Julie Benko is making a leap from Broadway to Bourbon Street for a new musical project.
The “Funny Girl” star and her husband, Jason Yeager, are set to unveil a new album this month. Due out Aug. 26 on Club44 Records, “Hand in Hand” is a collection of 13 songs that reflect the couple’s shared passion for jazz as well as their contemplative mindset more than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic upended their professional lives.
HuffPost caught an early listen of the album’s first single, “Louisiana Fairy Tale,” ahead of its Friday release. The song, written by Haven Gillespie and made famous by Fats Waller in 1935, is rendered as a love letter to New Orleans, a city Benko and Yeager have visited annually for more than five years.
“Louisiana Fairy Tale” also afforded Benko a rare opportunity to accompany Yeager, who is a New York-based pianist and composer, on the clarinet. She picked up the instrument for the first time in 2020 after theaters and other performance spaces across the U.S. shuttered to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Listen to “Louisiana Fairy Tale” below.
“When the pandemic hit, we began doing weekly live streams on Facebook and Instagram, performing just for our friends and family,” Benko told HuffPost. “We called them ‘quarantunes,’ and we’d raise tips, half of which we’d donate to a different charity every week. We did that for about a year, and at some point Jason was like, ‘We should make a recording of some of these tunes.’ All these arrangements came around, basically, from us sitting in our living room, performing for our iPhones and streaming it out.”
Added Yeager, “It’s parlor music of a sort.”
Both Benko and Yeager say the most meaningful track on “Hand in Hand” is “Just Begun,” a song written by Yeager for their wedding last year. Other highlights on the album include a playful rendition of “It Might as Well Be Spring” from the 1945 movie musical “State Fair,” as well as a soulful take on Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.”
Theater fans, however, may be most excited by the inclusion of “People,” which Benko currently performs nightly in “Funny Girl.” To ensure the song would fit seamlessly on “Hand in Hand,” Yeager opted for a Bolero-tinged arrangement meant to evoke a “seductive love dance” between two romantic partners.
” width=”720″ height=”480″ src=”https://img.huffingtonpost.com/asset/62f184ae1f000033008b4a4b.jpg?ops=scalefit_720_noupscale” />After months as Beanie Feldstein’s standby, Benko (right, with co-star Jared Grimes) assumed the starring role in Broadway’s “Funny Girl” full-time this month.
Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
“Hand in Hand” is being released as Benko is enjoying a breakout moment, eight years after her Broadway debut in “Les Misérables.” This month, the Connecticut native assumed the role of Ziegfeld Follies comedian Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” full-time following Beanie Feldstein’s sudden ― and controversial ― departure from the Broadway revival. She’ll maintain top billing on Thursday nights in the fall, after Lea Michele joins the production as Fanny.
Previously, Benko served as Feldstein’s standby in the production, earning widespread praise from audiences. She said news of the casting change prompted her to turn off her Google alerts, helping her to stay focused on her performance rather than dwelling on the heated speculation surrounding Feldstein’s exit.
Unlike Feldstein and Michele, Benko wasn’t familiar with “Funny Girl” when she auditioned for the musical ― which she believes worked in her favor. She also viewed the 1968 movie adaptation starring Barbra Streisand only once, choosing instead to focus on the real-life Brice’s journals to inform her performance.
Yeager and Benko were married in 2021.
Courtesy of Club44 Records
“I felt very intimidated [but] I didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell they were going to pick me,” she said. “I went into the audition thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get this role.’ But that probably made me give a much better audition because I was very relaxed, and I was just able to have fun and bring out my own natural humor.”
Benko and Yeager will celebrate the release of “Hand in Hand” on Aug. 29 with a special concert at Birdland Jazz Club in New York, which will also be livestreamed for fans. And, if they have their way, “Hand in Hand” will be followed by additional albums and further musical endeavors that they’ll produce as a duo.
“Sometimes I put more pressure on myself because I don’t want to disappoint both the singer and my spouse,” Yeager said. “[But] I can read her body language and her phrasing so well, because I know it on such a deep level. That makes it really fun to collaborate artistically. It’s an extension of our connection as human beings.”
“I went into the audition thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get this role,’” said Benko of the casting process for “Funny Girl.”
Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
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