Julie Benko Was the ‘Funny Girl’ No One Had Heard of, Until Now

Once she landed the job, Benko was more intent on learning the quirks and mannerisms of the real Fanny Brice on which the musical is based: a comic actress who rose to stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies and fell in love with the slippery gambler and con man Nick Arnstein (played by Ramin Karimloo). Before rehearsals began in February, Benko read biographies of Brice and excerpts from her diaries. She worked with an archivist at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to watch old footage of Brice doing goofy dances and contorting her face into silly expressions.

“She has an insatiable appetite for the world of the play, for the world of the story,” Brandon Dirden, who taught Benko when she returned to NYU for graduate school, said of his former student. “She doesn’t leave any stone unturned.”

As Feldstein rehearsed, Benko sat on the sidelines taking notes, recording details about pacing and the intent behind lines of dialogue. After rehearsals ended, Benko would run lines with her husband and musical collaborator, Jason Yeager, in their living room. She sang through the entire score nearly every day to build stamina, and would practice the tap sequences of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” in a full-length mirror, Yeager recalled.

The rehearsals were primarily focused on the main cast, so it wasn’t until the day of her first performance, on April 29, that Benko got to run through a stage rehearsal with costumes, lights and microphones.

When she walked onstage that night, Benko was shocked to be greeted by entrance applause — entrance applause! “It was probably the most thrilling moment of my life,” she said.

She was comfortable with the onstage choreography, but it was the offstage choreography — in particular, the show’s many costume changes — that had been more difficult to practice. The show, which follows Brice from her late teens to her early 30s, packs in four wigs and 21 costumes, 19 of which are quick changes that need to happen in as short as a minute.

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