Last week, Lea Michele made her much-ballyhooed debut in Funny Girl. It’s an understatement to say the casting of the former Glee star was not without controversy: although Michele had long been considered an obvious choice for Fanny Brice in the revival, having publicly campaigned for the role for more than a decade, Booksmart star Beanie Feldstein was cast instead. Initially, many Broadway insiders speculated the casting decisions stemmed from producers’ reluctance to work with Michele, following 2020 allegations from her costars that she had engaged in bullying and racist behavior on-set. (Michele apologized at the time, writing on Instagram, “I know I need to keep working to better myself and take responsibility for my actions, so that I can be a real role model for my child and so I can pass along my lessons and mistakes.”) When Feldstein ultimately made her debut to almost uniformly negative reviews earlier this year, tongues started wagging that Michele was once again being considered for the role, a prediction that ultimately came to fruition when she was announced to replace Feldstein (who pulled out of her contract early under vaguely mysterious circumstances) in July.
To many in the tight-knit BroadwayTok community, Michele’s return to the stage as Fanny Brice was nothing short of a triumphant moment, and videos of her belting out “Don’t Rain on my Parade” on opening night went massively viral. One person who was less than impressed, however, was Sweaty Oracle, aka Jonathan Lewis, who has been vocal about his distaste for Michele’s casting.
“I just don’t think, besides how mean she is, she’s that interesting,” says Lewis.
Widely known as one of the most cantankerous theater gossips on TikTok, Sweaty Oracle is well-known for spilling “juicy theatre tea,” as he advertises on the platform. Though he initially made his name predicting (incorrectly) that John Mulaney and Olivia Munn had broken up, he has since been the first to break stories about musical theater, from Into the Woods casting news to Funny Girl backstage drama.
On this week’s episode of Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast about internet news and culture, cohosts Brittany Spanos and Ej Dickson talk with Lewis about Broadway elitism, TikTok-famous ensemble players, and who the real diva of the Funny Girl revival is.
So, how did you become sort of like the Broadway version of DeuxMoi?
I’ve been lurking on BroadwayWorld.com for like 15 years, just gathering information. And then the great Patti Murin Exodus of 2018 happened.
You’re gonna have to explain what that is.
Patti Murin was an actress in Frozen. She played Anna originally when Frozen came to Broadway and she didn’t like anything about her being discussed on Broadway World. And I thought that was weird, because I thought it was mild what everybody was saying about her. There was a lot worse things people could be saying. It became this huge, giant thing where they banned like 20 of us who were long time users from Broadway World. And we were like, that’s fine. We’ll start a Discord. And this Discord kind of became this weird industry hub where we all talk about what’s going on. I kind of didn’t like that it was all rich theater kids who got to know this information, because I don’t come from money. I’m in South Carolina. I’m not one of the elite. And I was just like, “Well, I’m just gonna start telling everybody.”
So where do you get your tips from and your info?
A lot of it comes from the Instagram I built, but a lot of it originally came from a Discord that I’m in, that has a lot of people who work for different theater, publications, and a lot of producing offices. I think we were the first people to know that Katrina Lenk was gonna be Bobbie in the [recently closed] Company revival, because somebody was on the production team and leaked it to us. And same with Beanie and Funny Girl and the Sweeney Todd revival. But now since the TikTok has kind of blown up, I feel like I have a name in almost every Broadway theater who is giving me dirt about what’s going on backstage.
You’re based in South Carolina, whereas DeuxMoi is based in New York and a lot of gossip columnists are based in either New York or LA. Do you consider that a tactical disadvantage?
In a weird way, I think it’s a tactical advantage because people who give me information see me as unassuming because I’m in South Carolina. In a weird way, I think I get more information because I’m in South Carolina because people think I can’t do as much harm.
Let’s get to Funny Girl . First of all, why do you think this production has been so cursed?
Because they didn’t wait for Lady Gaga to open up her schedule to do it. That’s where it started. This production originally, they reached out to Gaga and they were never gonna give her enough money to star in this production. Look at what the set looks like. They don’t have anything close to Gaga money. And then Idina Menzel was gonna do it for a long time. Articles came out. She was tweeting about it. And then something very, very quickly overnight changed. And all of a sudden it was, “We’re running with Beanie.” I almost feel like at that moment was the moment the show could not get back on its feet. I’m a Beanie defender. I saw Beanie. I did not think she deserved a third of what hate she got. Was she miscast? Possibly, but Sutton Foster is miscast in The Music Man and there aren’t a hundred threads about how her voice can’t sing the score as written. Beanie was at least trying to do the original keys, but people are going to compare that role to Barbara Streisand, whether you like it or not.
No matter how you recontextualize the show, no matter if [theater directors] Daniel Fish or Sam Gold or somebody came in and completely decided to deconstruct Funny Girl, you need somebody who can really handle that score. And the second [Beanie was cast], I think they shot themselves in the foot. A recording came out of Beanie’s dress rehearsal, and it really was a terrible recording. But it’s her dress rehearsal, she’s holding back for her first preview. It was unfair to judge, but that started circulating. My sources say, Lea smelled blood in the water around the time and took [director] Michael Mayer into a bar and was like, look, if you need me I’m here, which is how those seeds started. So already you have competing Fannies in the director’s head. As the show is opening, it just became a cluster fuck so quickly.
What was your immediate take and response when it was announced that Lea was assuming the role?
Sweaty Oracle: It was a weird week. I had a breakup, moved into a friend’s basement. That night, someone texted me, “Lea Michele is replacing Beanie,” and I thought they were kind of pulling my leg because the devil can’t win that hard. I tweeted it on a private Twitter account I have, and I was like, “this isn’t true. But I’m hearing that Lea Michele is gonna be Fanny.” So my initial response was complete disbelief. And then the story started unraveling behind the scenes. And I was like, oh my God, she did it.
There’s all of these stories about the tickets selling out for Lea’s first few weeks. Do you think this will have any impact, especially now that there is that kind of buzz? Not just on ticket sales for this show, but also for Broadway in general?
I think in relation with Funny Girl, it’s just not that good a production of not a good show. There’s a reason that it wasn’t done for 50 years. It has four good songs. And there’s a reason you don’t know all the rest of the songs or any of the other characters or anything else about it because it’s not a good show. I mean, Beanie’s first performances with a paying audience sounded like a fucking rock concert. People were losing their minds. The show was selling out. Everyone was going, it’s not gonna be a problem. People are going crazy in the theater for Beanie. I think the August Wilson is open for the spring. There’s already a show circling it. So I think Funny Girl is over by the holiday season in January.
What did you make of the immediate adulation on social media for Michele’s performance Broadway?
I mean, this is the same Broadway who refused to call out [producer] Scott Rudin [who was accused of abusive behavior in a 2021 Hollywood Reporter story]. Even when those articles came out, Broadway does not call out its abusers. Broadway does not call out its members who are racist. Broadway does not call out its members who perform gross acts of sexual assault, sometimes against minors. All of these stories are pretty public open stories. There’s dozens of them. Broadway protects and harbors those people. James Barbour, who played the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera after he assaulted a child, a child who is a well known member of the Broadway and television community, everyone in the community knows who this is and they still let James Barber back on Broadway. [In 2008, Barbour pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, admitting to having sexual activities with a 15-year-old.] I think Broadway does not care about abusers. Broadway only cares about how it can use those abusers to make money. And that’s sad because at least the movie industry has pretended to care in the last recent years and has at least acted like they’re doing something. Broadway has done nothing but sweep these stories under the rug.
Why do you think that’s exceptional to Broadway, though?
I think because Broadway is a tight knit small group, so that when you get in it, they close the gates around themselves in a way. The movie industry, people are just trying to get their next project and trying to politically weasel their way through. Broadway kind of binds together. I don’t know why Broadway bands together like that, but I think a big reason of it is they’re like this kind of fucked up family, this kind of inbred, Southern, pull-out-the-shotguns-when-somebody-comes-up-the-driveway family.
What is your prediction for the next year on Broadway?
I feel like it’s been in a weird space, especially with COVID, but also it seems like there’s a lack of interest from younger audiences, a lack of accessibility to people in terms of being able to afford tickets. And also there’s been a series of revivals and adaptations of movies that have flopped over the last few years. One of the things I really, really, really hope that I feel like we’re still a long way off from, is that the Broadway bubble is popping and it’s popping because there aren’t a thousand people per theater per night who have $200, $100 apiece to sit and watch a show. Those numbers just don’t exist like they used to. And I looked at the Sweeney Todd presale and like just laughed to myself. I was like, “Who’s buying these, who’s spending $400?” I mean, I guess if I had the money, it would be me, but more and more people are like me and they don’t have the money anymore. I think Broadway has like three more seasons where it can’t quite figure it out. And then the bubble will burst and it becomes the Broadway of the mid-1990s for a little bit where there are a lot of empty theaters, and there are a lot of shows that are only existing off-Broadway because it’s just gonna get too expensive to keep mounting shows. Broadway placates people who aren’t in, but they’ll produce a Jeremy O. Harris show — they’ll do that with all these kind of up and coming artists, especially people of color, and it feels like a way to pat themselves on the back while doing the bare minimum. In my opinion, there has to be a complete revolution on Broadway that is separated from upper middle class, white people who typically run it now. And until that happens, Broadway will continue to just raise prices and not understand why people aren’t coming.