Being Fanny Brice

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.”

Since the show’s opening night in April 2022, Benko was 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 audiences expecting 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 drilled in her living room, buying dinner for grad school friends who helped her run lines. “You have to be your own support system.”

From the Lilith Blog, August 2022. Read the full article here.