Tovah Feldshuh enters the sanctuary at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in a short, sleeveless black dress and almost immediately wants to know if her interview will be recorded.
That’s how she wants it.
“I’m sure I have certain traits that are like, ‘Jeez, what’s she like?’ when I get to that part where I start laying out my standards that mean so much to me,” Feldshuh explained during the Oct. 22 interview.
Later that day, Feldshuh accepted the Theodore Bikel Award for Excellence in Jewish Theatre at the Alliance for Jewish Theater conference, which was held in Philadelphia this year.
On Nov. 14, she will return to the City of Brotherly Love for a play reading of Dancing with Giants at Congregation Rodeph Shalom at 7 p.m. Dancing with Giants, a play written by her brother David Feldshuh, tells the story of an unusual friendship between Hitler’s favorite German boxer, an African-American boxing champion and a Jewish boxing manager.
The 65-year-old actress has performed in Broadway productions of Yentl, Pippin and Golda’s Balcony, where she played Golda Meir. She has been on the screen as well as on the stage, with parts as Deanna Monroe on The Walking Dead and Naomi Bunch on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. On IMBD.com, Feldshuh has more than 100 credits.
But Dancing with Giants offers something new for the four-time Tony Award nominee: the chance to play a man. In Dancing with Giants, she plays Joe “Yussel the Muscle” Jacobs, the boxing manager.
The role of Yussel the Muscle was intended for a character actor like Mark Rylance, but when he couldn’t take the part, David Feldshuh offered his little sister the role instead.
“I’m portraying a man, right down to experimenting with two golf balls you-know-where,” Feldshuh said.
In doing the performance soon after the midterm elections, Feldshuh sees a connection between the play and the current political climate.
“This play, Dancing with Giants, reflects the growing move to the right of this country, the growing disrespect for democracy starting with the person in the White House,” Feldshuh said.
In January, Ed Eisner did a reading of The Soap Myth by Jeff Cohen at Rodeph Shalom. Feldshuh wasn’t able to make it to Philadelphia for The Soap Myth, she said, but Cohen told her Rodeph Shalom might be interested in having her come as well.
At first, they considered the idea of her doing a concert, “which I would love to do here in this sanctuary,” Feldshuh said, looking around.
“The acoustics in this sanctuary for singing is fantastic,” she continued. Then, she sang a few bars. “Who wouldn’t have a good time doing that? … This sanctuary rivals any Broadway house. It has a bit more of an echo than a Broadway house, but it rivals it in its beauty and its size.”
With a pianist for a mother and a father from a Viennese background, there was no question that Feldshuh would play an instrument as a child. She learned the piano and was a solo instrumentalist. She eventually went to National Music Camp, but she couldn’t stand her own mediocrity, she said. She also felt lonely.
She decided to start auditioning for musicals.
At 13, she got cast as Cousin Hebe in H.M.S. Pinafore, then she got cast as the title character in Little Mary Sunshine.
“I got all the leads, and I said, ‘This bodes well,’ and that’s how I dropped into theater because it was a community,” she said. “It was a communal effort.”
In 1973, she made her Broadway debut in Cyrano: The Musical as the Foodseller. She had 14 lines, but an agent noticed her and, 18 months later, she was starring in Yentl with her name on the marquee.
Feldshuh uses her Hebrew name — Tovah — instead of her birth name, Terri Sue. The decision, she said, was a lucky accident.
In college, her boyfriend at the time told her that Terri Sue didn’t suit her. She told him that she went by ‘Tovah’ at Sunday school.
“Tovah,” Feldshuh recalls him saying, “that’s a name.”
She didn’t know the implications of having a name like Tovah Feldshuh. When she got to New York City, she said, people thought she was Orthodox and European, and the name sounded so Jewish it helped her get Jewish roles, she believes.
At first, she said, she fought it. She wanted people to know she could play every part, but as she’s gotten older, she’s started to embrace it.
There are, however, certain things she won’t do anymore. She won’t play Jewish parts in off-Broadway shows, for example.
Feldshuh doesn’t mind a role like Naomi Bunch on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, even though it’s small. It doesn’t require too much of a time commitment. She comes in “like a piece of chili pepper” and gets out.
The technical differences between screen and stage also means she only needs to be on set when she’s needed for television.
“When they’re filming you, you’re the big role for that day. … It’s lovely,” she said. “They concern themselves with you, and then they’re done with you. They fly you home. It’s a perfect thing.”
Now, with her first grandchild on the way, her priorities have shifted.
She has become more affiliated with Jewish tradition as the concept of l’dor v’dor becomes more important to her. She wants to make sure her grandchildren are Jewish.
“It’s just one great religion; it’s one great practical religion,” she said. “You don’t even have to be a deist to be a mensch.”
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