Julie Benko, a hit on Broadway as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” is in what she calls a “sweet spot.” 

“I get recognized by the people who are into the same stuff as I am, but it’s not like I’ve lost my life to the media,” says the show’s original standby who took over the role last year during the brouhaha when Beanie Feldstein left and before Lea Michele started.  

“Now I have the best of all worlds,” she says. With a schedule as an alternate, she knows exactly when she’s going on, she’s well rested when she’s on, and she can do more things in the meantime. 

On April 16, she and her husband, jazz pianist-composer Jason Yeager, will play San Francisco’s Venetian Room, presented by Bay Area Cabaret. 

Called “Hand in Hand,” their show includes material from their 2022 album of the same name, which grew out of “quarantunes” livestreams they did weekly from their living room for a year during the pandemic. 

Having accumulated a repertoire of songs they knew and others they learned on request, they recorded their own arrangements of favorites, playing the instruments themselves. Benko’s on vocals, clarinet, flute and percussion; Yeager’s on various keyboards and percussion. 

“It’s a mix of a bunch of things,” says Benko. Alluding to her musical theater background, it has “People” from “Funny Girl” (their uniquely shaded version); “If I Were a Bell” from “Guys and Dolls”; and “All I’ve Ever Known” from “Hadestown.” There’s also blues rock (“Mercedes Benz”) and Great American Songbook (“The Nearness of You”). 

Julie Benko catapulted to fame when she took the lead in “Funny Girl” in 2022 between Beanie Feldstein and Lea Michele. (Courtesy Julie Benko)  

Two originals by her spouse are particularly meaningful to Benko: “Sweet Pea,” a tribute to Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s longtime right-hand man; and “Just Begun,” which Yeager wrote for her when they got married in Washingtonville, N.Y. in June 2021. 

“Some of the groomsmen said, ‘This wedding is one of the top five concerts I’ve been to,’” Benko says, mentioning they admittedly gave their musicians a workout.   

The couple performed, too. They did “Always,” a composition Benko wrote for Yeager that’s on her 2017 debut album, before turning the tune over to the band so they could dance. 

“I walked down the aisle to his song and then we did our first dance to my song,” Benko says, mentioning that planning the event was stressful (numbers were kept low due to COVID), but there were no mishaps. 

Benko and Yeager met by chance on a cold day, both killing time in a Starbucks in New York’s Herald Square. 

“It was so random,” says Benko, who overheard him on the phone, telling a singer that he was an experienced accompanist.  

“I was, like, ‘I have this thing coming up and my guy isn’t sure he can do it. Should I say something?’ So I did and here we are 10 years later,” Benko says, adding, “I don’t know if I would be doing this, if I would have these albums, if I had not accidentally walked into a Starbucks and found, you know, my husband.” 

Interestingly, Yeager initially walked into a different Starbucks on Herald Square, but there were no seats available, Benko says, “so he crossed the street and walked into ‘our’ Starbucks.” 

Benko, who grew up in Connecticut and got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in acting from New York University, seriously became interested in performing as a high school freshman after playing Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof” at her local Jewish community center. Her dad was the innkeeper in the production, her mom a villager and her sister played the youngest daughter, Bielke. 

“It was the show that changed everything for me,” says Benko (who found a mentor with theater connections in the JCC show’s director), then went on to appear in “Fiddler” and “Les Misérables” on Broadway. 

As a teen, she was in “Little Women,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Grease,” portraying Rizzo in two productions. Her first professional gig was in an odd “hilarious” version of “The Wizard of Oz” at a cabaret theater in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

She came to San Francisco in the tour of “Spring Awakening” in 2008 (the first time she’d been away from home for a long period, she found comfort in Rosh Hashanah services at a temple with a guitar-playing lesbian rabbi); and was in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 2017 production of the musical “Rags” (her costar Kyra Miller remains a good friend). 

Although she’d someday like to play Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” she’s more interested in creating a new character —perhaps something she’ll write when time frees up after “Funny Girl” closes in September. 

She says, “Certain doors have opened now, that I hope can lead to that. I’d really like to write the stories of some real Jewish women whose stories haven’t been told,” mentioning heroic resistors during World War II and stars of Yiddish theater like Molly Picon and Celia Adler. 

“People know Fanny Brice’s story now,” she says, adding that she prepared for “Funny Girl” by studying Brice herself, not watching Barbra Streisand in the movie (though she has seen it once). 

“I didn’t want to be swayed too much by Barbra, because I felt like it would ultimately not serve me,” she says. 

It worked. After just two auditions, one recorded and one in-person, she got the part. 

“My life’s completely different now, and to think it’s not even been a year,” she says, alluding to the internet and media frenzy about Feldstein leaving the show early last July and Michele picking it up in September. 

 “It was crazy,” Benko says, mentioning that her Spanish teacher even told her, “You’re in People en Español.” 

With things calmed down now, Benko is enjoying a “perfect” level of fame: not too stressed about whether she’ll ever work again and happy to meet fans at the stage door who come from far places —Seattle, Australia, even the Philippines —just to see her. 

Bay Area Cabaret presents Julie Benko and Jason Yeager in “Hand in Hand” at 5 p.m. April 16 in the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call (415) 927-4636 or visit https://bayareacabaret.org/