Up Close and Personal With the New “Funny Girl”—Julie Benko

The first time Julie Benko played Fanny Brice on Broadway was also the day of her one and only rehearsal. Ten minutes into the show, Fanny is fired from her first vaudeville job and has to  persuade her boss to let her stay… with the song “I’m the Greatest Star.” In musical theater, this is pithily known as an “I Want” song. But in Funny Girl—a show with a famously thin script about a girl who keeps her sense of humor and heart as she develops a thick skin—it’s not just an “I Want” song. It’s an invitation to love an underdog who knows her odds… “Ya think beautiful girls are gonna stay in style forever? I should say not! Any minute now they’re gonna be out. Finished! Then it’ll be my turn.” It’s a lovely paradox of a song sung by an ambitious “American Beauty Rose” with a self-proclaimed “American beauty nose” who has to convince everyone in the theater, at that moment, on stage and off, that she is actually the greatest star… “but no one knows it.” 

For Benko, there was no time to wonder who knows what. And barely anytime to be interviewed. I’m catching her backstage at Broadway’s August Wilson Theater, during a Wednesday matinee of Funny Girl. She is, of course, at the theater for every performance, whether she’s off stage or finally on. “You just hope all the work you’ve done has sunk in,” she says, “trust it and go.

No stranger to the quiet dedication that happens behind the scenes, Benko is what we in show business call an actor’s actor, a singer’s singer. She has worked tirelessly in many big ensembles, “covering” multiple roles as an understudy while performing in smaller roles in the complicated clockwork of big musicals. Benko covered five female roles in the first national tour of Spring Awakening and then eight roles (including all four daughters) in the recent Broadway production of Fiddler On The Roof. This kind of work is a labor of observation and osmosis, taking detailed notes while the cast rehearses and working it out on one’s own. But, playing Fanny, she says, “is more than all those tracks put together.” 

“I developed a system as a swing and an understudy with pages and PDFs of where everyone goes, what the backstage traffic is,” she explains to me. And Funny Girl was no exception: “The act of making ‘the [character] sheet’ helps me learn. I’m piecing it together.”

Since opening night this past April, Benko has been the Fanny standby for Beanie Feldstein, a Hollywood actor known for Lady Bird and Booksmart. That means if Benko performed, it was because Feldstein was out for some reason. Obviously, this is a delicate interaction with the audience who may have bought a ticket to see Feldstein, whose first entrance always received applause. When a standby steps out, an audience can be more tentative. “Sometimes, [the entrance applause] isn’t there,” Benko shrugs, unworried. “I think, ‘It’s ok, they don’t know me yet.’ I have to be patient and let them get to know me.” She praises Feldstein for her generosity, talking through the track with Benko. Benko then drills in her living room, buying dinner for grad school friends who help her run lines. “You have to be your own support system.”

Feldstein finished her Funny Girl run this past July and will be replaced by Lea Michele in September, but from August 2 to September 4, Benko will star as Fanny. She will also continue to perform the role on Thursdays after Michele takes over. And she isn’t anyone’s shadow. Not Feldstein or Michele’s. Not even Barbra Streisand’s. “I didn’t grow up with Funny Girl. I know that’s insane for a Jewish musical theater girl!” She watched the movie when she got a callback for the role; when she booked it, she obsessed over the actual Fanny Brice because this was the first time she was preparing to play a public figure.

“You’re your own artist—you have to interpret as yourself,” she opines. She interpreted Fanny for herself through videos from Lincoln Center, the Ziegfield Follies, multiple biographies and Baby Snooks clips, and found her to be warm, kind, and unapologetic in her pursuit of a career. “But she never sacrificed who she was,” Benko tells me. Fanny was one of the first women accepted as funny, and for Benko, “funny” is a balance of trust and technique. “Comedy is related to music—so much is timing and rhythm, but you don’t want it to be rote. You have to find the marriage of truth and music. Every audience is different.” 

And, despite the cautionary “If I Girl Isn’t Pretty” song that Mrs. Brice sings to Fanny, Benko maintains that “Fanny was pretty, but she was Jewish! She just didn’t fit the ideal… We could be cousins.” Benko’s been told she looks like Fanny, but she’s played many a non-Jewish character, too, including Cosette in Les Miserables and Emily in Our Town. Still, she’s pretty sure she was “singing ‘Matchmaker’ in utero.” When it comes to roles that reflect her heritage, she’s truthful and eager to branch out: “You want to be the one to pick up the mantle, but you don’t want to be limited.”

Even as she steps into this role officially, Benko is still busy creating her own material. She’s releasing a duet album “Hand in Hand” with her husband Jason Yeager, an acclaimed jazz musician this month—her rendition of “People” is tender and earthy, playful and profound, uniquely hers. As is each standard she interprets. As is her Fanny who jumps and quips and delivers and plays with a soaring voice and an honest determination. 

Fanny always treated the audience as her closest confidante—she considered them her best friends who saw her best self. Benko has taken this page out of Fanny’s book, too. The first time she sang “I’m the greatest star,” Benko said she could feel the audience with her. “There’s this meta-moment for me, as the understudy when I sing ‘I’m the greatest star… but no one knows it,’ and now someone knows it.”

Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.