FIVE QUESTIONS FOR ... TOVAH FELDSHUH
LEGENDARY ACTRESS, DAUGHTER OF LILY, and MOTHER OF TWO DIFFERENT FANNY BRICES ON BROADWAY
(Above: Tovah Feldshuh and Jared Grimes in their show-stopping number in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl, “Who Taught Her Everything?”. Photo by Matthew Murphy.)
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Several weeks ago Tovah Feldshuh and I had a conversation over Zoom while she was at her home in New York and I was downstairs in the office of Theatre Cafe on St Martins Lane here in London next door to the Duke of York Theatre where she once had a sold-out two-month run of her one-woman show, Tovah: Out of Her Mind! She was full of surprises, not just the vim and vigor I expected after having seen her brilliant take on the other Mama Rose role, as I call the mother of Fanny Brice, in the Broadway revival of the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill musical Funny Girl directed by Michael Mayer with an updated book by Harvey Fierstein. I had seen her on a Thursday night with Julie Benko as Fanny before I headed over to London a few months ago, which was my second time to see the astoundingly talented Benko in the role. Lea Michele plays the role the rest of the week.
How to explain my respect and adoration of Feldshuh? Let’s put it this way. When it was announced that Barbra Streisand was going to direct and star in Yentl, I had one thought: you mean Tovah’s part? When I moved to New York in 1975 to attend Juilliard’s Drama Division, she was the toast of Broadway in the play’s title role. I saw it because I had a crush on John Shea, her co-star, but I left the theatre that night with a cultural crush on Tovah that has lasted now for 48 years, two shy of her half-century theatrical career. What I find admirable is how she has traversed that career from someone who at 27 played the title role in that nonmusical dramatic version of Yentl and now at 74 is playing the mother of Fanny Brice in the musical that once starred the woman who went on to play the title role in the musical version onscreen. That is quite an arc if not exactly a full circle, and is filled with not a small amount of grit and gratitude and grace. She therefore had a lot to live up to during our conversation. And Goddess did she, this woman who has played everyone from Golda Meir to Dr. Ruth to Leona Helmsley to Tallulah Bankhead to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Juliet to Dolly Levi to the Rose who Mama-ed a stripper to a realistic survivor of a zombie apocalypse.
A realist and a survivor. That sounds like typecasting for the child of Lillian Kaplan Feldshuh, who named her Terri Sue. It was that mother who shaped this woman for the role of her lifetime: Lily’s daughter. Tovah - who chose her own name later - wrote one of the best memoirs you’ll ever read, Lilyville, about her family and fame and the fearlessness she finally found that was always waiting for her there in her talent. She’s a tiny giant, an incongruity that she has grown into these last fifty years. Maybe that’s her secret: she’s never stopped growing although it has nothing to do with height.
Oh, and she doesn’t bullshit.
Some proof can be found below.
(Above: Feldshuh in her Central Park West apartment above the reservoir in 2015. “Some people need mountains. Some people need caves. This girl needs a view of water. I swim half a mile every day. I must have been a fish in a previous life,” she told Joanne Kaufman for The New York Times. “My mother always told me, ‘If you love nature and you can give yourself a good view, you will always feel rich.’” Photo by Tony Cenicola/NY Times.)
KEVIN SESSUMS: We share more than a love of theatre, Tovah. We have both climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I think we all have deeply personal reasons that get us to that mountain. What got you to Kilimanjaro?
TOVAH FELDSHUH: When my mother died, I thought of what my mother-in-law had told me which was “Climb the mountain while you can climb it.” I’m an adventure traveler. I went with my little math genius, my son Brandon. He made me sit down either on that trip or on the trip when we stalked gorillas in the volcanic parts of the jungle. I shouldn’t say “stalked.” That’s not what we called it. Tracked! There we go. We tracked gorillas. We sat down together and started to name all the countries we had been to. It was about 95 countries.
I really do spend my earnings on experience - not on jewelry or another dress. I was going to Ethiopia when the pandemic broke out and I never got there. I will though. I will eventually get there. I get a week’s vacation from Funny Girl in February and I have been invited on a diplomatic mission to Saudi Arabia and Istanbul and I’m planning on going. I’d have to miss 9 shows, I think. I have to get permission to miss that ninth show. I think they’ll give it to me. It’s for Middle East peace. I’ve said that I could never get to Saudi Arabia alone. I’m very excited to be a part of that. I believe in carrying Middle East peace forward one hug at a time. But comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa is not a valid point of view. I understand that certain Arab countries consider their identity is involved in pushing Israel into the sea. I am hopeful that won’t happen. It’s what Golda Meir said about Israelis having no choice but to win their wars because if they don’t, they’re gone, they’re dead, if their enemies are pledged to the annihilation of their nation.
When I changed my name from Terri Sue to Tovah it didn’t change the whole landscape of my life. When a great role comes my way, I take it. If it happens to be Jewish, I take it. My perceived value is that I am an expert in that particular area. So they keep coming my way. Sometimes I reject them and sometimes I take them. Of course, roles like Deanna Monroe on The Walking Dead and other characters I’ve played on television - such as President McKenzie on Salvation - are not Jews.
What are some of the connections between your own larger-than-life mother, Lily, and Fanny Brice’s mother, Rose?
Both were very practical women and both had tough love. The way I see Rosie Brice in my portrayal of her is that I have the wisdom of my mother and the heart of my father. My father had a huge expressive heart. And I tether myself to my daughter Fanny with unconditional love that my father gave me. It was very useful to me.
One of my friends wants to write a book titled, Powerful Women of Critical Mothers. My mother was tough in that way, but Rosie is not as tough as Lily in that way. I am not putting Fanny down as Rosie. I want Fanny to get a job. My mother was very … ah … practical. (In Lilyville, Feldshuh writes that Lily said, “You just put a dagger through my heart,” when she tells her she wants to be an actress.). I didn’t have a Nicky Arnstein in my life. I married a Harvard lawyer and we’ve been married for 46 years. (She also writes in Lilyville that the secret to the longevity of her marrage is that she has kept one eye shut.). Now Rosie Brice is suspicious of Nicky from the beginning, but what I put into my performance is that when I meet him finally on Henry Street I am overwhelmed by his beautiful looks - overwhelmed - so I have a push-pull about him. I’m not just deprecating him to my daughter. Quite the contrary.
When I wanted to split everything evenly with Andrew, my husband, in my own life, my mother said to me, “Come here, little girl. You’re not going to do that. All the practicalities of your life have been established by Andrew and all the luxuries have been established by you. You’ll go from your very, very lucrative salary to nothing the minute you give birth.” And that is exactly what happened. She was absolutely right. Had I split everything evenly, I would have gone completely broke. So when I gave birth to our children, Andy had to support us. I had my own money and he had his own money but we had to join together. I ran the household.
I say all that to point out that that practicality is something that Rosie Brice has - to see the truth, to authenticate the truth, and try to find the truthful path forward. That’s why in Act II, Scene 11 - this beautiful scene written by Harvey Fierstein - in which I say that Nicky has been arrested for embezzlement, I am so distraught because I usually have a solution.
I saw you on a Thursday night with Julie Benko as Fanny. I have not seen Leah in the role. I did see Beanie Feldstein whom I liked in it. She was so likable, in fact, that you pulled for her in the role so that it was layered for me in that way: I pulled for her to succeed in the part in the way I was pulling for Fanny to succeed in her life and career. There was a meta-response for me as an audience member with Beanie in the role.
I hear that Lea is phenomenal and I hope to see her when I am in Manhattan the first week of May. But the layering with Lea - as there was with Streisand - is the narrative of the actress playing the part. It becomes more than just a star vehicle; it becomes about the star instead of the role in some way, which is then layered into it all. A separateness occurs - at least for me. The star’s narrative layer atop the narrative of the musical and the role.
But with Benko there is just this remarkable actress and singer and comedienne playing Fanny Brice and you feel as if you’re really seeing Fanny and not someone doing a star turn and utilizing the role to do it. There is no other narrative but the musical’s and the role’s. She melds with Fanny. Fanny doesn’t have to find a way to meld with her. There is no extra narrative going on. I think Benko is absolutely brilliant - nuanced and natural and yet performative when it is called for.
But back to you. What you bring to the role of Fanny’s mother - you touched on this a moment ago - is a sexual presence. That was surprising to me. This woman has not given up her sexuality and is secure in her own attractiveness. (Again, in the book Lilyville, Feldshuh - ever secure in her own allure - tells the story of the night she turned down the sexual entreaties of Warren Beatty, an invitation her friend Patti LuPone told her she was nuts to refuse.) Rose can even seem competitively flirtatious with Nicky. Okay, I’ve got to get to a question. Ah .. hmmm. well, is that true?
That is what I was getting at with the term “push-pull.” (At this point, Tovah recites a litany of lines about Nicky Arnstein from the musical, suddenly and effortlessly channeling the character of Rosie Brice.) Yeah, she’s totally infatuated with his looks. She deeply understands why Fanny fell for him just like I fell for Fanny’s father who was totally gorgeous and a ne’er-do-well. I even say it, “If you fall for that type of thing - I did.” She also brings out her sexuality in the number “Who Taught Her Everything?” when she sings, “Men might prefer the original manufacturer.”
You write in your memoir about the Ethel Merman term “Birds Eye” that she used when a performance was finally frozen that references the frozen food brand. You really can’t freeze this part because you are having the ironically singular experience of being the mother to two different Fannys, Lea Michele and Julie Benko, the latter doing the role on those Thursday nights. I presume you give a different performance on Thursdays than you do the rest of the week. Are you comfortable talking about the difference in the Fannys you mother?
I freeze nothing. I just adjust to the two women. They’re very different. Lea is phenomenal but she is a very different Fanny than Julie Benko. I am blessed with them both. I try to mother them both and love them unconditionally and part of loving someone unconditionally is allowing them to do their thing.
Let me say this. There is something astonishing about Lea Michele’s singing voice that people love. The biggest difference between Lea and Julie Benko is that Lea is famous and fabulous and Julie is less famous and fabulous. All fame is is the agreement of millions of people who know and appreciate your work versus hundreds of people. There are a lot of Broadways stars who are stars within a five-block radius. You can get a good table at every sold-out restaurant within that five-block radius, or you’re invited to the mayor’s house. You know, New York, Kevin, and that kind of fame. Whereas a television star like Lea was - a major television star who wanted to be play Fanny Brice - that a very big difference in the demographic. And Lea is brilliantly talented. It’s not like it’s a hollow thing and we have a movie star who can’t cut it on the stage. That is certainly not the situation.
I would say that the propulsion and the speed with which Lea does the part is very different than the speed with which Julie does it. Julie has a different take on it. But Julie Benko is brilliant, too. She connects onstage. Her use of comedy is incredible and so skillful. She doesn’t miss a laugh. Lea chooses to propel the story - bless her - and doesn’t chase the laughs at all. And that’s admirable.
I think Fanny Brice is the greatest role written for a woman in the American musical lexicon - even more so than Mama Rose in Gypsy. Mama Rose shares her stage with Gypsy Rose Lee. The hub of our Funny Girl wheel is Fanny Brice. The rest of us are its spokes and you have to understand that in the structure of the piece in order to serve the piece. And my job is to establish the authentic world that Fanny lived in and to be both the universal mother to the universal daughter, but much more specifically the Jewish mother. But this role has been played by Irish Catholic actresses for six decades. Then someone had the brainy idea to offer it to me.
It has been a “stadium” event being with either actress and playing their mother. But certainly Lea Michele has a huge following and COVID has prevented us from signing autographs and meeting the fans afterwards. The love for us actors in the sold-out houses we’re getting and the affirmation we’re receiving has been wonderful. I tell you, being in a hit Broadway musical is a lot cheaper than therapy.
You just sounded like your mother Lily - almost as if you were channeling her. She lived to be 103. Do you want to live to be 103?
IN THE FUTURE, I WILL BE POSTING ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS FOR PAID SUBSCRIBERS ONLY. IN THAT REGARD, THE REST OF THIS INTERVIEW WOULD BE BEHIND A PAYWALL. BUT I DECIDED FOR THIS ONE TIME ONLY, TO LET YOU SEE THE KIND OF ADDITIONAL SUBSTANCE YOU’LL BE GETTING IF YOU DECIDE TO HELP SUPPORT THIS WORK I’M DOING ON HERE. I AM ALREADY LINING UP MORE SUBJECTS.
IN THE REST OF MY CONVERSATION WITH TOVAH BELOW, WE GO DEEPER INTO THE MOTHER/DAUGHTER DYNAMIC IN HER LIFE AND ONSTAGE IN FUNNY GIRL.
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You’re still competing with your mother?
Yeah. I have to best her.
I was deeply moved by the scene in your book when your father dies and your mother comes into the room and kisses the part of the sheet atop him where his genitals are. It was discomfiting but also oddly, yes, deeply moving. I don’t know if that is some Jewish tradition or just your mother being your mother. Which is it?
It is certainly not a Jewish tradition.
And then you realize how freed she was by your father’s death - you write it all so beautifully - which then finally frees up your relationship with her in way. You suffered great loss at the death of your beloved father and yet it gave you a renewed relationship with your mother. How did you navigate that?
I had 18 years with her, Kevin, after she was widowed. I was determined to be able to hold my head up high when my mother decided to leave her body. I was going to be the best daughter I could be. I was not going to waste the time. She said to me when I was forty, “How much longer you gonna blame me?” Not another minute. She was deep, my mother, in a very practical way. And so is my character Rosie in Funny Girl. Those two speeches in Act II, Scene 11 when Fanny asks me why Nicky would have to embezzle? And I say, “Money.” And she says that they have money and they don’t need money. I say, “He needed money. He needed his own money.” I tell her, “A person wants to matter. You can’t make someone feel that small.”
My own mother as born in 1911 and Rosie Brice was born earlier than that, but the whole ethos then was your marriage match was your future so you had to preserve and protect your man. Fanny Brice was an anomaly in her time. She was a woman of independent means and more successful than her husband. The play is written so that he is forced to commit crimes to keep up with her, but in real life she married him after he had done time in prison for embezzlement.
Your mother would always say to you at a critical juncture: Remember who you are. So who are you today right now, Tovah, in this exact moment that I am asking you this question?
I live in gratitude. I think gratitude is the quickest path to happiness. I am now well into my years as a senior citizen so I never expected to do three feature films - one of them Armageddon Time with Tony Hopkins - and a TV series, Shelter, the latter while I’m doing Funny Girl. So I am grateful that my work is still of service to projects that mean a great deal to me. I’m grateful for a marriage that … well .. has lasted and that we stayed on the field of play even during challenging times. Every marriage has those. And we have two magnificent children and we have four gorgeous grandchildren. To some people that sounds like bourgeois boredom. But to me it sounds like a fulfilled life. Also I think my bourgeois values were given to me a lot by my mother. After I had won all these five awards on Broadway, she told me I could do whatever I want now. I thought she was going to say I could do movies and television and talk about my career. But, no, she said, “You’re marrying a Harvard lawyer.”
And yet when you lost the Tony in 2004 when you were nominated for Best Actress for your portrayal of Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony to Phylicia Rashad for A Raisin in the Sun, your mother asked if it were possible for her to buy you a Tony award. I was moved by that. It was her way of saying how much she loved you. Did you take it that way?
Correct. That was her unconditional love and I finally got it. I’d always say, “Mommy, you’re the best mommy in the world. I’m the luckiest daughter.” I finally got it. One of the last times I saw her, I started to say it, “Mommy, you’re the …”. (Here, Tovah breaks into her mother’s voice.). She interrupted me, “I know! I’m the best mother in the world! And you’re the best daughter! I know! I know!” She wasn’t every sentimental.
May I read you the two last paragraphs in the book?
“Lilyville. What happens to a town when its namesake passes away? What happens when the mayor has left office? Where are the monuments and where are the plaques? On thing I can tell you: a ghost town Lilyville is not. It is a thriving metropolis, the height of Manhattan and the breadth of the universe. Andy and I, David and Martha [Tovah’s brother and sister-in-law], stand as the great bridges, linking the island of family to its past. Our children stand as skyscrapers and their children as super-highways, still under construction, going out into the world. The thousands of photographs are the billboards, liberally peppered above every street, in every direction you look, ever reminding the future generations to look at who was here, look at what they did, and look at their legacy.
“And if you happen to walk though the heart of town and notice a gorgeous, majestic theater with a sparkling marque, there in electric lights ever and always will shine Lillian Kaplan Feldshuh above the title of the long-running now-and-forever generational hit, LILYVILLE.”
Now you’re making me cry, Tovah. Fuck.
(She too is tearing up.). When I do Funny Girl, you can bet that I think of my mother and her own marquee.
Thank you, Tovah, for doing this. It was kind of you.
You are so welcome. And good luck on the pilgrimage you are on in your life - your continued Camino.
Thanks. Let’s circle back to what we were first talking about. Here’s to removing the mountain from the climb. But let’s both keep climbing.
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If you read an earlier version, I misspelled Lea Michele's name. Thanks to reader William Weathersby for emailing to let me know. I apologize for the error.