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A Not-So Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum

Hey! It’s been a minute. First of all, NYC was fantastic, and I had a phenomenal time. I have SO much to tell you... But that’s for another blog. But in the meantime, I thought I’d talk about something weighing on my mind since I returned from my trip three weeks ago. (Three weeks ago, I performed at the Lincoln freakin’ Center. I still can’t believe it!) And it all has to do with the current state of the theatre industry. The pandemic walloped everyone in this field: the theater was among the first to close when the pandemic started in 2020, and they were among the last to open back up. But being able to open back safely AND coherently seemed not to go well together. First, there was no direction from various theatre leagues and unions on opening up after being shuttered for over a year. (How do we keep a show going safely without getting anyone else sick? What is the sick pay like for those struck with COVID, if there is any? What about health insurance? Who will take over a role when the original person is out for any health reason out of precaution?) Then, it was the theatre organizations, with many individuals leaving even after being there for decades. Many said, “it’s time to move on to better things,” with the underlying theme of “not getting enough money to survive and flourish” hidden from colleagues’ eyes. There’s also not enough recognition to everyone who helped keep the building doors open, especially during ongoing subvariants of COVID rampaging the world. People like box office associates, ushers, house managers, and more are putting more time and energy into selling tickets, exchanging, providing refunds, and more. However, those at the upper tiers get all the credit and praise. When you add hours and positions getting cut, a total disregard for the understudies, swings, and covers, and not enough action taken for the long overdue change, you get an authentic !$%@*>? mess. The theatre community and industry shouldn’t be in so much chaos right now. But if there's one thing the pandemic forced me to see is how vulnerable and disorganized theatre organizations and companies are and how much change is still needed, even beyond the racial equality statements. Every person involved in making the show go on, from box office associates to the managing director, needs to be recognized and seen for how much hard work goes into getting a play off the ground and ready for an eight-show-a-week performance schedule. Nobody in the organization deserves poor treatment and blame after patrons there's a negative outing to a show when other factors out of our control contributed to this. What better example of this is more prevalent than what's going on with Funny Girl on Broadway?

Funny Girl is one of those shows where a revival was LONG overdue, but it was challenging to produce because, let’s face it. Who can fill Ms. Streisand’s shoes as Fanny Brice? They decided to take a chance on comedic actress Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird and Booksmart). Some people enjoyed her take on Fanny, but others, and I mean LOTS of others, hated it. It was pretty bad to the point where people were bullying her on social media for how bad her singing chops were, how fat she was, and more. Last month, Feldstein and Jane Lynch (she played Fanny’s mother) announced that both Feldstein and Jane Lynch were leaving the show in mid-September. For the time being, Broadway actress Julie Benko (also Feldstein's understudy) would take over for Fanny Brice, and many people thoroughly enjoyed her performance. Things went downhill on Monday. Feldstein and Lynch announced their time with Funny Girl ended on 31 July, much sooner than anticipated. But that wasn’t the only news of the day. Lea Michele of GLEE fame was taking over as Fanny Brice in September. You can figure out what happened next with both of these announcements. Ticket prices soared up to $2,500 per ticket after the casting announcement, and they were abysmally low up to this point. Some people praised the casting decision, as many knew this was a dream role for Michele, who practically auditioned for this role every chance she got. Did I mention people adored her voice and said she nearly IS Fanny Brice? Many others were furious with this and especially disagreed with the casting decision. For those who aren’t aware, GLEE costars and other actors who worked with Michele spoke out against the actress over her bullying others and racist comments against actors of color. Hence the fury over the casting decision. Not only that, many argued that Julie Benko deserved to be Fanny Brice permanently, not Michele. It’s certainly a hot topic these days, especially if you’re not into politics and economics right now (and that is undoubtedly more depressing than what’s going on in the theatre industry, right?). My head hurts right now. How about you? And this is the part where I get to be honest about all of this. Whether or not I succeed in being sincere, transparent, AND kind is up for grabs. But not just what’s going on with Funny Girl. It’s also where I have to speak out about the state of the theatre industry. I’ve waited for the chance to see Funny Girl on Broadway for a long time. I’m jealous of those who got to know the greatness of Barbra Streisand performing her role in 1964 on Broadway. I was planning on seeing this revival, and even the negative reviews from critics and audience members weren’t stopping me. Here’s the thing about revivals of any classic show: They’re NOT meant to replace the original show when it premiered decades ago, and no one will ever take away the first experience of seeing a new show on stage with an original Broadway cast. Revivals are opportunities for new generations of fans to experience and witness what made the original show so fantastic, even with little changes that reflect our world’s current state, whether replacing certain words in lyrics or dialogue or expanding the racial diversity in the cast. The same goes with the recent revivals of Oklahoma!, Company, Hello, Dolly!, and Funny Girl, among others. But here’s a problem fans and critics run into when seeing a revival, and it’s an unhealthy obsession. They COMPARE the revival cast and production to the original. And they especially compared Feldstein to Streisand, and not in a positive way. Here’s the problem so many people ran into going into seeing the revival: They believe Streisand is the definitive Fanny Brice, and no one can compare to her. Especially someone who doesn’t have the angelic singing chops like Streisand, the same beauty as Streisand, or even the exact body figure as Streisand. And that leads to bullying Feldstein regularly, especially on social media. Isn’t there a line in the show like “I’m an onion roll on a plate of bagels”? That’s the same with Feldstein playing Fanny Brice. Granted, she may not look like Fanny Brice or even sing like Streisand, but that doesn’t mean she’s not talented. And it also doesn’t give all of you the right to bully her into feeling worthless about herself because she doesn’t have your perfect picture of what a Fanny Brice should be in a revival of Funny Girl. Nobody deserves mistreatment for how they look, come from, and perform on stage, and that’s just cruel and wrong. It is still going regularly in the form of not signing a child’s yearbook or ostracizing those who identify as LGBTQ+ for playing in sports, adopting children, or even fighting for reproductive rights. No one should be belittled for being who they are, even if they are an onion roll on a plate of bagels. I was willing to give Feldstein a chance because I believe her interpretation of Fanny Brice isn’t Streisand, and that's the bloody point! She's NOT Streisand, and she never will be, but she will be Feldstein, and her original interpretation is unique. You never need to have a set image of who your perfect performer is when seeing a revival because the most unexpected person who takes on a timeless character may surprise you. It would be best if you never said that so-and-so is THE definitive person to play that character, and that's all you see the show as. You will never give up-and-coming performers a chance to shine in the roles treasured when the show first premiered on Broadway decades ago. That's not just your stubbornness talking, but your narrow-mindedness talking, which needs to go to the wayside and fast. Suppose you didn’t enjoy Feldstein’s interpretation of Fanny, fine. But you have no right to bully her and give her constant crap about her weight and acting/singing skills, and it doesn’t make you better than her and makes you look like an idiot with no respect or decency. Narrow-mindedness is so 2020. Isn't it about time to let that go once and for all? Another that that's making me mad about this whole thing was how the producers of Funny Girl handled it. No grace was involved in this announcement, and many people got hurt. Onstage Blog covered this perfectly in their recent post below:

"That being said, we also must take a moment to praise Beanie Feldstein. She has been an absolute class act throughout all of this, and I don’t blame her for anything that has happened in the past 24 hours. If I had been told that they wanted to end my run three weeks earlier than planned, I would’ve done exactly what she did too.

"The failures of Funny Girl are not squarely because of her. I would also say that she wasn’t nearly the biggest problem with the production. Was she the right person for this role? That’s debatable. But from what I’ve heard from those working on the show, she’s been an absolute delight to work with, gave everything she had to this part, and supported everyone else on the production.

If this terrible situation leads to more amazing things for her and generates an entire legion of new fans, I’m only happy for her. I just hope she comes back to Broadway sooner than later. "Other than having a better singing voice, I’m not sure what Lea Michele brings to this role that Beanie Feldstein didn’t. I’m not exactly sure if anything is gained from having her in this role.

“I’m also a bit confused as to why she would even want to be put in the situation right now either. Most importantly, I’m alarmed at the fact that once again this shows that nothing has changed within the Broadway power structure. After years of members in this community and fans telling producers not to give problematic people opportunities, this happens. "As we all know, Lea Michele was accused of some pretty horrific behavior on multiple projects including ‘Glee’ and ‘Spring Awakening’. She technically apologized for her behavior without addressing what behavior she was apologizing for. Yet, Broadway powers-that-be were so quick to get her back on Broadway as soon as possible. If this isn’t a sign that nothing much has changed on Broadway, I don’t know what is.

"I feel as though I’m watching a “Karen” win a Nobel peace prize.

"Has Lea Michele changed her ways? She hasn’t been doing much lately, so maybe? One can only hope that’s happened, because I want the other cast members and employees of that production to be able to work for as long as possible.

"I also want them to feel that they’re working in a safe and encouraging environment. So I want this to succeed. What kills me is that there were probably so many other options and routes to go, and they chose this. I get the terrible feeling you all know why all of this happened. It's the same reason Broadway producers within the Broadway League support making masks optional in theatre options, and the fears of another shutdown and the concerns of actors' are unfounded. It's the same reason they stand by predators and troublesome actors and dancers despite calls for firing. It's the same reason they're unwilling to take a chance on an individual without star power, even going as far as putting a name to a role despite their offstage character. Say it with me now: 🎶 Money, money, money, money, MONEY!🎶 (Sigh) Hasn't this pandemic taught you anything? All those calls for racial equality and awareness in the rehearsal and performance spaces mean nothing to you. It's as if the calls for safety in the performance spaces for everyone mean nothing to you. There are screams for support for the victims of sexual assault and other predatory behaviors and to keep those responsible offstage, yet they mean nothing to you. It's as if you only care about rallying behind commercial entertainment instead of high-quality shows. It's as if you only care about saving your hides instead of being transparent about the industry and the mistakes you made. You only care about the money rolling in, while the physical, mental, and emotional needs of the individuals who put in the endless hours to put a show together are more forgotten. I only have three words to say: Shame. On. You. This would never have happened if you genuinely cared about the people you've hurt and potentially hurt because of your selfishness. If you listened to what others said about Michele and her behavior towards others and believed the words, Julie Benko would be taking on the role and probably get some much-needed success and fame for taking up the slack. You had a year and a half to think over why certain things in this industry didn't work and be open to change and transformation on Broadway. And yet you decide that you're too cowardly to accept that change and revert to your old ways just to keep the status quo in the guise of Broadway coming back to life. The old ways aren't working anymore. What part of that is so hard to understand? I get it. It's a business, but even after a year and a half, you CAN adapt and change with the times. Allowing sexual predators or bullies to work on your projects you get behind just to bring in the big bucks is NEVER the way to go. It's not a crime if you admit you're wrong and even take a chance on a "nobody" to keep the show going, especially if that "nobody" has both the talent AND the character to do so. I just wish you could start caring about the people involved in this industry, and even better, start listening to others when they say they don't want to work with someone because of how they treat others wrongly. What's wrong with that? Times are changing. Isn't it time you started changing with the times as well? And that brings me to Lea Michele herself. Don't get me wrong. She is exceptionally talented. I heard her sing, and she was something else. But here's what I'm chewing on: What good is having the talent and remarkable capability of wowing others with that gift if you don't have the character to back it up when you're not onstage? When you get to an audition room or the rehearsal, the most important thing isn't how well you do with memorizing lines, getting the notes down, and even dancing great. It's how you treat others and show that they matter even more than you. Kindness, compassion, understanding, patience, gratitude, and love matter in this industry. And those qualities matter even more than talent or even having a name. I firmly believe in an individual's offstage character mattering more than who they play onstage night after night. If you're not treating others like human beings and seeing them as talented individuals and not a threat to your career, what's the point of landing the role of your dreams? So, do I agree with the decision to cast Michele as Fanny Brice? No, I don't. To me, someone who is genuinely sorry for what they did years ago not only apologizes but also holds themself accountable for their actions, shows remorse, and takes the appropriate steps to change, even if it means eating crow for an extended time. Apologizing just once doesn't cut it for me. Apologizing just once and getting the role of Fanny Brice is not sitting well with me. It says you care about fame and the star's presence rather than their character. And quite frankly, that's a damn shame. It also says you're okay with a star bullying and mistreating others just to make you money. And again, that's a damn shame. (Whew! This post was a lot to get out on this week's blog, especially after being away for three-and-a-half weeks. I know this is full of emotion and strong opinions, but these are my observations and reflections on this week's topic. You are welcome to disagree with anything I've said, but I will not tolerate disrespect or bullying from you or anyone commenting on this post. You are not allowed to make me or anyone else inferior with your insensitive language. We must be kind to each other, even if it means agreeing to disagree with our opinions and observations. Isn't that too much to ask?)

As an actor and theatre worker, I'm disgusted by how the theatre industry operates. And it's due to how broken the system is in terms of how they treat hardworking individuals that often don't get credit. Instead, they celebrate people with money, status, and power to keep things operating and steal all the praise from those beneath them. It especially hurts me to see how people with lousy characters offstage are getting the roles just to fund the arts economy. You had a year and a half to reflect on everything in the theatre industry's history, including mistreated people of color and how the business works against them. You had this time to listen to others saying how this system mistreats them and why it no longer works in 2020, 2021, or even 2022. But you didn't listen and were unwilling to change just because you cared about money. And this is especially true for what happened in the past few days with Funny Girl. What part of "times is changing" don't you understand? Or are you afraid of changing with the times because of what you will lose? You don't need to be afraid. Seriously, you don't. Yes, you will lose so much with change. But look at what you can gain if you take a chance on looking at the content of one's character rather than their star status or your money. Or even listening to others when they tell you about how an actor bullies and mistreats others or is even a sexual predator. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that all of us in this industry are sick and tired of how things haven't changed when it's long overdue. While money is a critical necessity to survive in this business, it shouldn't have to be the "why" you do what you do in the theatre industry. Your "why" of your profession should come from a place of passion, inspiration, and encouragement, not a place of greed or cruelty. You need to rediscover that "why," even if it means holding yourself accountable for past actions that no longer cut it in 2022. We MUST change with the times, and it cannot wait any longer. Isn't it time you started to change with it? Especially where your character is concerned? Credit for blog excerpt in this week's post goes to Onstage Blog. You can find more of their blogs about the theatre industry here. Thanks to Onstage Blog for writing such incredible and informative blogs, including this one, and this one.

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