One Day You’ll Say, “I Knew Them When”

By Sherry Amatenstein

In the delicious hush, before the lights dim and the orchestra conductor raises his baton, the anticipation of seeing your favorite above-the-marquee name in the flesh is off the charts. Don’t let that joy close your eyes to the possibility of also discovering someone destined to become he next Barbra Streisand or Lea Michele—the only one since Babs to win acclaim as Fanny Brice.

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Achieving What Felt Impossible

From the age of 12, Amelia Fei knew she wanted to be a performer. Never an easy goal. But for this Taiwan-born performer currently winning raves for her portrayal of Caroline, one of seven autistic performers at a group counseling center preparing for a spring dance, taking this role involved ‘coming out’ about her deepest secret.

What was it like to get your big break with a big string attached – admitting publicly something you have spent years trying to hide?
When I first submitted for the role, I thought, “That’s new - casting autistic people for autistic characters.” It didn’t hit me until I made the final callback, “Now everyone will know!” It was scary, but the casting director said: “You are good. You deserve to be here.” 

What is it like performing with six other performers who are also neurodivergent?
It’s very therapeutic, which is wonderful considering we play therapy group members. The play’s first line is: If you meet one autistic person you meet one autistic person. We are seven very different individuals. 

What were your emotions seeing your face on the marquee for the first time?
Like I got punched in the face – but in a pleasant way! Being in a Broadway show is already surreal, but seeing your face on a marquee is crazy! 

In your fantasy, what might this role lead to?
Casting directors will think of me for shows I wouldn’t otherwise be considered for, roles that Caucasian individuals traditionally play. 


Out From Lea Michele’s Shadow

Julie Benko’s tenure as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl involved numerous juicy twists and turns. First as understudy for the ill-cast Beanie Feldstein, who could never escape Barbra Streisand’s long shadow. Then accruing jubilant reviews during her five-week stint as Brice between Feldstein’s departure and Lea Michele’s triumphant takeover cast Benko back to the shadows. Now, Benko is making the most of her headline turn in Harmony, co-created by Barry Manilow. She plays Ruth Stern, the Jewish wife of a non-Jewish member of a real-life singing group in pre-war Germany.

What’s the significant difference between being the lead and understudy?
As an understudy, you have no say in the blocking and how the scene is structured. In all the emotional moments, the humor is set on someone else, and it’s your job to step in and serve their performance but bring it truthfully and authentically. You don’t get a lot of rehearsal with the regular cast. My rehearsals were onstage before the audience.

How does it feel when the audience sees the little white slip in their playbill that says Lea won’t be performing that night?
Sometimes I could hear people yelling at the front of the house staff. But I could feel a shift happening when I sang, “I’m the Greatest Star.” The audience would suddenly be on the bandwagon: “I got to discover someone new!” 

What is it like to be the person originating the role?
I get to be creative and collaborative, express ideas, and make suggestions. Instead of having something charted for me, I get the joy and burden of being an explorer on an uncharted path. It’s scary but so much fun to be in the room! 

& Juliet

“I Still Have to Pinch Myself”

This joyous musical is built on the premise of what might have happened if, instead of killing herself for love, Juliet had hit the road. In this voyage of discovery, Juliet is accompanied by her nurse and trans nonbinary best friend, May. The latter is portrayed in a scene-stealing performance by nonbinary Justin David Sullivan.

What was it like to not just make your Broadway debut but do it in a role that parallels your ‘coming out’ journey?
The hardest part was not having a role model who looked or sounded like me. I was such a huge Broadway fanatic I’d have been happy to be an usher. This feels cosmically aligned. 

You said you were born with a passion to color the world with every color in the box. How many crayons are you using with May?
It’s a metaphor for bringing my entire self to everything I do. Even if you’re not queer or non-binary, there are aspects to this character people can relate to. I use every shade I’ve got – even the white crayon!  

Is there anything you want to add?
I am so, so lucky to be here. I’ll never take it for granted. I want to encourage anyone who has a big dream that seems impossible.  

Merrily We Roll Along

Winning Her Dream Role While Pregnant

Theater lovers are scrambling for tough-to-get tickets to the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical to see headliners Daniel Radcliffe, Lindsay Mendez, and Johnathan Groff in action. The trio deserves all the acclaim. Which makes it even more remarkable that when Katie Rose Clarke, as Beth, the divorced wife of Franklin Shepherd (Groff), enters late in Act 1, the collective spines of audience members instantly tingle with the awareness: this is a star!

Can you share your unique audition story?
I was nine months pregnant with my third child and experiencing early labor. Awareness of the discomfort level helped me feel even more grounded in my body. I was grateful the producers could see beyond my huge, pregnant belly.

What is it like to stand in the wings for an hour watching three heavyweights mesmerize the audience, and enter singing an iconic song?
The focus has been on the three of them. It’s tricky to spring out of the gate and sing “Not a Day Goes By.” Sondheim is the highest of the high for a performer. I get to make my mark right away. 

Do you think you might be nominated for a Tony?
It would be a huge deal for the show.