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On July 11, the Broadway revival of the world-renowned 1964 musical “Funny Girl” announced casting news regarding the roles of Fanny Brice, the musical’s titular character, and Mrs. Brice, Fanny Brice’s mother. The production originally cast Beanie Feldstein as Fanny and Jane Lynch as Mrs. Brice for the revival’s pioneer cast. Negative reviews regarding Feldstein’s performance, specifically her singing, led the production to “take the show in a different direction”— as Feldstein said in what can be considered her official online goodbye to the show. Some go as far as to say that Feldstein was faced with a degree of fatphobia while starring in the show. In a change of course for the show, Lea Michele was subsequently cast as the new Fanny, which Michele described as “(a) dream come true.” However, Michele’s casting as Fanny was not without controversy. Michele’s history of racial insensitivity, paired with the specter of fatphobia lingering over the production, has produced a perfect storm of internet skepticism. 

Michele is largely known to popular culture as Rachel Berry, one of the main characters in the 2009-2015 Fox comedy-drama TV show “Glee.” Her character onscreen is described by many as insufferable, as her obsession with her own talent poses her as a self-centered and arrogant protagonist. While many tried to separate the art from the artist, racist allegations were made against Michele following the 2020 George Floyd controversy. In tweeting her empathetic sentiments regarding the event that ignited the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, Michele was met with claims from former co-stars about her racist conduct on set, Samantha Ware among them, who stated that Michele made her “first television gig a living hell.” Although Michele apologized for her allegedly racist past, the world was not able to let this slide, or so I thought before her recent casting as Fanny Brice. 

While Michele’s past has certainly not been forgotten, audiences, many Gleeks and “Funny Girl” fans alike are elated and ready to see Michele take the Broadway stage as Fanny. Ware spoke out about Michele’s racist past again upon hearing the casting news, tweeting that “Yes, (she’s) affected … Yes, (she) was abused … Yes, Broadway upholds whiteness. Yes, silence is complicity. Yes, (she’s) loud. Yes, (she’d) do it again.” Although some, including Ware, were staunchly against the casting, this did not stop the production from casting Michele. 

This may be due to ticket sales slumping, especially near July 2022, or because of Michele’s beyond-impressive soprano vocal range; it may simply be due to Murphy’s cinematic universe coming to life, as many Gleeks have joked about on Twitter. In any case, the casting has certainly proven to be problematic, as thoroughly explained through Vox’s detailed timeline of the revival of “Funny Girl,” which dates back to 2009.

Michele’s casting has also raised questions about the fatphobia underlying the show. In a recent article by Maria Noyen published by Insider, conversations about fatphobia present in the production following Feldstein’s departure have resurfaced, as the design for the finale dress was altered to a more revealing version for Michele to wear. The new dress contrasts with the original version tailored for Feldstein, which featured sleeves and gold detailing around the chest area that was eliminated upon Michele’s arrival to the role. 

As a Gleek, I must admit that I am drawn to purchase a ticket to see Michele interpret the iconic role she so well fits on the Broadway stage. However, when one ponders her racist past and the effect this has had on her former colleagues, is it wise to support such a paradoxical artist? In buying tickets to attend the production, one is supporting an actress and a show that promotes racism and discrimination through its mere existence and the casting choices it has made. However, to quote Glee character Kurt Hummel, saying that “she may be difficult, but boy can she sing,” is not a valid excuse. While the comment might seem humorous at first, its effect is far more serious and has a much deeper effect than what meets the general eye. 

Was fatphobia the main reason for Feldstein’s farewell from and Michele’s casting in “Funny Girl,” or did other factors play a similar and impactful role? Is it socially acceptable and/or politically correct to ignore Michele’s racist past just because of her show-stopping voice? Can one truly separate art from the artist, or is there a fine line where the two mesh and become inseparable? All these questions, as well as many others, arise regarding the controversial history and nature of “Funny Girl” and really put the production and all the members of the company’s integrity into question.

Graciela Batlle Cestero is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at gbatllec@umich.edu