As Good as Golda

Tovah Feldshuh will perform her one-woman cabaret show in St. Louis Oct. 28 – 29.

Ellen Futterman, Editor

As Good as Golda

Hearing I’m from St. Louis, actress Tovah Feldshuh asks if I’m planning to attend the New Jewish Theatre’s production of “Golda’s Balcony,” which runs through Oct. 30. Feldshuh was the original star of the one-woman show, playing former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, when the William Gibson play opened on Broadway in 2003; it ran for more than 500 performances — of which she never missed a one — making it the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. 

Today, Feldshuh says, she has right of refusal to do the part anywhere in the English-speaking world. She will reprise the role in two performances Dec. 11 at the 950-seat Lowenstein Auditorium of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan, where she lives with her attorney husband, Andrew H. Levy. The couple has two adult children and belongs to B’nai Jeshuran, a Conservative shul near their Upper West Side home.

“I do ‘Golda’s Balcony’ every year,” Feldshuh says. “I just played Toronto for three weeks and I’m going to play New York and then San Diego. I take it out of its little Broadway closet once or twice a year. It’s a very satisfying experience.”

Interestingly, Feldshuh will cross paths with the NJT production when she comes to Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End Oct. 28-29 to perform her one-woman cabaret show, “Aging is Optional.” In it, she portrays a plethora of characters from ages 8 to 80, and taps into music from Rodgers & Hammerstein, Carole King and Dar Williams, among others.

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With a milestone birthday looming, I cut to the chase and ask: Is aging really optional?

“I deal with time in a quantum, not linear, way,” she explains. “I feel younger. Therefore if I am offered to do trapeze in ‘Pippin’ (which she recently did on Broadway, garnering rave reviews) and had a bar across a swing set as a child growing up in Scarsdale, I switch channels to become that 3 or 4 year old, not the 62 year old, swinging on that bar. I go back to that younger space.

“When I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last year (with her son), I go back to that space of climbing rocks in Central Park and on Concourse Plaza (in the Bronx) when I would visit my grandparents. I think about climbing rocks as a 5 or 6 year old. That is the premise of ‘Aging is Optional.’”

Feldshuh belongs to what she calls the “full life movement,” which is to live each day as if it “were golden” and not be under the illusion that life is forever.

“I believe in tikkun, of having a higher purpose than yourself, and that extends life,” she says. “Certainly Golda Meir believed that. Her primogenitor was the State of Israel, and that came first, then her children  Menachem and Sarah.”

It’s clear that Feldshuh’s take on quantum aging seems to be working. Her career has exploded on television since she turned 60, with featured roles on AMC’s horror hit series “The Walking Dead,” Starz’s “Flesh and Bones” and currently, CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” While in St. Louis, she will sign autographs from 1-4 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Fantasy Shop in St. Charles in her capacity as former Ohio congresswoman Deanna Moore on “The Walking Dead.” 

“It has been amazing to get this new fan base at this stage of my life,” says Feldshuh, 62. “I get to do these Walker Stalker conventions and Comic Con. It’s really been thrilling.”

She maintains the best part of growing older is the wisdom that age brings. “The perspective and appreciation of every day of health,” she says, adding that she swims a half-mile daily and does yoga and Pilates to keep fit.

“We lived on Riverside Drive and I loved it because I could watch the sunset everyday with my children, as infants, in my arms. The infants are now 32 and 28. Now we live on Central Park West and I watch the dawn every day. And you know at this age, it ain’t so bad to see the new day.”

Born Terri Sue Feldshuh, she chose to go by her Hebrew name, Tovah, in college. That change, she says, changed everything.

“It changed the entire landscape of my life. I didn’t know I would be gifted with all these heroic female roles of which many were Jewish. I’ve had many highs in my career of which I am grateful. But the breakthrough roles were often the great Jewish roles.”

The first came not long after she was appearing in the “Cyrano: The Musical” with Christopher Plummer, which transferred to Broadway after opening at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis where she had received an acting fellowship. During the Broadway run, she was asked to be the understudy for Bernadette Peters in a new musical called “Mack and Mabel” with Robert Preston. David Merrick was the producer.

“I had been understudy for leading ladies at the Guthrie for two seasons so I went to David Merrick and said I’d love to be in your show but I cannot be an understudy. He told me I was foolish because I would go on.

“In the interim, I was offered “Where’s Charlie?” on Broadway with Raul Julia and “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” in Brooklyn. I wanted the Broadway show but my agent said take ‘Yentl.’ It’s a new play where as “Where’s Charlie?” is a revival. So I took “Yentl” and wouldn’t you know that the play would eventually transfer to the (Eugene) O’Neill Theatre on Broadway.”

The play earned Feldshuh her first of four Tony Award nominations; she also has two Emmy nominations. She has appeared in numerous films, including as a Jewish mother in both “A Walk on the Moon” with Diane Lane and Liev Schreiber and “Kissing Jessica Stein,” and has written and starred in three earlier cabaret shows, including one about actress Tallulah Bankhead entitled “Tallulah Hallelujah!”

When asked if she had a favorite role, Feldshuh laughs and says, “That’s like asking me which child do you like the best.”

What she does like is a great role, and she has played many, she says, including Katharine Hepburn in “The Amazing Howard Hughes,” Irena Gut, a Christian nurse who saved 12 Jews during the Holocaust in “Irena’s Vows,” Berthe, the trapeze flying grandmother in “Pippin” and of course, Yentl and Golda Meir. If she has been typecast at all, she says it’s been by anti-Semitic Jews, “people inside the tribe,” who thought her name was “too Jewish” to do something like A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” or a Neil Simon play.

“The righteous Christians have been kind to me,” she says. “On the other hand, a name like Tovah Feldshuh has a perceived weight to it. It was assumed that I was an expert in areas that I might not have been an expert in at all. But I studied very hard and I mastered them. 

“After all, we’re about excellence. That’s what drives the motor of our tribe. That’s how I lived my whole life. I try to have fun but I’m sure not a happy camper if I’m not doing things excellently. I don’t settle. If I see an extra piece of dust I go down on my hands and knees and get it and throw it in the garbage. I don’t let it sit there.”

As for the future, she is hoping to return to Broadway in a musical currently in development about New York hotelier Leona Helmsley called “The Queen of Mean.” She also would love to star in her own TV series based on the elder years of her mother, Lilly, who lived to be 103. 

“She was a very, very funny woman,” says Feldshuh. “She would say, ‘I don’t know how I am going to die. Do you have any suggestions?’”

“Aging is Optional,” starring Tovah Feldshuh will be performed at 8 p.m. Oct 28-29 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 N. Boyle Ave. Tickets are $35-$40 and can be ordered by calling 314-725-4200 or going to gaslightcabaretfestival.org.  

Feldshuh also will sign autographs from 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 29 at The Fantasy Shop, 2125 Zumbehl Road in St. Charles.

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