Tovah Feldshuh: Celebrating 50 Plus Years Onstage
By: Ellis Nassour
December 8,2022: The four-time Tony and two-time Emmy nominee Tovah Feldshuh has done just about all there’s to do in show business: cabaret, theater (plays and musicals), TV, film, and playwriting. She’s also an author, philanthropist, and adventurer. On January 1, 2023, she will celebrate 50 years performing on Broadway.
As if that milestone isn’t enough, she’s returned to Broadway after an almost 10-year absence to woo audiences [since September] as the other unstoppable Rose:Brice, mother of Fanny, in the smash revival of Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Isobel Lennart’s Funny Girl. She co-stars opposite SAG, Emmy, and Golden Globe (TV’s Glee) nominee Lea Michele, as Brice, Ramin Karimloo as Nick Arnstein, and Tony-nominee Jared Grimes as Ziegfeld Follies master hoofer Eddy Ryan.
At her Upper West Side home, seated in front of a colorful and stunning Ethiopian tapestry with scenes from the Old Testament, she’s ready to dish on Michele, her five plus decades in show business, even her beloved, but formidable late mother.
So, what was it about Rose Brice that got Feldshuh back to Broadway? A phone call. “It just fell in my lap!”
When Jane Lynch announced she’d be leaving Funny Girl, the search was on. Co-producer Daryl Roth reached out to Feldshuh, “I went and saw the show. I began examining the role. I thought maybe I could do something with it.”
She said, Yes, and went back to see it a few more times. Feldshuh points out that “a lot of Rose Brice isn’t on the page; and it’s not a bravura role. The challenge was to make it true and real – and Jewish.”
Fanny Brice, the daughter of European immigrants who were Lower East Side saloon keepers, had a screwball sense of comedy and could sing. Spurred on by her younger brother who was in show business and married to a silent screen star, she dropped out of school to pursue a career onstage. She found work in comic roles in burlesque theater. She was determined to work for Florenz Ziegfeld in his spectacular Follies. When he finally gave her a break, she not only stopped the show but went on to become one of the theatrical luminaries of the 20th Century. She worked not only onstage but also on radio and in film.
The musical tackles her rise to stardom and Fanny’s personal disillusionments, with her mother alongside to help absorb the blows. Feldshuh knew she would have to lift Rose off the page and make the role real and Jewish. She says, “I had an advantage. I’m Jewish. In fact, this is the first time in 60 years that a Jewish actress has played Rose!”
Amazingly, pro that she’s known to be, Feldshuh came into the company after rehearsing only 18 days. “I worked very diligently.” She was doing two movies and a TV series, working 14/15 hours a day. Fortunately, she was mostly able to shoot on Mondays.
The series is Shelter, a spin-off from Harlan Coblen’s Bolitar series by from his novel of the same name, launching this Spring from Amazon Studios. In addition to Armageddon Time, She’s also currently featured in the indie, Bleecker, with Tony nominees Anita Gillette and Daphne Rubin-Vega.
“Lea and I were the newbies,” she explained, “but we fit right in. That’s how tight the company is. Being in Funny Girl is a thrill. The audiences make it feel like we’re the Beatles! Lea’s a dream to work with. She’s made the show a theatrical event. It’s so great for us she’s not only famous but also immensely talented. Ramin, Jared, and, I hope, myself are absolutely terrific.” Feldshuh has especially bonded with Grimes, whom she can’t stop raving about.
She also has high praise for Julie Benko, the stand-by for Michele [who’s on Thursday evenings].. “She’s absolutely frigging brilliant. I told her, ‘Kid, this is your last understudy/stand-by job.”
Actress Ruth Gordon [whose husband, Garson Kanin, was a co-producer and the director of the original Broadway production], a dear friend, told her, “Always perform on the cream of your energy.” “I didn’t understand that until I hit my 50s. But I’m as physically fit now as I was in 1973 when I made my Broadway debut, age 20, featured in Cyrano, music and lyrics by Michael Lewis and Anthony Burgess, starring Christopher Plummer, Leigh Berry, and Mark Lamos – directed and choreographed by the legendary Michael Kidd.
“I am an athlete [among other world adventures, in winter 2015, she hiked Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, with her son] and I watch my weight. I am 112 lbs. It’s the same as I weighed in seventh grade. Thanks to Broadway, the greatest physical fitness program is doing eight shows a week.”
At a mere 5’3” barefoot, Feldshuh is an indefatigable dynamo.
Most days, she bikes from her Upper West Side home to the August Wilson, where, secluded in her dressing room, she rests “getting into the tunnel of Rose Brice,” for close to an hour.
“Then, my dresser, the terrific Melanie Hansen, comes in and gets me corseted up.” Feldshuh is one of the few women in the cast who wears one “but since it’s a period piece, I wanted one.” Considering some of the high kicks and dance moves she makes, that corset offers a lot of support.
With this revival, many see Funny Girl has much in common with Gypsy, which also has music by Jule Styne. Speaking of the two shows, Feldshuh says, “In my humble opinion, Fanny Brice is the greatest role for a woman in the American musical theater, even more so than Mama Rose, but she does share the light with Gypsy. We are the spokes on the hub of the wheel of Fannie Brice; however, we don’t have to be wallpaper.”
Not that Tovah Feldshuh could ever be wallpaper!
Under the direction of Michael Mayer (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Spring Awakening, and currently A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical), onstage at Funny Girl, the chemistry of the leads is amazing, undoubtedly helped by the sheer excitement of the audience on the edge of their seats. “Everyone in the cast is close and having a great time. There’s genuine friendship among us all. That’s so important in any show.
“We are blessed with a terrific PSM [production stage manager], Lisa Iacucci, who makes sure there is equity across the boards. There’re no divas or matinee idols. The company is a close-knit family. When there are special occasions, such as birthdays, no one’s celebration is bigger than another’s.
“The other thing Michael and Lisa have done is give every role an understudy and a stand-by. This way, there’s no way to stop the creative artistic machine that’s Funny Girl.”
Feldshuh’s happy there’s always someone well-prepared to play Rose Brice, but in her 50 years, she’s never missed a performance. I’ve even gone on sick, which wasn’t the smart thing to do. “I took my very first personal day on November 25th, ” she notes. “I declined an appearance in the Thanksgiving Day parade. I felt it was Lea’s moment, and I was right. She’s quite a trooper.
“I was proud of our sensational company opening the parade with ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade.’ It had quite an effect. The box office went mad – again. What’s it like to be in a show where you can’t get another person in the doors? Wonderful! We’re totally sold out.”
Funny Girl isn’t Feldshuh’s first return to Broadway after an absence. After every trip to the boards, there have been long absences – some for movies, TV shows (such as AMC’s The Walking Dead), and entertaining aboard around-the-world cruises. For instance, after Dan Gordon’s Irena’s Vow closed in 2009, she was absent until Diane Paulus convinced her to join the hit 2013 revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin after that other dynamo Andrea Martin left the show.
Among the fascinating characters Feldshuh has portrayed is Leona Helmsley, the so-called Queen of Mean. “When you take on a character you have to have empathy. You’re that person Leona was a genius in one particular area. She was a balabusta, in Yiddish, the perfect homemaker. She could see dust where no one else could see it. The dust existed. She was right. So, when she told someone, particularly someone where English isn’t their first language, to clean it and they cleaned it but not Leona-clean she’d say it a second time and the third time she fired them. I don’t know if she realized the hurt she caused so many, She did things for the feeling of power. But she’s fabulous to play. In my show, the premise is that she comes back from purgatory for an hour to try and prove her innocence.”
Feldshuh says she would love to do some of the women she’s played, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Golda Meir, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in repertory. I’d like audiences to come and in 24 hours see a sex therapist, prime minister, and a Supreme Court Justice.
Tovah (born, Terri Sue) Feldshuh, born in December 1952, as you might have assumed by now, is an intelligent, cultivated, strong-minded, loving, religious, and quite opinionated person who knows her worth. A native of Scarsdale, NY, after graduation from Sarah Lawrence, she began her career pretty well at the top of the theatrical totem pole: at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater under director Michael Langham. Being awarded their McKnight Fellowship in Acting was her ticket back to New York, where in addition to acting she fulfilled her dream to be a playwright.
“I live in a state of creation,” she says. She dived deeply into the lives of many famous women — famously so, Israel prime minister Golda Meir for her one-woman show Golda’s Balcony, which became the longest-running one-woman play in Broadway history (511 performances). Not stopping there, she took on herself in Tovah: Crossovah! From Broadway to Cabaret, Aging is Optional, and Tovah: Out of My Mind, which toured internationally and was a West End hit.
Feldshuh gets along well with directors, usually; and directors get along well with her, usually. There might be an exception to that, going back to 1975, when she appeared in her dream project, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin’s Yentl. Some of her ideas clashed with those of director Robert Kalfin, a former artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and founder/artistic director of the not-for-profit Off Broadway’s Chelsea Theater Center (1965-1984).
The book Feldshuh authored is Lilyville – Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played (Hachette). [More on that, including an excerpt, in Part Two.]
Feldshuh has been “Sadie, Sadie, married lady” for 45 years to attorney Andrew Harris Levy (at their 1977 nuptials, Ruth Gordon was the bride’s matron of honor). The couple has two quite successful children. Feldshuh’s brother is Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright David Feldshuh (Miss Evers’ Boys).
For Hanukkah, beginning December 18, Feldshuh has planned a family celebration to mark not only her five decades on Broadway, but also “all the times I’ve played mothers over the last 39 years.
“It should be quite a fun fest because I am inviting as many of my ‘children,’ as I can locate. In this year alone, I’ve been Lea’s mother, Rachel Bloom’s mother (four seasons of TV’s Crazy Ex-girlfriend), Oscar Isaac’s mother (TV’s Scenes from a Marriage), and Anne Hathaway’s mother (Armageddon Time) – not to mention being Jeremy Strong’s mother-in-law and Banks Repeta’s grandmother (Armageddon Time).” In another Mother role many are not aware of, she portrayed a very spirited, and some said unique, mother of Gypsy Rose Lee (Amanda Rose) in a 2011 regional revival of Gypsy [clip on YouTube].
And Mama Tovah will probably have many more motherly roles in her future.
Speaking of Armageddon Time, written and directed by James Gray, Feldshuh says, “What a lovely film about family. I was honored to be part of such an A-team: Anne, Jeremy – and, to my extreme delight, Anthony Hopkins, whose wife I play. Who’s going to say no to that? [Considering her transformation into that role, you might not immediately recognize Feldshuh.]
Feldshuh states she’s very grateful for TV and film for giving her a celebrity across the board. “I never thought I’d do anything like The Walking Dead! It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. When I did a show at 54 Below, I didn’t know where the fans came from.”
For more about Tovah Feldshuh, visit www.IDBD.com, for her Broadway roles and nominations; for TV [two of her most memorable performances were the 2019 adaptation of William Gibson’s Golda’s Balcony and the 1978 mini-series, Holocaust] and film where she debuted, respectfully, in 1973 and 1978, visit www. IMDF.com; for the majority of her amazing roster of performances Off Broadway, where she debuted in 1984, and plays she wrote visit www.lobdb.com [Lucille Lortel Archives]. Much of Feldshuh’s work in theater and TV, along with nominations and wins, is listed on www.Wikipedia.com. For a retrospective of the career of Tovah Feldshuh visit www.TovahFeldshuh.com, which contains countless photos and clips.
Funny Girl production stills by Matthew Murphy |
More on Tovah Feldshuh, especially her role as author, in Part Two Click Here