Hello, Dolly!’s Beanie Feldstein Is Jonah Hill’s Little Sister, But She Just Might Be the Next Bette Midler
AUGUST 3, 2017 11:48 AM
by MICHELLE RUIZ
Last Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours after President Trump abruptly tweeted a ban on transgender people in the military, a buzzing crowd streamed into Broadway’s Shubert Theatre for the matinee performance of the sold-out, Tony-winning revival of Hello, Dolly! Almost instantly, the bitterness of the outside world melted away, as the audience was transported to a farcical world of comedic splendor, due most immediately to national treasure (and Tony winner) Bette Midler as Dolly. But, soon enough, another charismatic woman burst onstage in a swishy pink turn-of-the-century dress, talking directly to the audience and cackling with delight at her own jokes. She is 24-year-old Beanie Feldstein, making her Broadway debut in the role of the shopgirl named Minnie, and just like the exclamation point in the show’s title, she instantly punctuates the production with joy and whimsy.
“I remember we were in rehearsal when [Trump] was inaugurated, and, of course, this whole year has weighed on people’s minds,” Feldstein tells me when I meet her for coffee in Chelsea the following day, after she’s traded her Dolly corset for a mod black minidress. Powder blue cat-eye sunglasses are perched on her head. “I think we all feel so incredibly lucky to create something that brings people joy every night. It’s the greatest gift of my life. I wake up every morning, like, ‘How? Why me?’”
The answer is a bona fide Broadway fairy tale. Beanie—short for Elizabeth; the nickname was given to her as a child by a British nanny—grew up in Los Angeles with two older brothers (one of whom happens to be the Academy Award–nominated Jonah Hill). But her heart was always 3,000 miles away on Broadway. “I did my first little kids musical, The Sound of Music, at 5, in a jungle gym, essentially. I was a made-up Von Trapp child, Ingrid Von Trapp,” Feldstein says. “The way other kids would watch The Little Mermaid or Sesame Street, I would watch Fiddler on the Roof.”
Late last year, after graduating from Wesleyan University, she was shooting a role in Lady Bird—the forthcoming film directed by Greta Gerwig and produced by Dolly honcho Scott Rudin—when she was recommended for the role of Minnie. (Go down the YouTube rabbit hole and watch her performances of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” or “I Dreamed a Dream” and you’ll see why.) Next thing she knew, she was belting out “Elegance” for her Dolly audition, which would ultimately place her next to Midler (whom she calls her “icon”) and Broadway veteran Kate Baldwin. She ran lines for hours with her mother, Sharon, a Long Island native whose voice, according to Feldstein, is more Fran Drescher than Baldwin’s refined pitch. But it worked: That very same day, Feldstein’s agent called to say she got the part: “I was like, ‘Are you punking me?’ I started hysterically crying and fell off my bed.”
Making matters all the more amazing for the self-proclaimed musical theater nerd, Feldstein’s longtime best friend, Ben Platt—the Will to her Grace, the Harry to her Hermione, according to their Twitter and Instagram feeds—was already making his Broadway debut to rave reviews in Dear Evan Hansen. Cut to this past June, when the pair, who once costarred in the Harvard Westlake Academy’s production of Our Town, went to the Tonys, where Platt won best actor in a musical, and Midler thanked Feldstein in her acceptance speech.
“On his 16th birthday, I gave him monogrammed cuff links. I actually cut out construction paper and, with a Magic Marker, wrote, ‘For when you win your first Tony,’” she recalls, getting a little verklempt. (Platt reportedly still has the faded piece of construction paper—and he was wearing the cuff links at the Tonys.) “I think back to us riding to school together singing Gypsy in the car, or Next to Normal . . . just being able to watch him, and for him to watch me, it’s been really emotional. It’s truly out of our wildest dreams.”
The ride continues as Feldstein performs with Midler each night at the Shubert—“I am just truly in love with her,” Feldstein gushes. “She makes me laugh so hard, I snort”—and, along the way, gets a master class in Broadway brio. “This is going to sound really weird, but I just watch her hands. When people get nervous, they start to fidget with their hands, but she’s so confident and precise, the humor runs through the end of her fingertips.” Feldstein will next appear as a research assistant to Whitney Cummings in the comedian’s film adaptation of The Female Brain. But it’s unlikely she’ll remain anyone’s sidekick, or forever be known as Hill’s little sister, not that she’d necessarily mind.
“He’s the most talented, hilarious genius, so I’m honored to be linked to him, and it totally makes sense that people want to throw it in,” Feldstein says. After opening night at Dolly, Hill gave her some big brotherly advice: “Just know how lucky you are, because there are so many people who want to do this. We’re so lucky to get to.”