Tovah Feldshuh: Celebrating 50 Plus Years Onstage and a Heartfelt Tell-All Memoir – Part Two
By: Ellis Nassour
December 14, 2022 – Tovah Feldshuh, the four-time Tony and two-time Emmy nominee, will celebrate 50 years performing on Broadway on January 1, 2023. That doesn’t include her work at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and Off Broadway. Over the five decades, this theatrical wunderkind has done just about all there’s to do in show business: cabaret, theater (plays/musicals), TV, film, and playwriting.
Now, after two years “of some of the hardest work I’ve ever done,” she’s had her memoir, Lilyville: Mother, Daughter and Other roles I’ve Played published (Hachette Books, 300 pages; SRP $29; 16-page B&W/color section; sadly, no Index).
As if the anniversary milestone and book aren’t enough, Feldshuh has returned to Broadway after an almost 10-year absence to woo audiences [since September] as the unstoppable Rose Brice, mother of Fanny, in the smash revival of Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Isobel Lennart’s Funny Girl, starring “the incredible” Lea Michele.
When the publisher approached Feldshuh about writing a memoir, she states that she imagined they were envisioning sparkling opening nights and backstage love affairs and intrigue, and triumphant curtain calls. There’s plenty of that. “But, little did they know,” she notes, ”the greatest role of my life has been the role of Lillian Kaplan Feldshuh’s daughter — a part I never auditioned for, and I couldn’t have been luckier to get.”
Since her mother’s death in 2014, Feldshuh says she felt an urgent need to share their story “and our lifelong journey to understand one another.
“During the more than six decades that we were figuring us out, expectations for women were transformed again and again by the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the subsequent mandate for women to ‘have it all.’ Mother and I are emblematic of the way these changes created a divide between generations—and the way it might be possible to bridge that divide through patience, compassion, and empathy. I believe that a branch, in order to bear fruit, must learn to bend.”
In addition to the behind-the-scene tales of her carefully-crafted path from eager unknown to across-the-boards international star, Feldshuh, always portraying powerful women, traces generations of family: births, deaths, laughter, sorrow, and even a bris.
Feldshuh, with her theatrical pedigree, not surprisingly sets her story in the form of a three-act play, with 10 scenes, an intermission, and a poignant curtain call. As the plot thickens you begin to see that at every step along the way, the name that looms largest on the marquees isn’t always Tovah Feldshuh, but Lily Kaplan’s.
Growing up in Scarsdale, NY in the 1950s, Tovah (Terri Sue) Feldshuh lived quite the charmed life: piano and dance lessons, white-gloved cultural trips and shopping trips into Manhattan. In awe of her mother’s meticulous appearance and perfect manners, Feldshuh constantly strived for Lily’s approval, “only to feel I always fell short.”
Lily had dreams, too – many limited because of her deafness. Instead she devoted herself to her husband and raising a daughter and son. As daughter watched mother retreat into the roles of the perfect housewife/mother, “I swore to myself, I’ll never do that.”
In 1975, in only her fourth Broadway show and first starring role in Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin’s Yentl, Feldshuh shot to stardom and was the recipient of a Tony nomination and numerous awards. But the accolades she sought most didn’t come. It was a pattern oft repeated.
Maternal praise came three years later with her marriage to Harvard-educated attorney Andrew Harris Levy and the birth of the couple’s children. On her wedding day, her proud mother told her: “You can do anything you want now. You’re marrying a Harvard lawyer.” Status was what was important, not so much talent.
Feldshuh says she came to understand her mother and the sacrifices Lily made to completely devote herself to family. As Lilyville progresses, Feldshuh’s reflective analysis from a now-adult daughter helps her better understand her mother: “It reveals the possibility of making a relationship right after years of—I won’t say discord—but miscommunication.”
There were four more Broadway hits: Saravá (Tony nod), Lend Me a Tenor (Tony nod), Golda’s Balcony (Tony nod), and Irena’s Vow. Lily came to each and then some — well, minus one. She told her daughter, “I’m not coming to see The Virginia Monologues! I can’t say the word! Three women in black dresses in front of music stands talking about their chach burgers — forget it! So, when you’re all done up and there’s movement and color, give me a call.”
The call came. When Andrea Martin left the 2013 hit revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, Feldshuh took over the role of Berthe, Charlemagne’s mother and Pippin’s grandmother. It had all the bells and whistles an actor dreams of – including a once-in-a-career showstopping moment.
Producer Barry Weissler called and invited Feldshuh to come to the Circle in the Square “to play on the trapeze.” “It wasn’t my world, but it soon became so. I worked hard, until I became ripped. I was down to 112 pounds, which I weighed in seventh grade. The remarkable things I was required to do – singing ‘No Time at All’ while swinging upside down and from side to side 30 feet up and without a net – were a thrill, and it was a thrill that I could do them.
“Needless to say, the number was a moment which always brought down the house – followed by huge applause and some whooping and hollering at the curtain call. Look, you put an old bird singing upside down on a trapeze and it engenders hope in everyone.”
Lily, then 102, attended a matinee. Boasts Feldshuh, “I was unbelievable, and looked darn good in that bustier and fishnet stockings. The audience response was always the same. I couldn’t wait to go to mother for a big hug. I go, ‘Mommy, mommy!’ Suddenly, I’m three years old, grasping for mother’s milk. ‘Mommy, how did I do?’”
Then, came the moment Feldshuh hasn’t forgotten. “Lily’s voice took on the familiar tone of a strident coronet. ‘Tovah, that you should still have to earn a living like this, and on a trapeze yet!’ That was mother. She didn’t give an inch.
“Looking back to when I portrayed Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony—which became the longest-running one-woman play in Broadway history and won me my fourth Tony nomination — mother’s comment was: ‘Tovah, I rate your parts by how you look. Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) was a 10. Golda Meir? Zero!’
“So much for that,” sighs Feldshuh. “Thank God, I didn’t have to live by Lily’s praise.”
No doubt about it, she says, “Mother was a tough love gal, but she was a marvelous mother. I may not have gotten a lot of praise, but I got my strength from her; and I hope, my enormous heart from my father, Sydney. I feel so blessed.”
Lily’s personality exploded after her husband’s death. “That made room for the love that had failed to take root during his life,” states Feldshuh. “In her new independence, Lily became outspoken, witty, and profane. She once whispered, ‘These are the best years of my life!’ She was liberated at last from her confining roles of wife and mother to become her full self.”
Deep into the book, in what she terms a curtain call, Feldshuh details a heart-breaking “visitation” with her deceased father and mother – with “each returning, as it were, for an unexpected encore, spectacularly breaking the wall of the fourth dimension. Mother’s visit created the hope of a future for us and illuminated wondrous possibilities. Perhaps she would return, or, come my turn, as my life force leaves my body, so it would join forever with my mother’s.”
This memoir being about Tovah Feldshuh, one might enquire if through the writing there were lessons learned and regrets realized; and, if she could have a do-over, would she embark on her path the same way.
“Very late in my life, I’ve finally learned self-compassion. It’s the one area of my development I wish I could redo. I should have developed self-forgiveness long ago, for from there comes true forgiveness of others.” In the last decades of her life, she says, her mother had that virtue in abundance.
When the Levy’s daughter married, Feldshuh asked, “You know how to have a successful marriage? Shut one eye, and don’t leave. Some of it is fun and some of it isn’t. It can be challenging, but you do not leave the field of play.”
Summing up her philosophy about life, Tovah Feldshuh states, “We’re only in this body once. I just want enough money to buy experience. I can forgo a dress, but the idea of taking a trip and trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro, or going on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, or tracking lemurs in Madagascar, or swinging upside down on a trapeze – these things are exciting to me. It’s now or not at all.”
There’s a bit of news: Tovah Feldshuh is working on adapting her memoir into a TV series. There’s no need for a guessing game of who’ll portray her. Who else! === Maybe for the young Tovah/Terri Sue: Lea Michele? ===
For a retrospective of the career of Tovah Feldshuh visit www.TovahFeldshuh.com, which contains countless photos and clips.
Click Link to: TOVAH FELDSHUH Part One