Six standing ovations later, Lea Michele makes triumphant return to Broadway in ‘Funny Girl’

It seems the weather gods didn’t hear Fanny Brice’s humble request.

But not even a dreary, rainy Tuesday in Manhattan could rain on Lea Michele’s parade, as the former “Glee” star made her long-awaited debut in the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.” Before Michele could sing a note in her crystalline soprano, the crowd at the August Wilson Theater rose as soon as she appeared on stage, struggling to hear the show’s famous opening line, “Hello, gorgeous.” He would receive a total of six standing ovations, crescendoing to a rafter-shaking final ovation.

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It’s been a long time coming for Michele, who has spent much of her career (unofficially) campaigning to embody the incandescent comic and singer Fanny Brice on stage. Her obsession with “Funny Girl” became famous on “Glee,” where her character Rachel Berry regularly belted out the musical’s biggest hits — including “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “I’m the Greatest Star” and “People” – over the course of the show’s six seasons. A public listening tape, of sorts.

And the audience — A-list and otherwise — came out in force. In addition to a bevy of Gleeks, the audience included Michele’s BFF and one-time “Spring Awakening” co-star Jonathan Groff (who looked positively ecstatic whenever the actress was on stage, rocking back and forth rhythmically, crying at various points, and jumping up and down to lead each cheer), old “Glee” boss Ryan Murphy, Zachary Quinto, Drew Barrymore, Harvey Fierstein (fresh off putting another polish on the show’s sometimes-crazy playbook) and producer Jordan Roth, beaming in a flow, cardigan with animal print. The crowd was clearly on Michele’s side, and it’s unlikely she’ll ever perform in front of another crowd that can’t wait to see her soar.

“We’re Gleeks first, people second,” says 24-year-old Julianna DeAngelis. “I grew up listening to Lea Michele sing ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade.’ She and theater partner Fiona Castro say they spent $250 each to see the second run of “Funny Girl.”

“We would definitely spend more,” Castro, 24, added. “It’s a historic moment, given everything that’s happened with the revival.”

And there have been a lot of headlines about “Funny Girl” in the last year. When the production made its return to Broadway for the first time in nearly six decades, it did so with “Booksmart” actor Beanie Feldstein, not Michele, in the lead role of Ziegfeld’s Follies who has the misfortune of falling in love with the wrong man. However, Feldstein’s performance was met with lousy reviews, little Tonys love, and harsh comparisons to Barbra Streisand’s career-making performance. The languishing announcements sparked rumors that Michele was set to take on the marquee role in a bid to boost ticket sales. And once Michele’s casting was confirmed, Feldstein left “Funny Girl” two months early, citing the producer’s decision to “take the show in a different direction.”

There were also critics of Michele’s big return to Broadway. She largely stepped out of the spotlight in 2020 after former “Glee” co-star Samantha Marie Ware accused Michele of “traumatic microaggressions” that fueled a toxic set. Michele later apologized for her “behavior and for any pain I caused.”

But on Tuesday, for the first time in several weeks, the drama surrounding the musical played out mostly on stage.

Ramin Karimloo, who plays Fanny’s Nicky Arnstein, is one person who managed to escape the mess offstage.

“From what I gather, because I didn’t grow up with ‘Funny Girl,’ that show has inspired a lot of people and it’s something that usually sticks with them for a long time,” he said. Variety ahead of opening night. “I don’t know anything about ‘Glee.’ I didn’t know anything about Lea leading up to it, so hearing her sing for the first time was brilliant.” As for Michele’s take on Brice, she praised the way he “wanted to dive into the romance,” adding, “it’s so effective.”

There is one song that will bring the audience to their feet, he correctly prophesied. “Come on… he blows the roof off with ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade,’ which I guess he sang on that show everyone’s talking about,” he says. “The way she sings makes me dance.”

By the break, the crowd was buzzing for Michele’s vocals and the overall energy in the room. After the curtain fell on Michele, who tearfully accepted a bouquet of white roses as she bid farewell to the audience, fans flocked to the stage door to catch one last glimpse of the star. There, Michele signed Playbills and posters amid a crush of well-wishers.

For Marlenn Sabbagh, a 21-year-old theater major, the evening certainly lived up to her expectations.

“It was the best theater experience I’ve ever had, and I’ve been going my whole life,” Sabbagh said. “The audience was incredible. The energy was so good. I was never interested in Justin Bieber growing up. This is my Justin Bieber concert.”

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