"Funny Girl" gives Lea Michele a stage to poke fun at those literacy rumors

A line in Michele's "Funny Girl" debut got big laughs. It harks back to a strange legend about her

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published September 8, 2022 6:09PM (EDT)

Lea Michele as "Fanny Brice" in "Funny Girl" on Broadway at The August Wilson Theatre on September 6, 2022 in New York City. (Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images)
Lea Michele as "Fanny Brice" in "Funny Girl" on Broadway at The August Wilson Theatre on September 6, 2022 in New York City. (Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images)

The audience at Lea Michele's opening night as Fanny Brice in the Broadway revival of "Funny Girl" brought as much drama as the musical performance playing out onstage.

The boisterous crowd included Ryan Murphy, creator of the long-running series "Glee," which starred Michele; actors Jonathan Groff, Drew Barrymore and Zachary Quinto; New York governor Kathleen Hochul; and filming TikTok-ers. Thunderous applause and cheers interrupted multiple songs. One Vulture writer counted four standing ovations in the first act alone. 

Applause and raucous laughter came for one line in particular, where Michele as showgirl Fanny says, "I haven't read many books." It's not the line and show which got such a reaction, but rather Michele's history and reputation.

Salon digs into the story of Michele's literacy rumors, and why not everyone in the packed audience may have been hoping for her continued Broadway success.

"Sorry Not Sorry" and "One More Thing"

In 2017, hosts Jaye Hunt and Robert Ackerman discussed former "Glee" co-star Naya Rivera's, memoir "Sorry Not Sorry" on their podcast, "One More Thing." Rivera, who died tragically in 2020 and left behind a young son, had written of feuds, partying and hook-ups among the cast. 

She also related incidents where a female "Glee" actor displayed behavior that distressed the young granddaughter of the legendary Tim Conway, who guest-starred on the show. Rivera wrote, "He'd even brought his granddaughter to the set because she was such a 'Glee' fan, and she ended up crying because she couldn't understand why someone was such a b**** to her grandpa!"

The book alleged that actor Michele refused to improvise, as suggested by Conway, instead insisting they stick to the script she had memorized. Tensions were high on set because of it. Hunt and Ackerman wondered what Michele thought of the memoir and her place in it. As Ackerman told Jezebel, "Maybe she can't read so she can't read the book."

Child star life

As preposterous as the idea sounded, Hunt and Ackerman laid out a surprisingly in-depth amount of evidence for Michele supposedly being unable to read, hinging on the fact that Michele was a child star. She started performing on Broadway at the age of eight, as Young Cosette in "Les Misérables." A role in the original Broadway cast of "Ragtime" soon followed. She next played the role of Wendla Bergmann in the musical "Spring Awakening," originating the part from early workshops to Off-Broadway to Broadway in 2006.

During this time, according to the illiteracy theorists, Michelle didn't have time to attend school. That much is sort of true: Michele was homeschooled while in "Ragtime" and later turned down a spot at New York University to continue working.  

The youngest of performers often must give up certain aspects of childhood, such as attending a regular school with their peers. USA TODAY, in an article about the challenges and pressures of child actors, interviewed Lucia Scarano Forte, an actor and former set teacher: "She recalls toddlers being on non-union film sets until 2 a.m. barely awake, and being taught their lines by frustrated parents. Or of parents quitting jobs, pulling kids out of schools, and relocating to Los Angeles to pursue that ephemeral dream of fame and fortune."

The article also interviewed Tia Mowry, who as a teenager starred on "Sister, Sister" with her twin, Tamera. "You miss out on a lot of things," Mowry told USA TODAY.

Career patterns

Some of Michele's career decisions may have also fueled the illiteracy fire. Offered the part of Éponine in "Les Misérables," a different role than she had played in the show before, Michele chose to stick with "Spring Awakening." She stayed in the show for years, an unusually long amount of time for theater actors who often depart after much shorter engagements. Some suggested that she already knew the part in "Spring Awakening" and did not want to have to learn the lines and songs for another.

A similar reasoning was ascribed to the fact that Michele has worked with Murphy repeatedly, as Murphy would allegedly read her lines to her and for "Glee," provide her songs on recorded demos, not written sheet music.

Not only that, Michele's assistants are apparently seen using her phone more than she does, while her social media captions sometimes consist solely of emojis, according to these rumors.

Addressing the rumors

For years, Michele did not dignify the rumors (or memes) of her illiteracy with a response. But in a 2022 interview with The New York Times, conducted shortly after she was offered the role in "Funny Girl," abruptly replacing Beanie Feldstein, she did. Addressing what the reporter describes as "a bizarre rumor," Michele told The New York Times, "I went to 'Glee' every single day; I knew my lines every single day . . . And then there's a rumor online that I can't read or write? It's sad. It really is. I think often if I were a man, a lot of this wouldn't be the case."

Misogyny and double standards may play a part in the persistence of the rumor, but so may the abusive behavior Michele is alleged to have displayed over the years. Rivera's book, where she wrote that Michele blamed Rivera repeatedly until finally not speaking to Rivera during Season 6 of "Glee," was only the beginning.

"Glee" actor Heather Morris has since come forward about bullying from Michele on set. In 2020, Samantha Marie Ware, Alex Newell and Amber Riley all spoke openly about Michelle's alleged racial microaggressions, including Ware's claim that Michele threatened to "s**** in my wig." Ware also said Michele made her life "a living hell."

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In The New York Times interview, Michele addressed the claims of past racist and abusive behaviors in a way which managed to be both vague and ableist, blaming her "pursuit of perfectionism" on the creation of "blind spots." And as Vulture pointed out, not everyone in the vocal Broadway crowd at Michele's "Funny Girl" debut may have been on the star's side. Some seemed to buy a ticket hoping to see an alleged bully, reader or not, fail.


By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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Broadway Explainer Funny Girl Lea Michele Musicals Theater