Julie Benko was the ‘funny girl’ no one had heard of until now

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

“I’m at” far,‘ she continues, with endearing chutzpah. “But nobody knows.”

Those five words — “but nobody knows” — were a source of comfort to Julie Benko, who covered Beanie Feldstein’s Brice in the show’s Broadway revival. Benko is well aware of the disappointment some onlookers may have felt when they opened their Playbills and saw that white slip of paper fall out: “The role of Fanny Brice will be played by…”

But in the second scene, in which Brice, a clumsy intruder with dreams of a stage career, tries to find a job alongside a bunch of leggy chorus girls, Benko said she felt a sense of relief.

The song gives Benko, the actress, a chance to level up with the crowd: Sure, you may have never heard of Julie Benko, but no one had heard of Brice in the beginning either, so why not give her a call. give a chance?

“You feel them starting to take root for you, you feel them in your team,” Benko said in a recent interview near the August Wilson Theater, which is currently hosting the Broadway revival. “And by the end of ‘I’m the Greatest Star’ they’re so excited to be there because they feel like they’re part of the journey, part of the story.”

For now, Benko, 33, can let go of the fear that comes with that white piece of paper.

For a month-long run that began Tuesday night, she will be the Fanny Brice the public will expect. After Feldstein announced she would be leaving the role on July 31, nearly two months ahead of schedule, production enlisted Benko to take over until September 4, when former “Glee” star Lea Michele will step in. placed Benko near a media obsession that she says she tried to largely ignore, instead opting for the chance for the role of a lifetime.

In the fall, Benko will get a top bill once a week, on Thursday – a promotion that seems, at least in part, to be a nod to the fact that she’s proven to be much more than a placeholder over the past few months. Benko has jumped in at 26 Feldstein appearances since “Funny Girl” opened in April. Gradually, she has established herself in theatre-loving circles as a sight worth seeing.

It started with a few admiring comments on Broadway bulletin boards. Then her TikToks gave the public a glimpse into the rushed process of being called up to a show at short notice, making the public more aware of her existence. Today, she said, she is recognized by a stranger almost every day in the city.

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Among Broadway fans at the first show of her run on Tuesday, Benko was a well-known entity. Younger cardholders usually knew her from her viral TikToks, while older ones had heard about her through their theater visits.

At a time when it seems like Broadway producers are hyper-focused on hiring big-name celebrities they hope will bring in ticket sales, some of the industry’s connoisseurs are excited to celebrate the success of a relatively unknown actress who has worked as an understudy for Broadway-level productions since she was 19.

“She must be the best in the world — I love her,” Tucker Christon, 48, a lifelong Broadway fan, said during the intermission during Tuesday’s performance. “Could it run through the fall without a big name? I do not think so. But give her four weeks and, hello! After that, she can do whatever she wants.”

It also happens to be a time when Broadway has been more vocal about its appreciation for understudies and swings — performers that have been more important than ever during the pandemic. In an email praising Benko, Michele called her dedication to production “a savior” for the show amid Covid and the casting transition.

“People are celebrating the fact that understudies keep the shows going in a way I don’t think they did before,” Benko said.

Growing up in Fairfield, Conn., Benko began envisioning a career in musical theater after a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at a local JCC, in which her father played the innkeeper and her mother a villager. She was 14 and the show was directed by Tobi Beth Silver, a professional acting coach known for instructing young performers on Broadway, including cubs in “The Lion King.”

“It was clear to me that day: this girl is going to make it,” said Silver, recalling seeing Benko audition.

Cast as Hodel, the second oldest daughter in “Fiddler,” Benko got her first kiss during the JCC production. The performance also gave her the opportunity to study with Silver, who helped her audition for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and introduced her to its first talent manager.

Benko’s time as a student studying musical theater was interrupted by tours. After her first year with Tisch, she had done little study of five roles on the national “Spring Awakening” tour in 2008, and later took part in the “Les Misérables” tour, where she worked her way up from roles such as understudy, ” whore” and “innkeeper’s wife”. ” to become Cosette.

Her career came to a close in 2015 when she worked as a swing on the Broadway revival of “Fiddler,” which meant stepping in at one point as one of Tevye’s four daughters, as well as four ensemble roles. . night.

But even that couldn’t prepare her for everything it took to play Fanny Brice.

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“I’ve played eight roles in ‘Fiddler,’ and I feel like Fanny is more than all that put together,” Benko said, adding with Brice-esque playfulness, “Plus Tevye maybe.”

Unlike Feldstein and Michele, who both said they have long dreamed of playing Brice, Benko had no such fantasies. It was an insect she had somehow avoided getting, despite being a Jewish girl obsessed with musical theater. When she was called back last year to be Feldstein’s standby, she decided it was time to watch the original 1968 film, which Barbra Streisand made after her success in the original Broadway production turned her into a star.

But Benko was careful not to pay at much focus on the Hollywood version. Streisand’s iconic Oscar-winning performance had played no small part in the struggles Broadway producers had had over the decades to revive the musical. Benko wanted to be careful not to try imitation, a feeling Feldstein shared.

Once she got the job, Benko was more focused on learning the quirks and mannerisms of the real-life Fanny Brice the musical is based on: a comedic actress who rose to fame in the Ziegfeld Follies and fell in love with the slick gambler and con artist. Nick Arnstein (played by Ramin Karimloo). Before rehearsals began in February, Benko read out biographies of Brice and excerpts from her diaries. She teamed up with an archivist at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to review old footage of Brice doing crazy dances and twisting her face into silly expressions.

“She has an insatiable appetite for the world of the play, for the world of the story,” Brandon Dirden, who taught Benko when she returned to NYU for graduate school, said of his former student. “She leaves no stone unturned.”

As Feldstein rehearsed, Benko sat on the sidelines, taking notes and recording details about the pace and intent behind the lines of dialogue. After rehearsals ended, Benko ran lines with her husband and musical collaborator, Jason Yeager, in their living room. She sang throughout the score almost every day to build stamina, practicing the tap sequences of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” in a large mirror, Yeager recalled.

Rehearsals were mainly focused on the main cast, so it wasn’t until the day of her first performance, on April 29, that Benko was allowed to go through a stage rehearsal with costumes, lights and microphones.

As she walked onto the stage that night, Benko was startled to be greeted with applause at the entrance – entrance applause! “It was probably the most exciting moment of my life,” she said.

She was comfortable with the onstage choreography, but it was the offstage choreography—particularly the show’s many costume changes—that was harder to practice. The show, which follows Brice from her late teens to her early 30s, features four wigs and 21 costumes, 19 of which are quick changes that must take place within a minute.

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On stage, Benko’s investigation of Brice is evident. She widens her large, expressive eyes into saucers of shock or disbelief, and as she dances, rolls them around exaggeratedly, as if to say, “Am I not such a lady?” In the old footage, some of which she found on YouTube, Benko was inspired by a crazy little dance in which Brice wiggles her arms and shuffles her feet like a wannabe ballerina.

“You saw the vulnerability, you saw the intelligence,” said Bartlett Sher, the Tony-winning director who worked with Benko on “Fiddler” and was, at one point, the creative force behind a “Funny Girl” revival that ultimately failed to materialize. came about. bloom. (In 2011, he told The Times that Brice was the hardest part he’s ever had to cast.)

“I think everything I love about ‘Funny Girl’ came through when I saw her play the part,” Sher said of watching Benko. “When you do one of these parts, you hook the whole company on your back and you pull and pull everyone forward — and she really did.”

Benko recognizes that the pressures associated with that responsibility can become all-encompassing if she allows it. But instead of projecting perfection, she has chosen to be open about her mistakes. She even draws attention to them sometimes, like when she posted a TikTok about a performance where she messed up a lyric in “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” while saying “Get ready for me love, cause I’m a hummer,‘ instead of ‘because I’m a newbie’.

Earlier in her career, she said, she allegedly tortured herself for such a mistake. But after more than a decade in the industry, she’s learned to laugh it off and accept it as part of the process.

“I finally got to a point where I decided that if I wanted to make myself miserable, I had to pick something that would make me rich,” she said.

As Michele prepares to inherit the role, Benko will soon be tasked with learning all the changes the actress might make: dialogue adjustments, blocking, or major changes. When Michele arrives, Benko’s title changes from “standby” to “alternative” to reflect her regularly scheduled performances. But over the next month, she’ll have a chance to fully settle into her role as Fanny Brice and relax enough to allow some natural playfulness to emerge.

“When you get the chance to play such a great part, you don’t have to take it too seriously,” she said. “You just have to enjoy it.”

The post Julie Benko was the “funny girl” no one had heard of until now appeared first on New York Times.

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