The entire audition for “Funny Girl,” coming to Broadway this month, was via Zoom. It was a very personal process for me because I played Fanny Brice [the plucky real-life early 20th-century actress at the center of Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart’s 1964 musical] has always been my dream, and I thought if I told people I was auditioning, my desire for the part would grow too much. I couldn’t awaken my mother’s hopes like that. So I just didn’t tell anyone. The only one who knew was Liz Caplan, who has been my voice teacher for almost ten years. Starting in September, we started collaborating on this show twice a week, mostly via FaceTime. My voice was really, really worn out from filming ‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ where I played Monica Lewinsky, so a lot of what Liz and I had to do was just rebuild it.
Sometimes the lesson consists of 45 minutes of vocalizing: just scaling and warming up. At first I didn’t put much of my real personality into the numbers; much of it came during the rehearsal process. You want to leave the interpretation open because you don’t want to get locked into a specific phrase of a song and then come into the room and not be in line with what the team wants. My lifelong favorite song from the show has always been “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, but I think “People” was one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
I like to express myself through songs, but I don’t necessarily find singing easy. It doesn’t flow out of me. I had a lot of vocal problems as a child – there were nodules on my vocal cords when I was 9 – so I have a lot of fear of singing. But the moment someone tells you that you can’t do something, your whole life falls into place.
To have these creative geniuses like Styne or Stephen Sondheim bring stories through songs in such a gifted way… the genius is there, and I just have to present it.
I don’t know if I consider myself an artist. Creativity stems from my mother and brother [the actor Jonah Hill] so easy. My father is very practical, and I feel like I’m in between those two ways of being. But I think an artist is a storyteller who hopes to change ideologies. “Impeachment” was a show with one purpose: to show the humanity of someone whose humanity had been taken from her. It’s not just telling a story, but doing this to shift the societal tectonic plates of how we think and absorb. Even if it’s small or for a laugh or through a dance number, that’s what I try to do.
I just wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for Fanny Brice. She was a pioneer who broke open glass ceilings with applause and laughter. We’re 100 years away from when her story took place, but for a Jewish woman who didn’t look like the rest to say, “You’re going to listen to me now,” is astonishing, even in today’s context. That’s what I saw Bette Midler do, night after night, when we said “Hello, Dolly!” did. together on Broadway in 2017. She was 71 and never sat down; she would practice the way she put her bag down or the way she took off her coat on stage. The reason we all consider her divine is precisely because she works so hard and is the most prepared person. I will think about that every day during ‘Funny Girl’.
This interview has been edited and abridged.
Photo assistant: Danny Lim