Don't Rain on Funny Girl's Parade

lea michele
Lea Michele on 'Funny Girl'Tyler Joe
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The other day, Lea Michele received what anyone playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl dreams of getting: a note from Barbra Streisand herself.

“It was so surreal and such a wonderful moment. The fact that she acknowledged my performance—I could cry,” Michele says, referring, of course, to Streisand, who created the role of Fanny Brice in the 1964 Broadway musical and won an Oscar for her iconic performance on screen in the 1968 film adaptation. “I called Jonathan [Groff] and Ryan Murphy sobbing.”

Michele laughs when I ask if Streisand suggested in the note that she should direct her in a remake of the film. “I hadn’t thought about that yet, but now you’ve placed it in the universe,” Michele says, agreeing that it is, indeed, a good idea.

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In fact, the 36-year-old actress isn’t sure she’ll ever let anyone else know what Streisand wrote her. “It was a beautiful, hand-written note that I will cherish. She was incredibly complimentary,” Michele says. “It exists. It happened, and now I feel like so many dreams can come true.”

The last three months have been a whirlwind for the former Glee actress, who has single handedly turned Funny Girl into the must-see show on Broadway. There are standing ovations every night—not just at the end of the show, but multiple times during it. She made a new cast recording. She helped edge ratings for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade higher than they’d been in years. Hillary Clinton, Demi Moore, and Nicole Kidman are just some of the notables who’ve come to see her raise the roof of the August Wilson Theatre with her rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

Says Michele, “Honestly, it’s all been one incredible dream on top of an incredible dream.” Growing up, “people would tell me to get nose jobs, that I wasn’t pretty enough for film and television,” she recalls. The comparisons with Streisand were inevitable. “She was an icon for me in my life.”

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It wasn’t until Michele starred on Broadway in Spring Awakening in 2006 that she even discovered Funny Girl. She’d been going through a breakup, and Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer suggested she watch it—that there were a lot of parallels between what was going on in the movie and in Michele’s life at the time. “I became obsessed,” Michele explains.

In 2007, during a stagehand strike, Michele, still grieving the breakup, took co-star and friend Jonthan Groff up on an invitation to visit him in Los Angeles, where he was filming an eventually abandoned pilot created by Ryan Murphy co-starring Joseph Fiennes.

“That’s when I met Ryan Murphy,” Michele says. They talked about Funny Girl, and, says Michele, that night Murphy created the role of Rachel Berry, a midwestern teen obsessed with Barbara Streisand, for Michele in Glee.

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In 2013 or 2014, Murphy wanted to produce a stage production of Funny Girl with Diane Paulus directing Michele in the lead, but the timing was bad. Still filming Glee, she wouldn’t have enough of a hiatus to do more than a three-month run. In 2015, Mayer directed a revival in London starring Sheridan Smith, but by the time he’d started thinking about Broadway, “I was in L.A. and pregnant and really kind of had accepted it may not be in my future,” Michele says. At the Spring Awakening reunion in November 2021, Michele finally told Mayer: “I don’t know what show is an option for me, but I’m really ready to get back on stage.”

Murphy has come to see the show three times since Michele joined the company in September, when she took over the part previously played by Beanie Feldstein. “Sometimes I FaceTime him during intermission and say, ‘Can you believe this?’” Michele says of the television producer. “He’s been such an incredible source of support for me. I’m so grateful for him in my life.”

Groff has seen the show “multiple times,” Michele adds. She and their Spring Awakening co-star John Gallagher Jr. plan to go see Groff perform in Merrily We Roll Along opposite Daniel Radcliffe at New York Theater Workshop later this month. And Groff paid his BFF a major compliment when he listened to Michele sing with her co-star Ramin Karimloo on the new cast recording. “He said, ‘There’s something about when the two of you sing—it lit up every cell in my body. I’ve just never heard your voice sound like that with someone else,’” Michele says.

One of the joys of this new Funny Girl is the chemistry Michele shares with Karimloo, her dashing Nick Arnstein; they’re the most captivating couple at the moment on Broadway. “It’s like playing tennis with someone who’s just as good as you are,” says Michele. “It’s thrilling, and our voices just match.”

“We had a shorthand from day one,” says Karimloo, who only rehearsed with Michele three times before their first performance together on stage. “And that first performance on stage was insane, and it just keeps going up. This is the perfect storm.” In fact, Karimloo gets almost as much applause for appearing shirtless in a scene in act two. “At my age, I’ll take it,” he says.

Michele says preparing for each show begins as soon as she wakes up in the morning. Coming down from all the excitment in the evening actually isn’t that challenging, though. “Sometimes Ramin will have a little tequila in my room, but that’s as wild as it gets. My mom asks me the same thing, but calming down is not as hard as you think. I’m really happy to come home,” she says. Once there, she makes two pieces of toast with a lot of butter to eat in bed, “and I’m asleep in two minutes.”

The truth, Michele says, is that “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most amazing. And I never thought it would happen.”

Photography by Tyler Joe
Styling by MaryKate Boylan

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