The messy ouster of Beanie Feldstein from Broadway’s Funny Girl revival — and the rather cursed decision to replace her with Glee star Lea Michele — has been the story on everyone’s lips and keyboards for the past week, and will certainly be resuscitated once Michele makes her debut as Fanny Brice in September.
It’s shocking and often satisfying when a celebrity scandal fulfills a long-running public narrative. Michele, a very outspoken Funny Girl fan, had not only performed several songs from the 1964 musical on Glee but even at the 2010 Tony Awards. (I’d argue that her version of “Don’t Rain On My Parade” trumps Barbra Streisand’s original). And the notion that she had been slyly auditioning for the role all this time — and must have been infuriated when Feldstein and her Glee co-star Jane Lynch were cast in production last year — has been heavily broached on social media by former Gleeks and anyone familiar with Michele’s career.
It’s also a rare occurrence that anyone other than theater nerds would care about the behind-the-scenes machinations of a Broadway show. But Michele and Feldstein’s screen credits and greater celebrity status have given average TV and movie watchers an inlet into an otherwise niche controversy.
And yet, to define this particular debacle as gratifying feels wrong, given who’s benefiting from this casting shakeup and who’s being punished.
When the rumors of Michele replacing Feldstein first emerged, my Twitter timeline was filled with people amused by the notion of a hungry, try-hard (but extremely talented) performer getting the role of a lifetime — and snatching it away from someone who probably should ‘ve never been hired in the first place because of their lackluster vocal chops. There was little mention of Michele’s past indiscretions, including making racist and transphobic remarks at her peers, which were brought to light during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. And many of the people I did see discussing the Spring Awakening star’s behavior described her past offenses with broad, tepid terms, such as “mean,” “rude,” and “diva.”
Based on what Michele’s victims have said about her, those words aren’t not appropriate in her case — although I do not think “diva” should be automatically synonymous with oppressive behavior. (Beyoncé would never call background actors “cockroaches”!) However, using adjectives like“ mean ”and“ rude ”to sum up specific accusations of racism and queerphobia is frankly dishonest and flattens a uniquely harmful experience into a mild, even universal one.
For instance, we’ve all dealt with someone bumping into us without saying “excuse me” or not holding a door open for us — behavior I would classify as rude. But not everyone knows the pain and humiliation of being trans and being told you’re in the wrong bathroom in front of other people, or being Black and dealing with microaggressions from your white co-worker with a higher standing than you — both things Michele was accused of.
Maybe all of this would be easier to swallow if Michele had shown the slightest degree of introspection or remorse in the pseudo-apology she posted during the controversy in 2020. In a statement posted to Instagram, she claimed she did not remember any of the behavior she was accused of and apologized for the way her actions were “perceived,” not for whatever hate was apparently brewing in her heart. As I would advise any stubborn Real Housewife during the resolution of a conflict, an apology for something you do not believe you did is not a real apology, and saying you’re sorry for how someone interpreted your actions is not true accountability.
Now, the conversation around Michele’s Funny Girl casting is fortunately starting to shift to a more disturbed, frustrated tone, with many Twitter users acknowledging how wholly fucked-up the situation is. And one of Michele’s accusers, Glee actress Samatha Ware, has expressed her anger over her former co-worker essentially being rewarded for emotionally terrorizing people throughout her career.
In the same way, the unnecessary trouble and embarrassment this whole ordeal has caused Feldstein has been acknowledged in op-eds and by people directly involved in the Funny Girl revival. Still, it’s disappointing that, with all the admissions of guilt from producers about how they handled the situation, they completely brush off the moral implications of casting Michele and the people directly affected by her past behavior. Moreover, one would hope that a well-off actress like Feldstein — who’s been in successful films like Booksmart spirit Lady Bird and who has a famous older brother — would be viewed as a victim in all of this, but certainly not as the most vulnerable person affected.
We’ll most likely have to deal with the public ignoring Michele’s record of verbal abuse once again this fall when she inevitably does an amazing job in Funny Girl and maybe even earns a Tony nomination. Overall, the question is whether Michele should ever be able to work again. But should she be occupying one of the most coveted roles on Broadway after all the crimes she’s gotten away with? Absolutely not.