Tovah Feldshuh, at The Segal Centre

An Audience with Broadway Legend Tovah Feldshuh

Richard Burnett
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Tovah

Outside her Manhattan apartment, Tovah Feldshuh jumped into her taxi limo and headed for the airport to fly to Vancouver to film the CBS series Salvation in which she plays yet another fierce woman, President of the United States Pauline Mackenzie. 

I first discovered the Broadway legend on the original Law & Order TV series, in which she played recurring character, defense attorney Danielle Melnick, for 13 seasons. But Feldshuh is best-loved for her stage work in London’s West End as well as on Broadway where – from Yentl to Golda’s Balcony, the longest-running one-woman show in the history of the Great White Way – she has earned four Tony nominations for Best Actress and won four Drama Desk, four Outer Critics Circle and the Obie.
 
In short, Feldshuh is a living legend, and few adore her more than her diehard gay fan base. 
 
On the eve of her hotly-anticipated run in Golda’s Balcony at The Segal Centre for Performing Arts, Feldshuh – married to prominent New York attorney Andrew H. Levy and the mother of their two children – gave me a candid Q&A about her storied career, sharing anecdotes about everybody from Rudolf Nureyev to Barbra Streisand.
 
You have played Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony countless times. How do you work up the enthusiasm to play that role night after night, year after year?
 
I just take her out once a year now. More importantly, let me tell you this story about an eight-year-old boy who came to see Joe DiMaggio play baseball at the end of his career at Yankee Stadium. DiMaggio hit a grand-slam homerun and the boy went up to him after the game and asked, “How do you keep hitting those homers?” And DiMaggio replied, “I keep hitting those homers because somebody ain’t never seen baseball.” I’m not saying I hit homers, but I give it my very best shot because there’s somebody ain’t never seen theatre. Every time I go out on a stage, I remember this is the first time somebody will see a play, and also the last time somebody will ever see a play. The audience must be honoured..
 
Domina
 
What was it like to be on Law & Order?
 
I loved it! I was on that show on-and-off for 13 years. My part was great, actually written for a man. So was my part on The Walking Dead. Now I’m playing the President of the United States in Salvation. I am happy to play these roles in a more egalitarian male-female world.. 
 
You’ve played women who’ve had to disguise themselves as men — such as Yentl — but this year you played a man for the first time in Dancing With Giants, a play written by your brother, David Feldshuh. What was that like?  

It’s different than playing a woman playing a man – you better study men, how they act. It’s more than how they sit and walk. You have to observe, ingest, meld and marry the soul of the character. You need to find the crossroads of you and the character you want to play.
 
You are a longtime supporter of LGBTQ civil rights at rallies. Growing up, did you have gay friends?
 
When we were young – I was born in the 50s – there were like three genders: heterosexual men, heterosexual women and homosexual men. We didn’t even know what a lesbian was. All those wonderful athletes with short hair who were my counsellors, it never dawned on us. We were completely innocent.  
 
When did you lose your innocence?
 
It was only when I went to Sarah Lawrence College. It was a wonderful college for women. It was there that I met gay students – women who preferred women – and later in theatre, if you don’t have a gay base, forget it, you don’t have a career.
 
Your diehard LGBTQ fan base adores you. 
 
And I adore them. It really all started with Yentl. You meet a gay fan and they know all of your credits. You know, it’s been a long time since I got stopped in the street. But whatever your profession, to be acknowledged for your work feels good. I remember I shared a dressing room with Rudolf Nureyev at the Municipal Opera House in St. Louis in 1978 where he was dancing at night and I was rehearsing for Peter Pan during the day. He was disappointed that nobody came backstage to see him after his performances. I said to him, “Mr. Nureyev, people think you’re extraordinary and are intimidated because you are such a legend.” He said, “Nobody come visit me.” So I said, “Well, I’m here, and I’m telling you you’re great.” We all need to have our work acknowledged.
 
Speaking of queer icons, you portrayed Tallulah Bankhead in the musical Tallulah Hallelujah! which was named one of the Ten Best Plays of the Year in 2000 by USA Today. 
 
It was thrilling to play that role. She was bisexual, broke boundaries, and I love her willingness to experiment with life.
 
In 2010 you told Playbill you “want to entice and engage the gay population of the country, much like Tallulah did.” But you had us all from the get-go.
 
That makes me happy.
 
Christopher Plummer grew up in Montreal. What was it like to play with him in Cyrano on Broadway, at the Palace Theatre in 1973?
 
He is one of the great actors of our time. Just seeing his King Lear is a life-changing experience. In Cyrano, I had just 13 lines in a red dress, but those 13 lines and that red dress began the show. I had a scene alone with Christopher Plummer where he would kiss my hand. During that ferocious part of his work life, he had little patience if he didn’t think you were doing your work right. He was very kind to me because, I think, I was very diligent. It was the beginning of my career, it was my first Broadway show. At one point, I remember director Michael Kidd asked if anybody could do cartwheels, and I said, “I can, sir.” So I did cartwheels onstage at the end of Act I. Then when I played Tallulah Bankhead in my 40s, I also did cartwheels across the stage!
 
You have been nominated for four Tonys. Is it still a thrill to be nominated or are you jaded? 
 
You never get jaded. To win one day I’ll probably be one of those old people who gets a lifetime achievement award and hobbles up onstage! 
 
What’s the difference between Broadway and West End audiences?
 
Broadway audiences are more expressive. West end audiences are good listeners and are more reluctant to give you a standing ovation. When I started my career, you didn’t get a standing ovation every night, you got one when you were extraordinary. Even some opening nights you didn’t get standing ovations. People were much more discerning.
 
Can you tell us about the time you got some decor from your friend Barbra Streisand?
 
First of all, I love her, she has never begrudged me anything in my life. I got lucky, I did Yentl on Broadway and she wanted to do Yentl. Then she called me one day and said, “Tovah, I’m moving out of my apartment. Do you want some of my junk?” I said, ‘Junk? The truck is arriving – don’t move!” Barbra wasn’t there when I arrived, but she said to take whatever I wanted. My favourite item was a silk maroon shower curtain. I also have a pair of her Donna Karan high-tops. I said, “Barbra, if I wear these shoes, will I sing better?”. 
 
Have you been to Montreal before?
  
I came up to perform Golda’s Balcony one-night-only during the Broadway run. We did it for a charity, and I thought we did okay. Now 15 years later, the play has become a part of me. It is one of the great roles of my career and I am thrilled that the Segal is bringing us back to Montreal. I invite anybody who saw us that one night 15 years ago to come back and see Golda performed by an actress now closer to 80, closer to the end of my own life. And I am available to meet-and-greet afterwards. I don’t hide in my dressing room. And I hope the gay community will come out to see me too. 
 

Golda’s Balcony runs at The Segal Centre for performing Arts until June 10. For tickets, visit segalcentre.org. Read Richard Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.