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Interview

In Her Prime

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Tovah Feldshuh might be best-known for her role as the quintessential Jewish mother in the Sapphic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein, a part that should have at least earned her an Oscar nomination, if not the award itself. "Miramax chose to back Shakespeare in Love that year," she says good-naturedly. "Hey, they made a good choice." Her portrayal of Judy Stein was a universally recognizable mother figure that was not only sublime in her comedy but also her humanity. It's the kind of smart, funny role Feldshuh has excelled at in an impressive and varied career that spans decades in film, television, and theatre. It's also kind of like Feldshuh herself: frank, wise, and fall-down funny.

These days Feldshuh has plenty of other awards to display, many of them for her stage role as the late former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony. An emotional journey full of music and colorful characters, all played by Feldshuh, it's a grand spectacle with the petite Feldshuh at the center. The actor is almost unrecognizable in the role, masked behind a prosthetic nose and a wig to portray the world leader. But she's been well-recognized by critics and peers, earning a Tony nomination, a Drama Desk Award, and a Lucille Lortel Award for her blazing performance. The show, written by William Gibson (The Miracle Worker) and directed by Scott Schwartz, has also won raves and recently broke the record for the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history.

Now Golda's Balcony has found its way to Los Angeles, where it began previews at the Wadsworth Theatre Feb. 1. It will play for three weeks, with the possibility of an extension, and Feldshuh is thrilled to be coming to the West Coast for a time. "There's no actor in the United States who can afford not to love Los Angeles," she says from her home in New York a few weeks before the move. "We all love Los Angeles because the country loves movie stars, its media stars. I'm very excited about coming to Los Angeles—it will give me a break from our very committed New York winters—and I have friends out there I'd love to see."

Feldshuh is quick to mention that the L.A. show is very much the Broadway version, with Schwartz directing and most of the crew in tow. "I'm very excited because of the wisdom of Marty Markinson and Rich Willis, our wonderful L.A. producers, who said, 'We want the show, and we want the show the way it was on Broadway,'" she says. "True to their word, they're bringing it in." Although they had originally looked at smaller theatres, they ended up at the 1,500-seat Wadsworth out of necessity. Says Feldshuh, "The play demands it, because the play is the story of a nation and a lone female prime minister screaming for peace, a mother lioness screaming for peace in the belly of war."

Back Stage West: How did you come to land the role in Golda's Balcony?

Tovah Feldshuh: I was offered the project by David Fishelson, the lead producer on Broadway. He offered it to me; he's the head of a theatre in Soho called the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. I didn't know him at all. I got a call from my girlfriend Phyllis Bosworth, with whom I go biking, and she keeps up with everything, she's extremely savvy. She's one of those New York intellectuals who reads every book and knows exactly what's happening artistically. She called me and said, "My God, my God, I've just seen a play in the Tanglewood area, and it's got your name on it. It's called Golda's Balcony. Tovah, you could play the prime minister of Israel." And I said, "Just what I need, another Jewish mother. What a stretch!" I had just finished Kissing Jessica Stein and before that A Walk on the Moon. I had been cast as strong Jewish women, often mothers, dating back to Methuselah. I tried to see the play when I was in the area, but it was sold out. My friend called again and told me David Fishelson had acquired the rights, and I had to get the role. So I called my manager Jean Fox and said, "My friend Phyllis is hawking me for this play, Golda's Balcony...." Well, I never got the word 'balcony' out; Jean tracked down the play and got the offer within two hours. I said I would read it, and it was terribly beautiful, and the arias in it—which tell of her life and her struggles—were just extremely moving, and I can hear my friend Eddie Olmos, who once said to me, "If you're going to be cast in Jewish roles, don't be a local Jew, be a global Jew. Become the expert and the authority in that corner." His words came wafting back to me, and I said, "Look, this isn't just a one-woman play because I've done a lot of them. It's a one-woman show about a prime minister, and there's only three possibilities from the last century: Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir." And I wasn't being offered the first two. So I took it, and I had director approval, and David Fishelson is a real visionary. He is truly the most artistic producer I've ever worked for. He has such vision and commitment. He's a madman for the artist. So the artist is forever indebted.

We were in negotiations with a little theatre Off-Off-Broadway for this show, and I'll never forget it. He offered the car and driver. We didn't ask. He said, "I think she should have a car and driver, she needs an assistant, she needs a makeup man." I felt like it was doing a feature. I said, "Okay, let them get it." Which in New York City, having that, feels like you're a billionaire. It's unbelievable. It's like going into your own little hotel room for 35 minutes each way, you get so much done. He got all these things, we all worked for a song down there, but you know something? He was right. I ended up doing 628 shows, and you know how many I missed? None. Not even one.

BSW: How did you do it?

Feldshuh: Will and love and being loved. I think Dave Fishelson places a lot of value on his artists, and we don't forget it, as opposed to being at the bottom of some food chain where we hold ourselves as children, and so we are viewed. That left my plate a few decades ago.

BSW: How do you handle the situation if you find yourself in a place where you're not feeling respected or appreciated?

Feldshuh: First of all, it's tough because you have to know, as a minimum requirement as a businesswoman, what the relationship between supply and demand is. If there's no one else that they want, you've got a lot of power. If you're in a line of people, you've got no power. That's the whole thing about being with a big agency versus a small agency. You're with the small agency; you may be top of the pops. I'm prized by my agents, who I also prize. They're wonderful with me, and they're diligent. Just give me a person who does their job well, and I'm devoted. I try to do my job, every job I do, to the best of my abilities. I'm about to do a picture with Lindsay Lohan [Lady Luck], and I'm playing a fortune teller, a Tarot-card reader, a person of magic. And I found a witch in New York City. A good witch, a woman whose mother felt supernatural skills and trained her and started her with Tarot the way my mother started me with Mozart and the piano when I was 5. I found her, and I'm going for my first tutorial tomorrow, complete with roses to thank her. And I told her on the phone, "Whatever you want to charge me, charge me. You're giving me gems." All so that I can go into Lindsay Lohan's picture, where I don't have that much time to be true. It's not a small part, but it's not a big part. But with a supporting role, you have to be bull's-eye. There's no time for you to make an error or err in the truth. You have to try to the best of your ability to master a role and own it. So then you can be it, rather than act it. You don't want to be an acting-ness; you want to be a being-ness.

BSW: You have such a history of making an impression in supporting roles. Is there a secret to making those smaller parts so memorable?

Feldshuh: Study them as if they were the lead role and pray that your writer writes the small parts as if they were the lead role, because the good writers do. If you look at Kissing Jessica Stein, written by Jessica Westfeldt with her friend Heather Juergensen, she wrote her draft and said she went back over and over again. I know because I was in the readings. She said, "We just kept perfecting and giving each character stakes in the piece." Every character had their monologue or their moment, not just I. Also, little things. My father, to whom I was most attached, was named Sidney. So she named my husband in the movie Sidney. My family moved from Manhattan to Scarsdale so when they came to visit me in the film, it was in Scarsdale. I didn't even ask for this—again, it was like Dave Fishelson, "You want the car and driver?" I'm learning a little bit of love goes a long way. I know I sound like a sap, but I really mean it.

That's why I'm so thrilled to come to Los Angeles in the middle of my career—I hope I can call this my prime, still—and come to Los Angeles with my wrinkles, planning to bring wrinkles back and make them chic. I literally haven't had any work done; I don't care if I play parts in movies where I'm cast as 65 or 70. I'm playing an 80-year-old woman onstage, and I'm nowhere near that age, but cool. I have no vanity about it.

BSW: Did you ever try to live in Los Angeles before?

Feldshuh: I did, and I was too young to understand it and do it. I'd be offered a Universal contract, and I'd say, "Will you pay for my singing and dancing and tap lessons?" And they said, "No." I said, "You paid for Mickey [Rooney], you paid for Judy [Garland]. I'm diligent!" It was $500 a week in the early 1970s, and I had just finished my first job on Broadway, Cyrano, with Christopher Plummer. But I remember they wouldn't pay for my singing and dancing, so I decided not to take it. I was so fierce. But I must say, in that ferocity of values and visions, I have a body of work I'm proud of. I have a body of work I hope is appreciated not only by me but by the people to whom I gave it, the audience and my fellow artists. So I was the girl who turned down the Universal contract to go to Yentl on Broadway. But that was my path. I was afraid if I did too much television early in my career, I would never learn to act. I would never have the chops to do what I call "the big stuff." I don't know if that's necessarily true, but that was the common belief back then, 30 years ago. And I came from a tradition of being taken to the theatre to see Gwen Verdon and Mary Martin. Or I would stay home sick and watch the old movies. It's not like I dreamed of having to be a Hollywood star. My early dream sequences, because I was taken to the pinnacle of live entertainment, was the Broadway or the concert stage. And that, in a way, is how I've lived out my life.

I increasingly love and want to do film and television, because the body wants to be able to tell the truth in time as the camera takes care of space. When you're in the theatre, you must, as an instrument, take care of time and space. We played Dallas one night with Golda's Balcony in a 1,500-seat theatre, and, boy, did we learn a lot. I did the show, as I do it at the Hayes, which is for 580 people, and parts of it were not quite as intelligible as they needed to be. I had a pace that was quick, and I enunciated, but one of the reviewers said, "God, she went quickly." A stage actor has to know whether they're at the Helen Hayes, The Muni Opera, or the Wadsworth. This is Neiman-Marcus, honey, the customer is always right. The audience is paying to experience a story. Thank God, William Gibson has given me a superb story, and Scott Schwartz is unbelievable.

BSW: Did you learn anything new while doing Golda's Balcony?

Feldshuh: You know, I think that everybody wants to contribute to causes greater than themselves. It keeps us young. It also taps us into the river of common human behavior. The way to live a long life is to contribute to causes greater than yourself. And that's what this play gives me the opportunity to do. I eventually learned more from the long run than I did from the play. Of course the play was a huge learning curve, and every day my assistant would read me the headlines, would play the tapes. I bathed in blood, basically, for a year and a half. Every obit of every American soldier killed in Iraq, every Israeli child shot in their bed. Even my darling buddies who were killed in 9/11, I had their names written on my stage left desk. The dressing room is full of research. I love doing the play. It's very clear that it's the greatest role of my career because Golda Meir had the greatest bar of contribution to society of anyone I know.

BSW: Did you have any idea it would become such a phenomenon and break records and win all these awards?

Feldshuh: No. I just did it one show at a time. I was graced with my fourth Tony nomination and all these awards, and it was amazing. I just did the play. And the play kept extending. It was supposed to run six weeks, it ran four months. When Dave Fishelson came to me at the end of the Off-Broadway run and said, "Everybody wants to option this play," I said, "What about Broadway?" He said, "Broadway? I've never done Broadway." I said, "Get ready." And the greatest thing I did was to convince him to be the lead producer. We had many offers—many unsound offers—from some very smart people. I must say quality and success is the right choice among many possible alternatives. And hindsight may be no sight at all, but you don't always know if you're making the right choice, and whatever the conglomerate of correct choices were, this project just seemed to be watched over by the angels.

BSW: You seem to have great luck with one-person shows. Is there a secret formula to follow?

Feldshuh: I've had great success with them so much, and not only do I enjoy them, they allow me to mother. You can date my first one-woman show with the birth of my son. The one-woman shows I do are for one plain reason: It's just for the autonomy of them, that I can determine when we do them. I can even, with a good producer, determine when we do the shows. It was I who put in the first 5 o'clock matinees; we were the only 5 o'clock matinee in all of Broadway. Because I called us the "little show," we were in the smallest theatre on Broadway, and by doing a 5 o'clock matinee, you could see The Producers until 4:30, stop by with us from 5 to 6:30, stop and have a bite to eat and still see a show at 8. Also, this way I didn't have to spend the whole day in the nose. Because the noses are expensive and, with matinee and evening, it's enough already. You don't take off your nose. You take off your wig and the makeup and the fat legs, but not the nose.

BSW: As excited as you are to be coming to L.A., is there a sadness about leaving Broadway after all this time?

Feldshuh: Yes. He was my first love, Broadway. Every time I star in a play, and I think I've been in about seven or eight Broadway shows, and I certainly starred in four of them, you feel like you've hit your dream. It's what you hope for. This role was like the Virginia Woolf for Nicole Kidman, I think. What that was to her, and she was unbelievable, this is to me. In fact, we called her nose man to ask him to do the nose. He was very responsive, but he was in L.A., so it was difficult. So we had the man who won the Oscar for Dick Tracy, John Caglione Jr., do the nose. Noses: There's one for every performance day. They're no good after you've used them once. But I saved my last week of noses. But I love doing the one-person genre. Jimmy Nederlander has offered me my next one for Broadway; I hope to collaborate with him and Liz McCann for it. I don't want to say what it is, but many advisors say, "Oh, you don't want to go back to Broadway with another one-woman show." But I say to them what my children would say to me, "Why not, Moom? M-O-O-M. Why not, Moomie?" You can develop an expertise; you can become the expert in this one small area.

BSW: Because we have so many actors who read us, is there anything you might want to say to them about surviving in this business?

Feldshuh: Tell the actors I love them, every one of them, and they should carry my love with them all the days of their life that they audition. And when the chips are down, there's a little candle inside their chest called "Tovah Feldshuh loves you and believes in you and understands you and gets you." The second thing I would say to them is that if they're burning with desire, they should never give up. I studied with Milton Katselas. In my class were Jeffrey Tambor, Kim Cattrall, Jamie Cromwell, Kenny Fuller, Doris Roberts, myself. Look at that. And we were students. We were already known, but we were coming back. Follow your bliss. And reach for the stars. If you reach for the stars, you may land on the roof. But if you reach for the roof, you'll never get off the ground. BSW

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