Had she retained her early ’20s stage name – Terri Sue Fairchild – actress Tovah Feldshuh might not have enjoyed such a prolific and successful career on stage, screen and television.
Nearly 46 years have gone by since Tovah (Hebrew for “good”) Feldshuh (her legal surname) first appeared on Broadway. She’s been nominated for four Tony Awards, and two Emmys, and – most importantly, to her – she’s the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award, the Voice for Humanity Award and the Israel Peace Medal, for her charitable work.
Feldshuh is in the bay area next week, appearing with TV legend Ed Asner in “concert readings” of Jeff Cohen’s play The Soap Myth, a drama about a Holocaust survivor (Asner) who’s convinced the Nazis actually made soap out of murdered Jews.
A co-presentation of the Florida Holocaust Museum and the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation, The Soap Myth is onstage Monday (April 15) in Tampa, and Tuesday in Sarasota.
In addition to her dramatic work, Feldshuh is also a popular cabaret performer – recently, she sang and danced in the Broadway revival of Pippin. Still, she knows only too well, an actor who starred in the original Yentl on Broadway, appeared in the Holocaust TV miniseries and broke Broadway records with her portrayal of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is going to get the first call for something with a Jewish theme.
“When I was first offered this play,” Feldshuh tells the Catalyst, “I thought ‘Oh my God, here we go again.’ Because I’d changed my name from Terri Sue to Tovah. OK, I’m playing Esther Fineman, head of a Holocaust Museum. I sighed a bit.”
That particular calling card is a combination of the name and her stellar resume. “Very often, it’s ‘Jewish play? Let’s get Tovah.’ And particularly now, at this age, for the Jewish mother,” she explains. “On the other hand, sometimes you ride the horse in the direction it’s galloping. I mean, it’s not a mistake that Yentl catapulted me to the marquees of the Broadway theater.
“The perceived value of a Tovah Feldshuh is: Orthodox, European, expert in Judaism. None of which I was, or am. I’m not kosher. I was not an expert in Judaism, though we were part of a conservative movement. I was certainly proud to be who I was, a Jewish American.”
In the latter half of The Soap Myth, Feldshuh returns as a second character: An anti-Semite named Brenda Goodsen. When she got to that part in the script, “I said ‘I cannot resist this. I have to take this part.’ How could Jeff better cast this? He has an actress that has stood by the Jewish people, because she changed her name … well, there’s a lot in a name. Because your life is not about my life, darling, your life is about your life.
“All they have to do is read my bio. It’s very clear where my soul and my heart lie; I’m not about to betray my religious and ethnic background.”
Coming soon is a DVD of Golda’s Balcony, Feldshuh’s Tony-nominated one-woman show (she received the Drama Desk Award – her second, after Lend Me a Tenor – for the portrayal). A few minutes of the footage, shot in 2003 when the play was at the 140-seat Manhattan Ensemble Theatre Off-Broadway – before it moved uptown – was used for a documentary about Feldshuh and Meir.
The multi-camera shoot has been edited into a full, 90-minute performance film.
“Whenever you do a piece, you don’t know that it’s going to be a hit,” Feldshuh explains. “You just give it your best shot. We didn’t know that Golda’s Balcony was going to become the longest-running one-woman play in the history of Broadway in a hundred years. But that’s what happened.”
As for performing with venerable Ed Asner, Feldshuh can’t say enough. “When I’m 89, I hope I have the marbles he’s got – the acuity, the talent, the strength,” she says. “His vocal strength alone is something that one must doff a hat at. One must take a bow. Bend a knee. He’s magnificent. And I’m proud to say, he’s coming to my seder. So I’m very excited.”
On three of her most famous recurring television roles
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, as Naomi Bunch. “It was the most fabulous experience. I regret that it’s gone; I’m so sad they decided only to do four seasons. I loved being chosen for it. I never auditioned – Rachel Bloom believes in Broadway. I guess because I had played Golda Meir, they knew I could play the mother. It took tremendous faith in my singing. They must have checked YouTube. They gave me the job, and we had a hell of a good time. And the song ‘Where’s the Bathroom’ is now in one of my nightclub acts, Aging is Optional, Cause God I Hope it Is.”
The Walking Dead, as Deanna Monroe. “I actually auditioned for The Walking Dead in a cinderblock closet in a large casting office. I was going to the Galapagos, and my manager said ‘You need to change your flight; you must do this audition.’ There was a young person there from the office, probably a P.A. – lovely girl, she could have been my daughter – and I walked into this closet and said ‘You know, this is the end of my career. I’m in a tomb here, with a child, with a camera.’ And Walking Dead was so secret that I was given audition material that was not part of the series. Also, the part I was up for was written as Douglas Monroe, and it was changed to Deanna Monroe. The part in Law and Order was Daniel Melnick, and it was changed to Danielle Melnick. I’ve had very good luck with these male roles that I was given the honor of adapting. And I loved my job in Walking Dead. I’m only sorry I got bitten.
Law and Order, as Danielle Melnick. “Again, it was originally a male part. It was a small part, but it was a defense attorney, and my father, Sidney Feldshuh, was a defense attorney. I went in and I did it, and somebody there said ‘Wow, she can really do this. She’s really good at it.’ Well, the reason I was skilled at it was because I was like a Suzuki student in litigating. Before I could remember to talk, I remembered my father talking about his trials. I was brought up by a lawyer, so I had aperfect character – I became my father. And all those adlibs – Come on, Jack – that was all from Sidney, it wasn’t in the script.
And in all the years we did television back then, you had very strict script regulations. But they let me be. I mean, I didn’t have full-out improvisation he way I did on certain shows that I did with Cosby … who, incidentally was absolutely wonderful to me. I obviously missed the wave of seduction in my career, ‘cause I’ve never been seduced – and now I’m too old, I’m sure, to be a target for such a thing. So if the construction men on Central Park West start to whistle at me, I won’t get annoyed. I’ll get their phone numbers.”