From the JCC to Broadway

From the JCC to Broadway

Julie Benko talks about ‘Fiddler,’ ‘Funny Girl,’ and now ‘Harmony’

Julie Benko, left, and Sierra Boggess in “Harmony.”
Julie Benko, left, and Sierra Boggess in “Harmony.”

Baseball fans may recognize it as the Broadway version of the day Lou Gehrig stepped in when Wally Pipps complained of a headache.

Music fans might compare it to the day an unprepared Leonard Bernstein stood in for guest conductor Bruno Walter, who’d come down with the flu.

Neither Gehrig or Bernstein ever looked back — and likely neither will Julie Benko, who stars in the new Broadway production of “Harmony,” a musical that began as a production of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. (The company’s artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, lives in Teaneck.)

The story begins when Beanie Feldstein, a young and talented actress, wins the role of Fanny Brice is the 2022 revival of “Funny Girl,” and mistakenly accepts it. She obviously forgot a basic rule: Never take your first singing role in a Broadway musical where you will be compared to Barbra Streisand. Almost predictably, the reviews were, let’s just say, unkind. Less predictable: Ms. Feldstein left the production early.

And a star — that would be Ms. Benko — was born.

She was Ms. Feldstein’s understudy. Assigned the lead role on an interim basis — until Beanie’s replacement, Lea Michele, was ready to step in — Julie immediately won the kind of reviews Beanie had dreamed of. And as a result, her career took off.

Luck? Hardly. In fact, it was beshert.

Julie, 34, grew up in a Jewish family in Fairfield, Connecticut. She went to a nearby Hebrew school in a Reform synagogue, but all the important functions in life — her own baby naming, her bat mitzvah, her wedding two years ago to musician Jason Yeager — were overseen by her uncle, Rabbi Eric Polokoff of B’nai Israel in Southbury.

Her mom, Gail, taught high school Spanish. Her dad, Stephen, was involved with a commercial real estate business. And Julie wanted to sing.

“I begged for singing lessons when I was in middle school,” she said in a Zoom call. “But my mom always said no. She’d heard that singing lessons too early could ruin your voice.

“But when I was studying for my bat mitzvah, the cantor told her, ‘No, I think Julie has some talent, and you should look into getting her voice lessons.’ So after my bat mitzvah, I found a voice teacher and started taking lessons. That’s when I got the bug for theater, around freshman year of high school.

“This is sort of a mystical story in my family. They were doing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the JCC in Bridgeport, and I asked my dad to drive me to this audition. Then my sister, Allison, said, ‘I want to come’ and my mom said, ‘Well, I’m not sitting home alone,’ and so we all went to this audition, and I ended up getting the part of Hodel.

Julie Benko

“Then they saw my sister there, and they said, ‘Oh, we need little girls, can you audition?’ And then they saw my dad and said, ‘We’re desperate for papas. Can you audition?’ He said, ‘I don’t do this kind of thing. I do commercial real estate. I can’t even sing happy birthday.’ But he auditioned, and we all ended up doing the show.”

Literally all. Sis was cast as daughter Bialke; Dad was Mordcha the innkeeper, and as Julie tells it, “my mom was like, ‘I’m not staying home alone while you are all at rehearsal.’ So she was cast as a villager.”

Not only the family, but the die was cast.

“That really got me started on the theater journey,” Ms. Benko said. “The woman who directed that production became my first acting teacher. She also led a theater summer camp that I attended and later became a counselor at. She got me ready for my college audition.

“So that JCC ‘Fiddler’ really started us off. Now my dad’s got the bug, and he’s the president and treasurer of the local community theater. He plays Scrooge every year in ‘A Christmas Carol.’”

Ms. Benko attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, taking not so much gap years as gap plays. She earned her union card doing a tour of “Spring Awakening” and took regular leaves of absence for a number of touring shows, including the 25th anniversary tour of “Les Miz.” She eventually graduated from Tisch with both a B.A. in drama, in 2013, and a master’s in acting, in 2021.

All this time she was something of a rarity — an actor who worked regularly. I asked if she thought stardom was inevitable. “No, no,” she said with a chuckle.

“I just love what theater can do, and I’ve been thrilled to be part of it on any level, whether it’s Broadway or regional theater, whether it’s been understudy or playing the role. Obviously, the dream is always ‘oh my God, I want to get to originate a role in a Broadway show.’ Of course, that’s the dream, but I was honestly very happy knowing that I could make a living doing what I love to do.”

Was there ever a rough patch where she thought about quitting? “Oh, every six weeks.”

Her fallback plan?

“I always wanted to be a doctor, actually,’ she said. “I always thought I’d be a good OB/GYN. So for a long time in my 20s I kept thinking, should I quit Broadway and go to med school? My mom would say yes. But she’s come around. She saw ‘Funny Girl’ like 90 times.”

I say I’m glad she brought up the musical. I tell her that I actually saw Barbra Streisand in one of her last few appearances before she left the show. (Yes, I know, folks. I write younger than I am.) I saw the show with Beanie and thought the reviews were cruel. What, I ask, was the cast’s reaction?

“You know, at work, people tend not to talk about reviews, whether they are good or bad,” she said. “That’s sort of the industry standard, just show up and do the job you’re there to do and let theater criticism be theater criticism.

“Because, if you pay attention to the good stuff, you have to pay attention to the bad stuff. Ultimately, I think you just have to feel like you’re coming in and doing your best work. It doesn’t serve you to put too much stock into criticism. Better to trust your own gut.

“I think the media frenzy surrounding ‘Funny Girl’ was unique and was very stressful for me personally. All I can say is that I really felt Beanie handled the whole situation with a lot of grace and kindness. And she is a truly wonderful, wonderful person and I really admire her as a person.”

Can you remember the moment you heard you were going to replace her, albeit temporarily? “When my agents called to tell me that, I cried. I just felt like it was the culmination of a long process. You know, 15 years of working professionally in this business. Doing the hard slog of the life of an unknown actor: early wakeups to go on open calls where you sing 16 bars for somebody who maybe has no power to cast at all because they’re really going for a name. And you’re constantly being told you’re not thin enough or you’re too thin. You’re not pretty enough for the role. You’re fine to understudy, but they want somebody really crazy for the part.

“You know, all those things you’re told for years, and just doing my survival job to pay my rent. So to have that moment, it was huge. It felt like this big moment where I could really celebrate and finally stop my survival jobs.”

She’d worked as an SAT and ACC tutor, and when she moved to a nicer apartment around this time, she used the occasion to throw out the dozen test prep books she used in her side gig.

“It was just so gratifying to say that I am now going to make my living 100% from being an artist.”

Even her mom has stopped pushing for med school, Ms. Benko said. Her concern now is more sartorial. “She keeps texting me photos of her opening night dress for ‘Harmony.’ So now it’s just the stress of finding the opening night dress.”

“Harmony” is the new Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical, which opens November 13. It is based on the real-life Comedian Harmonists, a six-man singing group that sold millions of records and concert tickets before they were disbanded by the Nazis because some members were Jewish. Ms. Benko plays Ruth, an amalgam of several Jewish characters associated with the group.

I asked her if there is a difference in her mind when she plays a Jewish character. “I don’t think so,” she replied. “But I think that lately, with everything that’s going on in the world, I have an added sense of responsibility and weight because of what this character represents. I think that at the moment, Ruth is the only Jewish female character on Broadway.

“Backstage at intermission, scrolling on Instagram, I see a picture someone just took at the 34th Street Herald Square station of a sign that says ‘Kill the Jews.’ And now I go on stage and play a girl who stands up to the Nazis and actually says she is sick of what they are doing.

“So I think my Jewish heritage infuses the responsibility I feel for this particular character that I think was different from Fanny.

“I think when it comes to this character, I feel the weight and sadness of our community.”

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