,” as an alternative of “’cause I’m a comer.”

Before in her career, she said, she would have tortured herself more than these kinds of a error. But just after a lot more than a 10 years in the market, she has discovered to snicker it off and accept it as part of the procedure.

“I lastly hit a stage the place I determined that if I wanted to make myself miserable, I should select some thing that helps make me loaded,” she reported.

As Michele prepares to inherit the role, Benko will soon be tasked with mastering any changes that the actress might undertake: tweaks to dialogue, blocking or essential adjustments. When Michele arrives, Benko’s title will change from “standby” to “alternate,” to mirror her regularly scheduled appearances. But for the subsequent month, she will have the possibility to entirely settle into her portrayal of Fanny Brice and take it easy adequate to let some natural playfulness arise.

“When you get the opportunity to engage in these an wonderful function, there is no want to acquire it also critically,” she explained. “You just have to appreciate it.”

Audio made by Tally Abecassis.

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