Crisis PR Is Center Stage for “Funny Girl”

July 15, 2022

Crisis PR Is Center Stage for “Funny Girl”

July 15, 2022

GG’s Jordan Miller writes about the mishandled revival of “Funny Girl” and what crisis PR professionals can learn.

All is not fun at the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” the musical based on the life of comedian Fanny Brice that helped propel Barbra Streisand to superstardom when she originated the role in 1964.
Crisis PR
For those who have managed to stay away from this news cycle entirely, here’s the overview:

– Last summer, the production announced that Beanie Feldstein, known for her roles in “Booksmart,” “Ladybird,” and “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” would play Fanny Brice.

Rumors immediately started swirling that Lea Michele, the notoriously problematic star of “Glee,” was upset by the news, because she allegedly campaigned for years to secure the role.

– When the show opened on Broadway in April 2022, critics largely panned Feldstein’s performance. As Entertainment Weekly put it, “it’s hard to escape the feeling that Feldstein, for all her fourth-wall winks and bright enthusiasm, is fundamentally miscast.”

– In June (shortly after the Tony Awards, at which the show received just one nomination), Feldstein announced that she would depart the show on September 25, cutting short her one-year contract.

– Two weeks later, Gawker reported via “a source” that Lea Michele would soon be announced as Feldstein’s replacement.

– On July 10, Feldstein announced via Instagram that she would step down even sooner, on July 31.

– The very next day, the production officially announced that Michele would replace Feldstein.

Then the conspiracy theories started rolling in, aided by infighting among the show’s producers that led to leaked information. People took to social media and Broadway message boards to claim that the Gawker article blindsided Feldstein; that Michele had been lobbying producers individually for months; that Jane Lynch, who plays Fanny’s mother and also co-starred with Michele on “Glee,” had moved up her own departure date specifically so she could avoid working with Michele; that Feldstein and Michele share the same agent (true), who was double-timing at least one of them (possibly true); and more.

Beanie Feldstein, Lea Michele
via The Daily Beast

Now, the struggling show faces a public relations disaster that could put the entire production at risk. What went wrong? Here are a few crisis PR tips the producers should have considered:

1. Plan ahead.

When a crisis hits, every second counts. It’s hard to come up with a sound crisis PR strategy with rumors flying and reporters knocking at the door. Fortunately, it’s possible to predict in advance many of the crises a company (or theatrical production) is most likely to face. Having a playbook ready to go helps make quick decisions easier. Most people in the “Funny Girl” orbit knew that shortening Feldstein’s contract and casting Michele would cause an uproar—meaning the plan for announcing the change could have been crafted thoughtfully months ago. Clearly, it wasn’t.

2. Tell the story on your terms.

When faced with a negative story, some leaders try to push past it, hoping it will go away if they focus on the positive. Hours after Feldstein posted about leaving “Funny Girl” early because “production decided to take the show in a different direction,” the show’s Instagram teased the next day’s “exciting casting announcements,” completely ignoring the controversy. Instead of acknowledging the situation and sharing the facts, the show allowed fans, journalists, and others outside the situation to define the narrative—creating a mess that producers are still trying to untangle.

3. Prioritize internal communication—not just external.

Leaks and rumors abound when internal stakeholders disagree, feel snubbed, or receive mixed messages from leadership. When the bad press for “Funny Girl” started flowing in, the producers began to break ranks, even going so far as to criticize each other (anonymously) in the media. This type of fractured leadership is poison to morale internally and affects every single person whose job is on the line. In many cases, how and what leaders communicate internally is even more important than what they say to the rest of the world.

4. Lead with empathy.

Leaders are obligated to make decisions that keep businesses healthy. After a promising opening, the mixed reviews and nonexistent boost from the Tony Awards negatively impacted ticket sales for “Funny Girl,” and producers were likely forced to make casting decisions with the bottom line in mind. But even difficult news can be communicated with care, and this very public mess shows that the producers didn’t do that with Feldstein. That’s a misstep that harms confidence in leadership—internally and externally—and can have serious long-term consequences. Perhaps buoyed by the controversy, ticket prices for Michele’s first performances have surged. But what happens once that initial wave dies down, and members of the production and the public alike become wary of the show’s poor reputation?

The immediate backlash to this week’s news might be over, but “Funny Girl” isn’t out of the woods just yet—and it’s never too late to develop a communications plan. Michele’s first performances, news about ticket sales, Feldstein’s next move, and further cast shakeups could reignite the news cycle. And members of the cast and crew need to be reassured that leadership has a coherent plan to keep the show healthy. By following the tips above, the show’s producers can be ready to communicate about whatever comes next.