Growing up as a larger-bodied girl, my self-worth was always intrinsically aligned with my size and weight. This was not due to some irrational sense of insecurity, as some of my past therapists or even (thin) friends would like to insist, but an inference based on how I was treated against my thin peers. The subconscious—and sometimes fully realized—negative biases society held against me due to the body I live in became increasingly obvious from childhood, continuing through my teenage years, and now, in adulthood, as I watch the one woman who has ever looked like me onstage in a classic old Broadway-type role be decimated and degraded, and now this week essentially hounded out of that role in favor of another performer. Performers do their work in public and should expect criticism, but I haven’t seen others who were seen as similarly underperforming or miscast attacked or mocked as viciously as she has been. It wasn’t difficult for me to compare her treatment to that of many other female “flops” in Broadway history, and identify the common denominator: They were thin. She is not.
When I first heard of Beanie Feldstein’s casting in Funny Girl, although I am typically against a “stunt cast,” I was initially optimistic. She’d been on Broadway before, and I loved every role I’d seen her in on television and in film. I had an open mind, and it seemed others did as well…until a teaser video came out, and many larger-bodied women who had lived similar experiences to mine finally saw themselves in one of Broadway’s most coveted roles. What should have been a rallying moment of long-awaited representation quickly turned sour. The closed-minded response of many commenters to this video was not yet focused on Feldstein specifically, but rather on the earnest expressions of enthusiasm about her being cast in this role, as we’d not yet seen a plus-sized woman play it on Broadway. (Indeed, for the vast majority of roles, this is the case. I can name on one set of fingers how many fat women I’ve seen as leads on Broadway.) Immediately a barrage of tweets rolled in arguing against the celebration of the representation Feldstein’s casting provided, and striving to dismiss the enthusiasm many self-identifying fat women had shared. These naysayers insisted that these women were committing a heinous act by “making it about her weight.” Yet anyone who identifies as fat can tell you this: It unfortunately is often about our weight. And in those rare, glimmering moments where fatness is not a bad thing but a cause for celebration—such as finally seeing ourselves represented onstage—it remains up to us how to navigate our expressions of excitement or gratitude, not those who don’t live in bodies like ours.
After that, I felt uneasy being open about just how thrilled I was to see this moment finally happen. I held my breath, anticipating more attacks. An early glimpse of the production through very short video clips from the sitzprobe spread like wildfire across social media, and despite only a few bars of Feldstein singing, the comments were a nightmare. Sure, her voice was not what I had expected, and I admittedly leaned more toward the side that was concerned that maybe this wouldn’t work out the way I had hoped, but I didn’t feel the need to prematurely discredit her. Many others did, and did so with what can only be described as vehement distaste.
Following the first night preview of Funny Girl, a bootleg audio recording of the night’s performance leaked online, and several online users chopped it into shorter clips to share on Twitter. A fiasco ensued, because these moments truthfully sounded shaky. As someone who once had classical training as a soprano, I could hear the issues. But I could also tell what caused them: fear. Sharp breathing and tightened vocal cords, of which anxiety could easily have been the cause. Rumors spread that it was the first time the show had been run through without stopping; whether or not those rumors were true, I understood the terror. I can’t imagine having to show up onstage in the first revival of one of the theatre’s most iconic musicals when so many people were already openly doubting you could do it.
I still hadn’t let go of hope completely, and was able to see Funny Girl in previews a week later. I went in with a healthy dose of skepticism from what I’d heard online, but both my logic and my empathy compelled me to remember: that audio recording was not a performance I witnessed, and it was not the performance I was about to see. One of the many reasons bootlegs recordings are so unethical is that it’s unfair to immortalize a single night of a performance that’s done eight times a week. I remembered that and kept an open mind.
The minute she stepped onstage, before she even spoke, I felt my eyes blur with tears as the audience roared. She looked like me, and she was on a Broadway stage. And the audience was cheering. And soon she’d be romantically pursued by one of the most swooned-over men of musical theatre. Did I mention she looked like me?
When she finally sang, I couldn’t believe I was listening to the same voice I’d heard on that recording. She sounded lovely, even though her voice wasn’t what you’d expect in this role: Feldstein has a very light, sweet soprano, reminiscent of the Golden Age, perfect for a Julie or a Laurey. Typically we wouldn’t expect a voice like that to be sonically compatible with a jazzy score most often paired with a brassy voice, but I didn’t think this was necessarily wrong. Why not try something new?
Nothing about her voice, from a standpoint of technique, was wrong or incorrect at the performance I saw. It just wasn’t the kind of voice you’d expect. I’ve seen this kind of mismatch many times before on Broadway, and while many express their disappointment or provide criticism about why a certain vocal performance doesn’t work, they usually do it civilly. People say they don’t like it and move on with their lives. Foolishly, I anticipated the same would happen with Beanie’s performance after the reviews came out.
But the day after the reviews were published—which were mixed overall, and certainly delivered fair and thoughtful criticism—I witnessed the most unwarranted online pile-on I’d ever seen in the theatre industry. I saw people not merely agreeing with what negative reviews there were, or simply citing the reasons they didn’t think she was a good fit for the role—people were tearing her to pieces. Words like “annoying” came up too many times for me to ignore, as late in my childhood I had noticed this had often served as a code word among my classmates for “fat.” When they didn’t like the perfectly sweet, smart, likeable new girl in school who happened to be on the larger side, she was annoying. When I tried to befriend the popular kids despite being shy, and giving relatively little impression of my personality at all, I was annoying.
Yet claiming that “something about her that irks me in everything she’s in” was hardly the meanest thing I saw. Not even close. I saw tweets expressing the hope that the reviews were giving her a slap-in-the-face reality check, because that’s what she deserved for daring to take on a role she “couldn’t handle.” I saw folks on TikTok laughing over the leaked audio and rolling their eyes, making gasping noises of scandalized shock. I saw tweets relishing how hilarious all the hate was to witness. I saw mockery and snark. One comment I’ll never forget, because it managed to tear down two women for the price of one: Someone wrote, “Like the character she played on Impeachment, she really blows in Funny Girl.”
I wrote a short thread describing what I enjoyed about Feldstein’s performance, without implying that anyone was wrong or incorrect for not liking it themselves. Just for the sake of sharing positivity in the face of such negativity, I wanted to put some good words out there. It didn’t take long for people to try to convince me that I was incorrect for finding the good in something and enjoying it, because she “sucked.” Yet when I asked several of these commenters if they’d seen her in the role yet, it turns out they hadn’t. In a golden example of bandwagon-hopping, these Twitter users were fighting for a cause they had no solid ground in, and could only vicariously find a stake in.
In the months following, I saw a weirdly overzealous championing of her understudy, Julie Benko, who, of course, is talented and deserving of praise. (I for one am something of an understudy aficionado, and often go out of my way to see them after I’ve already seen the principal; many of my all-time favorite actors are understudies, so I am fully in favor of celebrating them equally as much as the principals.) I have no doubt that Benko is a significantly better fit for the vocal expectations of the role, but it seemed that I could not mention seeing Funny Girl and or that I enjoyed Feldstein’s performance, even casually and in few words, without someone assertively jumping in to say: “Oh, I saw the understudy, and I’m so glad she was on that night. She was incredible. I’m so glad I went when I did.” This was the more acceptable face of the Feldstein hate, barely veiled. Like most unconscious bias, it was largely undistinguishable in their language, and likely unrealized by the person speaking it.
Fatphobia is not just calling people fat or criticizing them for their size. It is a system of marginalization that operates largely on the level of unconscious bias and preconceived notions, as when someone larger applies for a job and is ultimately denied it because the recruiter sniffed out an air of “laziness.” I do not believe anyone quite realizes where their abruptly vicious hatred of Feldstein began. It’s as if the negative reviews gave them license to go beyond merely saying they don’t like her performance to partake in hours-long debates about her fundamental worth as a performer.
In addition to her body, Feldstein has also brought Jewish and queer representation to the stage, and though I cannot speak on either of these experiences with firsthand knowledge, I am sure these also play a role in the vitriol directed at her, as many of my Jewish and queer friends have theorized. But I do know how people attempt to mask their disdain for larger-bodied people. I know how they often do not even realize they possess that disdain, and write off their feelings for someone as being general annoyance of a seemingly unknown cause. This is why when society sees a fat woman fail, they rejoice, though they know not the reason. Like a shamelessly indulgent penchant for reality television drama and celebrity feuds, they just love to see it, and women like me hoping to see ourselves onstage will continue to take the fall.
Meg Masseron (she/her) is a theatre journalist based in New York City. You can follow her at @megmasseron.
Note: The piece’s original headline was “Fat Failure: Why So Much Rain on Beanie’s Parade?”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!