Interview: Lea Michele and Tovah Feldshuh on Becoming Funny Girl's New Fanny and Rosie

The two stars take on the iconic roles at the August Wilson Theatre.

Broadway hasn't really seen event casting the likes of Lea Michele and Tovah Feldshuh in Funny Girl in quite a while. The day the announcement came, the pop culture world went nuts; and when the ladies finally joined the cast at the August Wilson Theatre earlier this month, reports the next day were ecstatic. Here, they tell us about taking on the iconic roles of Fanny and Rosie Brice, and what they're doing to build the relationship as onstage daughter and mother.

Tovah Feldshuh and Lea Michele in Funny Girl
Tovah Feldshuh and Lea Michele in Funny Girl
(© Matthew Murphy)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lea, what is it like to sing the songs in the context of the show, as opposed to the one-offs on Glee or in concert settings?
Lea Michele: Well, first of all, it's a completely different experience getting to sing them live. When I did the songs on Glee, we would record them and then film them, which is very different. There's nothing like singing live. I did have the opportunity to do "Parade" on the Glee tour, and I got to sing it in the largest arenas in the world, like the Staples Center and the O2. But there's nothing like being Fanny when you're singing these songs, because you're bringing her truth. It's not Rachel singing a song for a competition — although, "Don't Rain on My Parade" was very real for Rachel — but when I sing these songs now, it's coming with Fanny's whole history and her whole story. And as an actor, it's so thrilling to just sing these songs, which are, in my opinion, some of the greatest songs ever written for a musical.

Pretty much every song Fanny gets is a hit.
Tovah Feldshuh: I think it's the greatest role written for a woman in the American musical theater, and I think we have a lot to thank Miss Streisand for. In my imagination, not having read the whole history, but I believe when they cast her, they fell in love with her and just kept writing for her, with Sydney Chaplin [the original Nick] becoming more and more like wallpaper. What Harvey Fierstein has done with the book is to give Nicky a clearer arc. He's changed the entire dynamic of the musical. You have a real love story now that's of interest, and Fanny doesn't look crazy for following him. Also, Ramin Karimloo is remarkable when he walks in after the prison scene. He's this broken man.

Lea Michele and Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl
Lea Michele and Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl
(© Matthew Murphy)

What is it like to be working with each other as mother and daughter?
Lea: When they called me and said that this might be a possibility, I said "Well, who's gonna play my mom?" And Michael Mayer was like "What about Tovah?" And I said "It has to be Tovah. It just has to be Tovah." She's an icon. And to be on stage every night with her excellence is an honor.

Tovah: Really, the honor is mine. I know we sound like two schmaltz herrings, but it's real. It's true. And I watched her like a hawk in rehearsal to be like her, because I wanted to be her mother. I changed my contact lenses from green to dark brown so I could have her eye color. I try to bring my own sense of what's called in Jewish, "Koyekh," which means your strength and your sexuality. Because where would Fanny get it from? If I don't have it, how is she going to? And if Fanny doesn't have a passion, a sexual appetite, a physical attraction to Nick Arnstein, you're screwed, sorry for the pun. Lea is my inspiration. I have the privilege of having two wonderful children in real life, whom I love unconditionally, and to be able to transfer that feeling to Lea was nothing for me because she's able to receive it. I'm very lucky to work with an artist who is of like mind, and she has been gracious, kind, and inclusive. It's just easy.

Lea, how do you, knowing all the reports of, you know, five standing ovations…
Tovah: Seven.

Lea: Seven?

Tovah: Seven. Also, she put eight minutes on the show on opening night. The applause was so crazy. She almost had to lie down at the top of act two when she climbs in from the pit. The show ended at 10:58 instead of 10:50.

So how do you wake up the next day and say "I'm gonna do that again and not feel any more pressure than is already on?"
Lea: I'm just gonna go every day and tell the story and sing the songs and do my best. I am so grateful for the excitement on Tuesday. I hope that enthusiasm stays. But I think as long as we just go and do our show and we tell the story of Funny Girl, the audience will be so happy. And I couldn't be more grateful.

Lea Michele in Funny Girl
Lea Michele in Funny Girl
(© Matthew Murphy)

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Funny Girl

Closed: September 3, 2023