Born in Washington, DC, raised in Fairfield, Connecticut, trained at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and based in NYC, actor, singer, writer, and recording artist Julie Benko has skyrocketed to fame as “Broadway’s Breakout Star” following her acclaimed journey from standby to alternate to full-time lead as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, which earned her Theatre World‘s Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theatre.
This past fall, she originated her first role on Broadway to rave reviews, playing Ruth Stern in the Barry Manilow/Bruce Sussman musical Harmony, which runs through this Sunday, February 4, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Her stage credits also include many Off-Broadway and regional productions, and sold-out headline concerts at such renowned venues as Birdland and 54 Below, and as a guest soloist with symphony orchestras around the country.
In addition to her in-person appearances, Benko’s voice can be heard on the original Broadway cast album of Harmony, as well as on her 2017 debut jazz album Introducing Julie Benko, on the Club44 Records 2022 release Hand in Hand (a duo with her pianist-composer husband Jason Yeager, which won the BroadwayWorld Cabaret Award for Best Commercial Album and received a MAC Award nomination for Best Major Album), and on her 2023 holiday EP Christmas With You (featuring both the classic Yiddish folk song “Tumbalalaika” for Chanukah and one of Benko’s own originals), all available on Spotify and other popular music sites.
As a writer, Julie also penned, directed, and starred in her first short, The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy, in 2020 (a romantic comedy that follows a Hasidic Jewish couple on their wedding night), and her first full-length play, The District (set in the legal red-light district of New Orleans prior to World War I), was named a semifinalist at the 2022 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.
After completing the Broadway engagement of Harmony this weekend, Julie returns to Birdland Jazz Club on February 12, for a one-night-only concert with her band Euphonic Gumbo (featuring Yeager on piano, Michael O’Brien on bass, Jay Sawyer on drums, Andy Warren on trumpet, Evan Harris on clarinet, and Rebecca Patterson on trombone) to celebrate Mardi Gras in the classic New Orleans jazz style, joined by tap dancer and former Funny Girl castmate John Manzari as her special guest. And when she’s at home, she can often be found snuggling with her rescue cat Thelonious Monk (aka Monkey).
Julie took time out of her hectic performance and rehearsal schedule to answer our quick questions about her blockbuster career, her background, and her personal favorites.
- Do you have one favorite song that you most look forward to singing in your upcoming concert?
Julie: It’s hard to pick! I love every song on this program! But if I had to . . . I love “The Lakes of Pontchartrain.” The melody is about 200 years old. I’m also excited to debut our new version of “St. James Infirmary,” another classic song which will feature John Manzari on both vocals and tap.
- What’s the most fabulous thing about performing live on the NYC stage?
You never know who’s going to be in the audience. Tourists, theater kids, Tony-winning actors, playwrights, directors . . . New York attracts all sorts of people.
- What three emotions did you feel when you made your Broadway debut?
Shock. Excitement. Gratitude.
- Are you more like Fanny Brice or Ruth Stern in real life?
Fanny, for sure. Ruth is reckless and impulsive, whereas I take a more considered approach to life. I share a goofy, self-deprecating sense of humor with Fanny, as well as a passion for theater, a dedication to our careers, and a special connection with audiences. But I’m hoping to avoid similarities with the love lives of either Fanny or Ruth – they both had terrible taste in husbands!
- Is there a role or show you’d like to perform in the future?
I’ve always dreamed of playing Eliza Doolittle. But if someone could please bring Judy’s version of A Star Is Born to the stage, I’d love to do that. Or, can someone call Amy Sherman-Palladino and beg her to make Mrs. Maisel: The Musical? I’m ready!
- What’s your first creative memory?
When I was in elementary school, I was obsessed with the American Girl doll Kirsten. I would stage productions of her story in my backyard with my neighborhood pals. Of course, I directed the shows and starred as Kirsten. But Kirsten also had a best friend named Marta, who contracted cholera on the journey from Sweden to Minnesota. Marta’s death scene was really great, so I’d make whoever was playing that role switch characters with me for that one scene so I could do her deathbed monologue justice.
- Who or what has been the biggest inspiration in your career?
I went back to school in my late twenties to get my MFA in Acting from NYU. That program transformed me as an artist and helped me discover my creative voice. My mentors and peers there helped me see what was possible in terms of how I could contribute to my artistic community in a different way – and, in fact, that I had something to contribute at all.
- What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Collaborative. Messy. Haimish (a Yiddish word Fanny defined as “familiar, comfortable”).
- What three things do you always have in your dressing room?
Angel Cards (to pick a word to focus my performance for the day); cocktail straws (for vocal warmups); and dental floss and mouthwash (you’re welcome, anyone playing my love interest!).
- Do you have a favorite food or beverage on the menu at Birdland?
My band is called “Euphonic Gumbo” so I’m going to have to go with the gumbo.
- What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
Learning new languages. Lately it’s been Yiddish and French. My streak on DuoLingo is over 1200 days. It’s a great subway activity.
- If you had a pet monkey, what would you name it?
My cat’s name is Monkey, so I guess I’d name a monkey Cat.
- Is there a venue anywhere in the world where you haven’t yet appeared but would love to, either in a musical or a concert?
The Delacorte Theater in Central Park or the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center (both in New York City), the Donmar Warehouse (in London), or the Hollywood Bowl (in Los Angeles). All sound just peachy to me.
- What’s the most memorable reaction you’ve ever gotten from an audience member?
The reactions from the entire audience at my final performance as Fanny. I got a standing ovation before I even uttered a word! I wrote about that night in Forward; it was the most magical and memorable evening of my career.
- What’s the biggest benefit of being famous?
Getting to play Birdland! Obviously!
Thank you, Julie, for sharing a fabulous fifteen minutes with us and letting our readers get to know you a little better! I look forward seeing you at Birdland this month and to your ongoing “fifteen minutes of fame” on Broadway and beyond!
Julie Benko plays on Monday, February 12, 2024, at 7 pm (doors open at 5:30), at Birdland Jazz Club, 315 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $35.46-45.76, including fees, plus a $20 per person food/drink minimum), go online.