Theater

Julie Benko On The Funny Girl Shake-Up, Lea Michele’s Transition, & Her New Album

The Broadway star tells Bustle why she and Michele have spent barely any time together.

'Funny Girl' Star Julie Benko On Her New Album And What Lea Michele And Beanie Feldstein Bring To Th...
Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images/Urban Photography
Bustle’s Theater Guide

“When you’re gifted, then you’re gifted,” sings protagonist Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The lyric applies to burgeoning Broadway star Julie Benko, who’s received rave reviews leading the revival of Funny Girl following Beanie Feldstein’s departure. Since the Booksmart actor announced she was unceremoniously leaving the production in July, Benko, the show’s standby, has filled in as interim lead until Glee alum Lea Michele steps into the role on Sept. 6. Benko will stay onboard to perform on Thursday nights for the show’s growing fan base.

Throughout the casting shake-up, Benko has been a rock for the Funny Girl production, keeping followers updated with casting news on TikTok and taking them behind the curtain. Amid the hoopla, she’s also released a new album. Created alongside her husband, composer Jason Yeager, Hand In Hand features sentimental duets and new spins on Broadway classics, including “People,” which she performs onstage in Funny Girl. “I’ve sung ‘People’ in so many keys that the song feels like an old friend now,” Benko tells Bustle.

READ NEXT: Watch Lea Michele Sing In First ‘Funny Girl’ Teaser

If the Funny Girl saga is 2022’s biggest Broadway story, then Benko is the underdog everyone’s rooting for. “The number of actors and acting students who’ve reached out to tell me how much my story means to them, it’s staggering,” Benko says. “I suddenly feel like I’m representing all the greatest stars-to-be. There are so many hardworking folks out there, making sacrifices to dedicate their lives to the arts, with no guarantee of any big break. For most of my career, that’s been me, too.”

Below, Benko talks about the new album, what she learned from Feldstein, and how she’s helping Michele master Fanny Brice.

Julie Benko with Jared Grimes in Funny Girl.Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

How did you react to the Funny Girl buzz? Do you see it as positive for the show?

It’s incredible that people all around the globe were talking about any Broadway musical, let alone ours. I hope it makes audiences interested in the “gotta catch ’em all” approach, where they keep coming back to see what different actors bring to Fanny Brice.

Tell me about your connection to Funny Girl and how you first discovered the show.

I honestly didn’t know much about it until my audition. I know, it’s insane that a Jewish musical theater girl grew up without being exposed to Funny Girl. Blame my mother! I did know “I’m the Greatest Star” because, on a friend’s suggestion, I’d worked on it in theater school. I read the script and thought, “Hey, I know this lady,” a quirky Jewish girl dedicated to theater who sings with jazzy vocal stylings.

From what you’ve seen in rehearsals, how is your performance of Fanny Brice different from Beanie and Lea’s interpretations?

I haven’t seen Lea in rehearsal yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with it. When Beanie played Fanny, you could feel her natural warmth and kindness. I try to bring my full self to the role as honestly as possible, but I also work to pay homage to the real Fanny Brice. I did a huge amount of research on her, reading biographies and diary entries, listening to her radio work, and watching her perform in videos. I think about “inviting” her onto the stage with me. I don’t want to do an impersonation, but I want her spirit to come through.

What new parts of Fanny have you discovered since taking over as lead?

One aspect I’ve been able to explore more is the “haimish” (Yiddish for “familiar” or “comfortable”) connection she shares with the audience. I now consider the audience one of my main scene partners and Fanny’s best friend. I try to work in conversation with them. I love it when I get the chance to break the fourth wall in the show-within-a-show numbers and speak directly to people.

What did you learn from Beanie’s portrayal of Fanny, and what advice have you given Lea?

Beanie gave me lots of little tidbits — things like, “Unzip your jacket while you’re walking upstage in this moment or you won’t make it through your quick-change in time.” She also introduced me to Angel Cards, which are little slips of paper that list words like “delight” or “honesty” or “risk.” She’d pick one before each show and share it with cast members as “the word of the day” to think about during the performance. She left me her Angel Cards, and I continue the tradition. It’s a helpful technique to keep nerves and performance[s] fresh every night.

Beanie Feldstein with co-star Jane Lynch on opening night of Funny Girl in April 2022.Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images

I haven’t gotten many opportunities to chat with Lea yet. She’s been in rehearsals, and I’ve been doing the show full-time, so we haven’t been in the same room much. But she shadowed me backstage the other day to observe my costume quick-changes, and pointed out things along the way, like how to arrange the magnets under the bridal gown so that the pregnant belly pillow for “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” will stick properly.

Where did the idea to record your album, Hand In Hand, come from?

At the start of the pandemic, Jason and I began a livestream concert series from our living room called “Quarantunes.” We’d perform a mix of songs, [some] we’d prepared and [some audience] requests. Our cat, Thelonious Monk, named for the legendary jazz pianist, would famously “help” by “taking solos” walking across the keyboard. We performed “Quarantunes” for over a year, and at some point Jason said, “We should really record these.”

What would you say is the most personal or sentimental song on the album?

Probably “Just Begun,” which Jason composed for me to walk down the aisle to at our wedding last year. The lyrics make very specific references to our journey together over the last decade. It’s hard for me to sing that one without getting a little teary.

Julie Benko and husband Jason Yeager. Urban Photography

Take me through your creative process with Jason. How do you deal with creative differences?

Physical combat! Just kidding. He’s more contemporary jazz, and I’m more musical theater, so we work to find places where those overlap. I’m usually focused on the lyrics, while he’s more concerned with exploring rhythmic and harmonic interpretations of the score.

You sing “People” from Funny Girl on the album. What inspired that choice?

For my first self-tape audition for Funny Girl, I had to sing “People.” I didn’t know the song at all, so I asked Jason if he’d accompany me. After playing it through, he said, “Holy cow, this song is amazing.” We were roughly 60 years late to the party.

But we were in the midst of recording our album, and Jason suggested we take the song into the studio. We developed our own arrangement using a Latin-inspired groove. We also lowered the key to give [it] a more intimate feel.

If you’d guest-starred on Glee, what song would you have wanted to perform?

When I was in college, I attended a few Glee viewing parties in my dorm, but I didn’t actually watch the show, but I would’ve wanted to sing “Cool Rider” from Grease 2. It’s a very campy sequel to the original Grease starring a young Michelle Pfeiffer. I’ve been obsessed with it since I was a kid. Get me some tight leather black pants, a ladder, and a smoke machine, and let me live my ’80s dreams.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.