Broadway’s “Funny Girl” Fiasco’s Conflicted Agent

You can be forgiven if you haven’t followed the massive Broadway crack-up saga of the “Funny Girl” revival; after all, Broadway is an elite, increasingly culturally irrelevant dinosaur where 80% of those on stage are gay, 90% of those in those in audience can afford hundred dollar tickets, and half of the shows first premiered when Joe Biden was in braces. You can be excused even more if you missed the massive ethics scandal at the crack-up’s core; after all, most theater reporters have no ethics alarms, just like most theater professionals. Still, to quote a character in an ancient Broadway classic that had an significant ethical impact, “Attention must be paid.”

“Funny Girl,” which made Barbra Streisand a star with a score written for her freak vocal talents and a starring role, Fannie Brice, that fit her in every other respect, including her nose, was one of the few classic musicals that had not been revived on Broadway, and everyone knew why. Barbra’s performance, career, movie version and its sequel all made producers doubt that any other actress could pull it off: any revival would be immediately judged as a pale copy, and Streisand’s absence would haunt the show. But Broadway is running out of fresh musicals (it did long ago, in fact), Sondheim is dead, and everything else had been revived. Beanie Feldstein, a chunky, minor film actress with some Broadway musical credits was the gutsy choice to fill Streisand’s giant shoes (and Fanny’s as well), but hey, most people never heard of Barbra before she first sang “People.” There was much excitement, anticipation, and dread as the new “Funny Girl” opened last April.

And guess what? The show got tepid reviews and everyone went on and on about how the show missed Barbra. Critics also harped on the fact that Beanie can’t sing like Streisand, which everyone should have known already; she was cast for her comic abilities and acting chops. (I would have made the same choice: the songs won’t be enough if the book doesn’t work.) Another complaint was that the production looked cheap, with a reduced cast and cheesy sets. The producers apparently knew that a “Funny Girl” revival without Barbra (who is 80) was a gamble, and didn’t want to gamble too much. “Funny Girl” got just one Tony nomination, and big revivals usually do much better.

This month, the news trickled out that Beanie had been fired in June, and would soon be replaced by the breakout star of “Glee,” an insufferable TV show about the most amazing high school glee club ever, Lea Michele. Michele, who has minimal stage experience for Broadway, is better known, prettier, slimmer, and sings better than Feldstein. She has also been lobbying for the role since before the show was cast.

Well, that’s show biz, except for one little wrinkle. Beanie Feldstein and Lea Michele are represented by the same theater agent, David Kalodner. He’s a major actors’ agent, with clients like Amy Adams, Steve Martin, Hugh Jackman, Denzel Washington, and many more. In the lone article that I could find that noted the oddness of an agent working with one client to take over another client’s dream Broadway role the story noted that Kalodner “declined to comment” on how “he had balanced both actors’ interests in the backstage negotiations that have led Michele to replace Feldstein in the Broadway show.”

Of course he didn’t comment: he couldn’t possibly balance them! This is a textbook conflict of interest. I checked: Kalodner isn’t a lawyer. If he were, this would be a flagrant legal ethics rules violation: a lawyer can’t pursue one client’s interests to another client’s detriment. But never mind: just because the an accepted theatrical agent ethics code for the business doesn’t exist doesn’t mean what Kalodner did isn’t disloyal, unfair and unethical. It just means he can’t and won’t be punished for it. (The one industry agent ethics code I could find, a self-imposed set of rules by a single agency, doesn’t mention conflicts of interest at all.)

Ethics Alarms has previously examined the conflicted agent problem in its relation to baseball super-agent Scott Boras. In those posts, I pointed out that client conflicts like two baseball players (or actresses) wanting the same job when only one can succeed are so called “zero sum” conflicts, and are generally unwaivable. It is clear in this case that the agent was working behind the scenes to topple Feldstein for Michele’s benefit, and confidentiality duties prevented him from letting Feldstein know. You just can’t do that ethically: it’s a betrayal of trust.

And yet he did.

When I wrote about Boras’s conflicts, I discussed a misleading called, How an Agent with Multiple Players Avoids Conflict of Interest. Even the title was misleading, because such agents don’t avoid the conflicts at all. They just ignore them, just as Kalodner. Ring’s argument, once all of the other rationalizations and rehortical tap-dancing were swept away, amounted to “everybody does it.” She also seemed to think that clients can waive such conflicts in advance, but advance waivers are only valid when clients understands exactly what they are waiving. If Beanie had a conflict waiver in her contract with the agency, it had to have a provision that she understood to mean,”If your agent has another client who want your job, you waive any objection to his working secretly and without your knowledge to achieve that end to your detriment.” Ethics also would dictate that the agent advise her to retain a lawyer to advise her, “You’re nuts if you sign that, and here’s why.”

But “Forget it, Beanie, it’s Broadwaytown.” The “Funny Girl “saga is true Bizarro World ethics. Show business is about as ethical as the Mafia or the Columbian drug trade. Conflicts of interest, fairness, loyalty—none of it matters. Beanie is a victim, but as Hyman Roth would say, “This is the life you have chosen.”

3 thoughts on “Broadway’s “Funny Girl” Fiasco’s Conflicted Agent

  1. My one acting experience in college ended up making me think more along the lines of “Go to bed with dogs, wake up with fleas.” And I love good theater and would have given my eye teeth to have become a playwright had I the talent and skill.

    • Being on stage was really fun and I was okay at it, but all the rest of being around a production was awful. So much … drama.

    • I scrolled down to make the exact same reference and here, OB beat me to it. Fleas indeed! If you work in a Bizarro World with dogs and fleas, what kind of ethics can you expect? Flea-brained at best.

      Or maybe higher a lawyer as an agent and takes your chances that way.

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