Lea Michele ends 'Dream' run in 'Funny Girl' after reinvigorating show

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Lea Michele ends 'Dream' run in 'Funny Girl' after reinvigorating show
Lea Michele raises a flower during the last show of “Funny Girl” at the August Wilson Theatre in New York, on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023. At Sunday’s final curtain call for “Funny Girl” on Broadway, Lea Michele expressed gratitude for “the unconditional true love and support from this cast.” (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times)

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK, NY.- “That was my dream come true,” Lea Michele gushed from the stage on Sunday after her final performance in “Funny Girl,” the Broadway revival that the actress breathed new life into when its future looked grim one year ago.

Michele’s sudden addition to the production, which closed with its star’s exit, stretched its run to nearly 600 performances and allowed it to recoup its capitalization costs — far from a guarantee on Broadway. At Sunday’s matinee, the actress basked in the show’s success, and received seven standing ovations, including for the insistent barn burner “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and the reflective ballad “People.”

“I was truly given the greatest gift that surpassed this dream and that was the unconditional true love and support from this cast, who has worked so, so, so hard,” Michele added. “I was embraced with open arms the minute I came in.”

Just as Michele reversed the show’s fortunes, “Funny Girl” appeared to have reversed hers. Three years ago, Michele’s celebrity had been clouded by a wave of criticism over bullying behavior and a prima donna attitude. Since she stepped in as the show’s lead, Michele has reassumed the role of a celebrated Broadway star, announcing Tony nominees, performing on late-night shows and booking a solo concert this fall at Carnegie Hall.

At her final show at the August Wilson Theater, Michele gave the audience an extra song: “My Man,” which includes lyrics from an original performed by Fanny Brice, the pioneering Jewish entertainer whose life is the basis for the musical.

Michele has said that the song — which the show’s original star, Barbra Streisand, sang in the film version, though it was not included in either Broadway production — has been an important one to her since she sang it on the television series “Glee.” A belter about devotion to a man despite him being a constant disappointment, “My Man” was dedicated in the series to a character played by Cory Monteith, who Michele dated both on TV and in real life. Monteith, who had struggled with substance abuse, died of a combination of heroin and alcohol in 2013.

“The whole thing with life imitating art imitating life really gets me,” said Richard Gruber, who saw Michele in “Funny Girl” seven times and was seated in the theater’s second row at the performance on Sunday.

Gruber, 69, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, flew in Sunday morning for the final performance and had a return flight Sunday night.

“I just find her riveting,” Gruber said, clutching a white rose that the production gave audience members at the front of the house to toss at curtain call.

Over the years, theater producers had trouble reviving “Funny Girl” because of its inextricable association with Streisand, who was 21 when the original production first opened on Broadway. (Streisand is not known to have attended any performances of the revival.)

Streisand has long been an idol to Michele, who started as a child actress on Broadway, became a known entity as a lead in “Spring Awakening” and rose to become a household name in “Glee” as an uptight but talented high school glee club member. In a blending of TV and reality, Michele’s character, Rachel Berry, landed the role of Brice, and Michele performed several of the musical’s songs on the show.

Michele had long been discussed as an option for a “Funny Girl” revival, but the show’s director, Michael Mayer, who has directed Michele in “Spring Awakening,” said last year that he had sensed that she was not ready to return to work after the birth of her child. Actress Beanie Feldstein was cast in the role, but she drew middling reviews when the show opened in spring 2022. It received one Tony nomination, for Jared Grimes, who portrays Brice’s dance coach and sidekick.

When Feldstein bowed out of the show earlier than expected, Michele was tapped to replace her, fueling a flood of press attention, social media debate and, once she made her debut, rave reviews that bolstered ticket sales. A tour, featuring Katerina McCrimmon, starts on Saturday in Providence, Rhode Island.

With “Funny Girl,” Michele made her first appearance in a Broadway cast in 15 years. She has indicated that the next gap won’t be so significant. The actress told Variety that she has already booked her next job, hinting that it is a show she expects people will recognize, but that is very different from the one that drew her back to Broadway.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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