Respected singing actress Tovah Feldshuh faced a Herculean task this past summer, succeeding Andrea Martin in her Tony-winning role of Berthe in the Tony-winning revival of Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's Pippin at the Music Box Theatre. Feldshuh, however, is no stranger to demanding roles — she played a record-breaking Broadway run as Golda Meir in William Gibson's one-woman tour de force Golda's Balcony — and she was remarkably undaunted by the challenge that lay ahead. In fact, the acclaimed actress, whose Broadway resume boasts Tony-nominated performances in Yentl, Sarava, Lend Me a Tenor and the aforementioned Balcony, knew from the moment she saw the opening night of this critically acclaimed revival of Pippin that the role of the effervescent, lesson-teaching grandmother Berthe, including its acrobatic requirements, were well within her reach. I recently had the chance to catch up with the gifted artist, who spoke about her high-flying return to Broadway as well as one of her dream roles; that interview follows.
Question: Last time we spoke, you were starring in Hello, Dolly! at Paper Mill Playhouse and mentioned you wanted to come back to Broadway in a musical.
Tovah Feldshuh: Yes, I wanted to co-star in a musical, but this is just fine. This is even better!
Question: How did the role in Pippin come about?
Feldshuh: I was at opening night as a guest of the Weisslers, and I sat in the third row center orchestra, and I was so stunned by the piece, and by how well it had been reconceived by Diane Paulus, and so moved by it. First of all, I congratulated the Weisslers at the theatre and said, “I don’t care what the notices say. You have the biggest hit of the season, and I want you to know that I cheer you for bringing this to Broadway.” I then left a message on their home phone just thanking them for this piece of work and for their constant work in the New York theatre. There are two questions you never have to ask with a hit under the Weissler banner. One is, “Are we selling tickets?” And [two is], “Are we going to run?” With Pippin it doesn’t even come up because it was a great idea to begin with, what Diane Paulus did, and the execution of the idea I think is utterly remarkable throughout the piece. Between Patina [Miller] and Matthew [James Thomas] and Rachel [Bay Jones] and Charlotte [D’Amboise] and [Terry Mann], and the extraordinary circus artists, they’re real artists, and, of course, our dancers and singers, and hopefully my role as well, there isn’t a dull moment. It’s a new idea.
Talent is the ability to hit a target nobody else can hit. Genius is the ability to hit a target nobody else can see. So, I know I’m diverting, but my take on this is that Pippin poses the question, “What is an extraordinary life?” Is it doing what that genius Philip Rosenberg did eight times a week, which is put himself on a pole and go out sideways at a 90-degree angle with his entire body? Or is an extraordinary life doing a flip through the air through a hoop at least six, seven, eight feet in the air, or is it loving another human being and not the perfect ideal, a woman who’s older than you, a woman who has a child, a woman who’s a widow, a woman with responsibilities, loving what the bible would call "the broken vessel of the human being" and loving it anyway. So that’s what the play examines, and Diane, without compromise, uses the skill of the entire company to tell this story. So the circus performer isn’t saying, “Look at me, look at me. I’m so fabulous, look at all my Hula Hoops.” The circus performer is saying, “This is what my body is going to clarify for you about war. This is what my body is going to clarify for you about sex and passion.” And, Stephen Schwartz, the idea he wrote this at 23 or 24 years old, is unbelievable. It’s just unbelievable the wisdom that coursed through his perception at such a young age. I find it astonishing. Anyway, I called and left a message and thanked them for having me as a guest, and at the opening-night party, I said to Barry [Weissler] one sentence: “You’ll probably never need me, but you know what Andrea Martin does? I can do that.” And, that’s all I said. I didn’t say it in order to take anything from anybody. I’m, of course, a great admirer of Andrea’s and deeply indebted to what she and Diane divined in the architecture of this role. And, I’m deeply indebted to Diane because she lets me do what I want. I’m in no way a clone of the prior, wonderful artist who originated the role.
Question: How did you know that you could tackle the acrobatic aspect of the role?
Feldshuh: You know, the truth is I don’t know how I knew. It wasn’t like I was trying to push through a door in any way. I just was making an observation: “You know what she does, I can do that.” I think I’m extremely athletic. I probably had just gotten home from climbing...I climbed a mountain that was higher than Machu Picchu to look down on that ruin in Peru. What an extraordinary trip! I just said that one sentence, and then two months later - it opened April 25, and by June 25 I got a call from Barry Weissler saying,“What are you doing in August?” And I said, “I don’t know, what am I doing in August?” And he said, “Would you come in and play on the trapeze for us?” And, basically, I think they rightfully and diligently and wisely wanted to see if the trapeze could be a part of my world.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Question: What was that like working on a trapeze for the first time?
Feldshuh: Well, I had a swing set as a little girl in Scarsdale, and we still have it. My mother is going to be 103. We have an acre of land, and in those years people didn’t build pools and tennis courts in their back lawn, you just had big back lawns. And, my mother would say, “Go out” – My birth name is Terry Sue - “Go out Terry Sue and look at the sky.” And I’d lie down and look at the sky, but I had my swing set. And it had two swings and then a metal bar on chains, which would be a little trapeze. And then that pedal pusher thing, where you have two people that push each other higher and higher…You get on with your best friend and go higher and higher. You could do it alone as well. And, I used to, alone, do everything, get on one swing and fly up alone…So going up on the trapeze was going back to my earliest memories in Scarsdale, where my father had promised my mother a big house on a hill, and he built that house for her, and we moved in because I was born. Going up on the trapeze was like being three or four years old and discovering a new place in the universe to hang out.
They were very concerned, and they kept saying, “Are you scared?” and I said, “No, I’m not scared.” I was astonished. Again, I was just observing, I wasn’t protesting. I want to make very, very clear because I not only love Andrea Martin, I love great talent, and there’s always room at the top for everybody. When I said, “You know what Andrea Martin’s doing, I can do that,” it was merely an observation. I actually did say, “You’ll probably never need me,” because I thought she’d stay in it forever. So, she wanted to take a vacation, and I was trained to replace her for 12 shows, and I was trained very, very quickly. I was on the trapeze, and I remember the audition was designed to be a possible 90-minute session, and it was 24 minutes. I got on the trapeze, they asked me to show them this and that on the mat. I got down off the trapeze and thanked them, and then I biked home. And, I was walking my bike up 45th and 8th to go back where I live, and Barry came bounding down the street with his script in his hand, and said, “Where are you going?” He handed me the full script and basically said, “We want you,” and I said like any good child and wife of a lawyer, “I hope it works out.” And, I got on my bike and rode back home. I remember my sweet agent said, “You’re riding your bike to an audition?” And I said, “I’m an athlete, and I may not do trapeze, but let the last thing I do before I enter that Music Box Theatre be something that has some rigor.”
Question: What was the rehearsal process like, joining a show that’s already in progress?
Feldshuh: I’ve never done it in my entire career. The first thing is I was replacing, which is very different than understudying or standing by. I’ve never done any of that, nor will I. I did it at the Guthrie the first year of my career, and I’ll never do it again. I understudied all the size seven girls for two years, two seasons, 18 months, and never went on. Some leading ladies were nice, and some leading ladies were not nice. I think when you come from love, which we really are obligated to do in this ever-growing microcosm in this shtetl we live in called planet earth. When you come from love, you behave one way. When you come from fear, you behave in another way, so when you have a little understudy and you’re afraid of being replaced in the first place, it doesn’t matter who’s your understudy, you’re a creep to them… I found it very distasteful. Anybody who understudies me has a privilege because I love and take care of my understudies. I take them out. I give them my secrets. I don’t begrudge them what they need to do, not only to do their job but to give me a day off! [Laughs.]
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
So I got the job offer in June. They wanted me to go on July 22, and it was very clear by July 4 that it would have been dangerous to go on July 22. Andrea decided to take her vacation toward the middle of August, which worked out well. … She would take off a weekend, then come back for a week, then take off a week. So I got the job, and I immediately asked to come in immediately before contracts were signed. We had a gentlemen’s agreement. I came in with my iPhone and my iPad, and I was allowed to be with the trainers on my own ticket, no salary here, and I asked them what did I need to develop. I knew I’d only be brought in the last three weeks, and during the last three weeks, I’d only be brought in 10-12 minutes on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for the trapeze. It was extremely fast. So I basically had ten small sessions to learn what I was doing. So like any person who wants to do their best, I said, “What do you need me to do?” And they said, “Do this exercise, do that exercise, hang upside down, take Pilates, strengthen your core,” and I did everything Philip Rosenberg told me to do every day. Then they showed me the routine, and I was allowed to watch Andrea once, so I watched her and studied that and then I had them film me with all my mistakes, and I studied that, and I just started to mentally and physically prepare. Question: What was it like the first time you went on?
Feldshuh: Well, what’s so brilliant about the part is that she hasn’t performed it in at least two decades. So we actually had that real circumstance because I never performed it. So we had these rehearsals, and I watched every show, 24 shows from the time formal rehearsals started. And I watched shows even before that. And, sure enough, I go on, and we had a spectacular weekend, and it was Aug. 12, and I’m not hired the following week. I go to the stage management, and I say, “This isn’t right. They need to work out an arrangement. I need to be salaried, and I need to keep coming in. You do not want me to have ten days without training.” And the Weisslers were very cooperative. They were very good… But it was worth their while. I’m very, very diligent. I came every day, and sure enough, four days before I’m supposed to come on, it was a Saturday matinee, and the stage manager comes up to me and says, “[Andrea’s] back has gone out. Can you go on?” And I said, “Whatever is good for you, is good for me. Whatever the team wants, I’m there.” And I was prepared…I wanted to do it well so very badly. I really wanted to do it well. I didn’t want the show to suffer in any way because I was the first replacement. I didn’t want anything to sag. I really understood my obligation of being flanked by talent of that magnitude and by a director who was so often the smartest person in the room.
|Photo by Aaron Epstein|
Question: How did you go about approaching the song, "No Time at All"?
Feldshuh: From the inside out. That this 23, 24-year-old Stephen Schwartz, this young man wrote, “Here is a secret I never have told. Maybe you will understand why. I believe that if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die.” And, it kills me because as I leave my fifties, I see the door of the first two-thirds of my life in the past and the door opening to the last third. My mother is past 100. I hope that’s in store for me. But either you climb Mount Kilimanjaro now, or you won’t be able to next year, and I actually am going to climb it next year after I leave Pippin! I’m an adventure traveler; that’s my big hobby. I earn my living, and I spend that money on buying experience. I’d rather buy an experience than a dress any day. So I judge a lot of my trips by altitude.… I’m healthy, no health considerations, I can deal with the altitude. There will come a time very soon where you can’t go fooling with altitude. So I dealt with the song from the inside out and dedicated my entire performance to my mother Lillian, who’s hilarious. She says, “I don’t know how I’m gonna die, got a suggestion?”…I take her to dinner between shows every Wednesday. And, I had a great deal of offered help if I needed it [from] Charlie Alterman, the conductor, who’s magnificent, and Nancy Herrington, the assistant director to Diane, who was with me every minute. I did exactly what the cast did. I wrote a backstory and performed it for the company. I was really lucky. There were certain synchronicities that were very fortunate in my favor, and the first big one, and it’s very big, was that I was the first replacement, so I have all the first company.
Question: What is it like for you now that you’re comfortable performing this show?
Feldshuh: It’s the thrill of my life. Doing that trapeze act is the thrill of my life. I’m still not frightened, I’m very excited. And when the principal catcher Yannick left, so brilliant he is that when Andrea Martin gave her speech at the Tony’s she thanked him. She said, “It’s not me, it’s all Yannick.” He had the hands of a God because he could balance us even if we made a mistake, he could compensate for our lack of knowledge. But now I have a new catcher. His name is Preston, and he’s marvelous, and I know my stuff. I work with him and his understudy Ken, a beautiful man, who came two weeks ago. And I train every day. You don’t have to train on two-show days, but I requested to do it. I said, "Get me the understudy. I’ll do it with him so that if anything happens, if any injuries happen, we are prepared." And, it’s the thrill of my life! I went out there the first time shot out of a cannon. You have one put-in rehearsal…It was that Friday, and I went on Friday night. So you better do your homework outside of your rehearsal hours.
Question: What do you think is the message of the show?
Feldshuh: I think the show poses the question, “What makes an extraordinary life?” What do you feel defines that factor? Is it pyrotechnics of glory and medals and renown and fame, or is it the depth of profoundly loving someone else and standing by them your whole life, no matter how much you know about them? Every human being is complicated, and every human being has his pockmarks. Love is standing by someone with their pockmarks, with the belly and the graying hair, and more than that the annoying habits that are quotidian. I’m in a 37-year relationship, so when I do something in the house that my husband would prefer I not do, we’re talking 37 years of that and vice versa. And things change. When I married Andy, he had a lot of allergies, and as he grew older he sneezes much less, hardly at all. He’s now a vegan, I mean a pescetarian, and maybe that’s where the allergies were hidden. I much admire I have a partner, like myself, who wants to live, and we want to live vividly but very differently…
Question: How do you follow performing on a trapeze on stage? What’s next for you?
Feldshuh: I don’t know. I know that on Jan. 22 I will be performing Golda’s Balcony for seven performances in an 1,100-seat theatre in the South. I’m contracted to go to the Parker Playhouse for seven performances - that will immediately follow Pippin. But I can tell you this, may I only accept roles that I love as much as Berthe, because as the door does not widen on the expanse of time that you’re going to be in this body, in this lifetime, I want to do what I love to do. Even Diane is known for wanting to be with people she likes and is comfortable with. And, she’s younger than I, but she touches that sense of “My God, life is short enough, why should we hassle with people who are not good team players?” And, I think the company of Pippin is a fine group of human beings under tremendously demanding circumstances.
What would I like to do next? I’d like to play a regent, a monarch, on Broadway, in whatever form it visits me. [Maybe] Victoria Regina or just some great role of stature and elegance. Or, of course, I’ve always wanted to do Woman of The Year. Get me with the right guy and the right chemistry, and let’s go! I played Hepburn twice. I’m a great admirer of hers. “I’m one of the girls, who’s one of the boys.” It resonates for me. I wouldn’t mind doing that next if it came my way. [Visit PippinTheMusical.com.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.