DIVA TALK: Chatting with Dolly!'s Tovah Feldshuh, "Barbara Cook at the Met" and Tonys 2006

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Dolly!'s Tovah Feldshuh, "Barbara Cook at the Met" and Tonys 2006
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tovah Feldshuh in Hello, Dolly!.
Tovah Feldshuh in Hello, Dolly!. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

TOVAH FELDSHUH

After a lengthy Off-Broadway and Broadway run playing the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir — a role that won the celebrated actress a Drama Desk Award, a Lucille Lortel Award and a Tony nomination — Tovah Feldshuh has taken a musical turn to New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, where she recently began performances as that lovable matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! Best known for her intensely dramatic work on stage and on screen (she garnered Emmy nominations for her performances in the 1978 "Holocaust" miniseries and a guest stint on NBC's "Law & Order"), Feldshuh is no stranger to the musical theatre. In fact, she appeared on Broadway in the 1975 revue Rodgers & Hart as well as in the original musical Saravà, which earned the actress her second of four Tony nominations. Feldshuh has also performed her acclaimed solo show, Tovah: Out of Her Mind!, throughout the world, a production the Boston Globe named as the best one-person show of 2000. Prior to beginning rehearsals for Dolly!, the intelligent singing actress spoke with me about her newest role, her work as Golda and her desire to return to the New York stage in a big Broadway musical. That interview follows.

Question: Is Dolly a role that you had wanted to play?
Tovah Feldshuh: I really was hankering to do a musical, and I mentioned it to my agent. I brought up Hello, Dolly! because Jimmy Nederlander and I had been talking about doing another play together. At one point he said, "I also have the rights to Hello, Dolly!" I said, "You don't have to ask me about that twice!" I wasn't sure whether I wanted to take the play he was talking to me about on the heels of Golda's Balcony — because it was another one-woman play — but I was absolutely certain I wanted to do Hello, Dolly! I happened to mention this to my agent. My agent called back the next day and said, "They're doing a production at Paper Mill. Would you like to do the title role?" I said, "Take it, take it, take it!"

Q: Have you ever played the role before?
Feldshuh: I never have. I've never played the part before, and I also have been dying to star in a Broadway musical, and what better musical to do? It's Gypsy, Dolly!, Mame. There are a few that are phenomenal, and this is one of them.

Q: For people who might only know you from Golda's Balcony, talk about your musical background and some of the other musicals you've done.
Feldshuh: I've done Peter Pan with George Rose. I did Maria von Trapp [in The Sound of Music] in Milwaukee. I starred in Saravà on Broadway, Rodgers & Hart for Mr. Rodgers on Broadway. Was offered Rex and turned it down to do Yentl and was offered the standby for Mack and Mabel when I was 22 years old. Q: When did you start singing?
Feldshuh: I started singing at National Music Camp when I didn't win piano concertos. I would get to the finals and could not win that contest. I said, "This does not bode well," so I tried out for plays with music, and I was cast when I was a little kid. I was 13 years old [when I was cast] as Little Mary Sunshine in Little Mary Sunshine. I said, "This bodes well."

Q: Were there singers that you particularly admired?
Feldshuh: Everybody admires Barbra Streisand, of course, it's hard not to. I heard [Ethel] Merman as a child. I heard her in her City Center version of Annie Get Your Gun. I saw Pearl Bailey. She was unbelievable as Dolly, and if I remember correctly, I also saw Carol [Channing] as Dolly. Carol Channing and I have a wonderful thing in common — Barbra Streisand did both of our emblematic roles in the movies. Barbra Streisand did "Yentl" and "Dolly."

Q: Tell me some of your thoughts about the character of Dolly Levi.
Feldshuh: I've been investigating the script heavily and the play that it's based on. . . . The most innovative thought, perhaps, vis-à-vis prior productions is that if you read the text it says, "That's right. Mrs. Dolly Levi, born Gallagher. Social introductions. . . ." And, my notion is that Dolly Levi survived the potato famine barely in Connemara, Ireland . . . and as a ten or eleven-year-old kid got out of Ireland to not starve on New York's Lower East Side with her parents and her 12 siblings. . . . I believe she's an American immigrant, and this whole piece is written in the nineteenth century when immigration was at its height. [I believe] that she lived on the Lower East Side in the Melting Pot with other immigrants from all over the world, and she met this Jewish man, Ephraim Levi, and that's who she married for 17, 18 years, and then he died, an untimely death. So, by 36, she was a widow, and by [the time she is] 46-48, the play begins. . . .

Q: Have you been going through the score?
Feldshuh: I very much have, and I'm very honored that Mr. Herman has given me a song to sing that has only been sung by Ethel Merman, "Love Look in My Window."

Q: Is Jerry Herman going to be involved with the production?
Feldshuh: I hope so. He plans to come to rehearsal, and he plans to come to see the play. I don't know how intimately involved he's going to be, but he certainly wants to participate and to welcome this company.

Q: You received such acclaim for Golda's Balcony. I was wondering how you look back at that period now.
Feldshuh: I think it was the apex of my career, the best role of my entire career, the most difficult — and when I finished it, I turned to my agents and said, "Look, I want to come back in a musical." And, I do want to come back in a musical, and I hope that I will hit the boards of my hometown, which is Manhattan, in a musical. And, there's no better place to start than at the Paper Mill, and hopefully Dolly! or the likes of it will have legs.

Q: Tell me a little about your decision not to tour with Golda's Balcony. Did you debate whether or not to tour?
Feldshuh: I didn't, but I learned a lot by that decision. I learned that I needed to be stronger with my producers and convince them to do a concert version of the piece, and for me to go two weeks out, two weeks home, two weeks out, two weeks home. I couldn't go out on a national tour because I have a child at home. Frankly, I'm not going to leave [my husband] Andy for ten months. I'm not going to leave a marriage of 30 years and go ten months on the road. My husband isn't my manager. He's an attorney — he's got the big career after all. I do not choose to leave somebody I love so much for ten months — I'd have to be mad. However, I should have prevailed upon my producers to strike a compromise because not doing Golda's Balcony at all, I missed it. I'm sure Valerie [Harper] must have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Q: Would you be interested in revisiting the role at some point?
Feldshuh: Very much. I'd like very much to do it again. I'd like to do it abroad, and I'd like to do it in cities that are dear to my heart, like San Diego, where it hasn't been done. I'm one of the artists in residence for the Old Globe. I would love to explore doing it there and wherever else Valerie has not done it. And, incidentally, I'm extremely fond of Valerie Harper. I find her a wonderful person and a wonderful artist, a very diligent artist, and I have the utmost respect for her.

Q: You've worked in every medium — in TV, film, theatre and cabaret. Is there one that's closest to your heart or most fulfilling to you?
Feldshuh: Let me put it to you this way. When I left classical piano because I was definitely on the second rung, I fell into musical theatre and had great early success as a child. Then, even in my early years in New York, I was in the chorus of Cyrano. I immediately [was asked to] standby for Mabel in Mack and Mabel and [was given] the lead in Brainchild, something that never came in with Michel Legrand and Hal David writing the lyrics. And, I was in the ensemble cast of Rodgers & Hart where I sang "My Romance" and several things for Mr. Rodgers. He then offered me Rex. I then starred in Saravà. I was offered Where's Charley? to play Amy opposite Raul Julia.

So the people who are kind enough to see my work over these 30 years on and Off-Broadway, they might not be aware that I sing, but, in fact, in the seventies when my career was launched, I was offered a lot of singing parts and loved to sing, and sang on "The Merv Griffin Show" and sang on "The Mike Douglas Show," and then my career took another turn. I did "Holocaust," and the Jewish stuff started coming down the pike, and Yentl was a serious piece, and I was starring in San Diego in the Shakespeare Festival and in Stratford. Though I created music in my life by doing my one-woman shows, I haven't been invited to head an American musical in quite a few years. . . But to have the title role in a big Herman musical at the Paper Mill is like a dream fulfillment, and it's like a return to my early days.

Q: Last question. When people hear the name Tovah Feldshuh, what would you like them to think?
Feldshuh: When people hear my name, I would like them to think that this is an actress who took people first, excellence second and from there came her opportunities.

[Hello, Dolly! will play the Paper Mill Playhouse — located on Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ — through July 23. Tickets, priced $19-$68, are available by calling (973) 376-4343 or by visiting www.papermill.org.]

FOR THE RECORD: "Barbara Cook at The Met"

On Jan. 20 Barbara Cook made history when the Tony-winning singer-actress became the first female non-classical singer to be presented by The Metropolitan Opera. That sold-out performance, which was recorded live, has just been released on CD by DRG Records.

At 78 Cook's voice remains in astoundingly fine form, her lovely soprano a perfect fit for some of the greatest musical theatre tunes. Although Cook has previously recorded most of the disc's 22 tracks, "Barbara Cook at The Met" is a recording Cook fans will want to add to their library because her interpretations only continue to grow in dramatic depth. Just listen to the emotion that fills "In Buddy's Eyes," the Stephen Sondheim tune Cook first performed two decades earlier in a star-studded version of Follies. Cook also scores with several other Sondheim songs: wonderful pairings of "Another Hundred People and "So Many People" and "Not a Day Goes By" and "Losing My Mind." Other highlights include a triumphant version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Wonderful Guy" and two newer works: John Bucchino's haunting "Sweet Dreams" and the touching Amanda McBroom ballad "Errol Flynn." Cook also has some fun with "Them There Eyes," swings with "Nashville Nightingale" and moves the listener with South Pacific's "This Nearly Was Mine."

The new CD, which boasts several photos from the Met concert as well as a note from the singer herself, also features tracks from Cook's two guest artists that evening, four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and the young, world-renowned singer Josh Groban. McDonald soars on Bock and Harnick's "When Did I Fall in Love?" and then joins Cook for a thrilling duet of "Blue Skies." Groban lends his lush baritone to Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" and also has the chance to duet with Cook on the Sunday in the Park with George anthem "Move On."

Cook’s simple, direct delivery of her encore, an unamplified "We'll Be Together Again," is completely touching.

TONYS 2006 Well, it's that time of the year again! The Broadway theatre's biggest night is upon us. On June 11, the 2006 Tony Awards will be presented at Radio City Music Hall with CBS-TV broadcasting the three-hour event live from 8-11 PM ET. All of the nominated musicals and musical revivals will get the chance to strut their stuff, including The Color Purple (a medley of "Hell No!" and the title tune), The Drowsy Chaperone ("Show Off"), Jersey Boys (a medley of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "Who Loves You"), The Wedding Singer ("It's Your Wedding Day"), The Pajama Game (a medley of "There Once Was a Man" and "Hernando's Hideaway"), Sweeney Todd (a medley of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "The Worst Pies in London" and "My Friends") and The Threepenny Opera ("The Ballad of the Pimp," which features a tango between Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper).

Nominees in the Leading Actress in a Musical Category include Sutton Foster in The Drowsy Chaperone, LaChanze in The Color Purple, Patti LuPone in Sweeney Todd, Kelli O'Hara in The Pajama Game and Chita Rivera in Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life. The Featured Actress in a Musical nominees are Carolee Carmello in Lestat, Felicia P. Fields in The Color Purple, Megan Lawrence in The Pajama Game, Beth Leavel in The Drowsy Chaperone and Elisabeth Withers-Mendes in The Color Purple.

Last year's winners in the Leading and Featured Actress in a Musical categories were, respectively, Victoria Clark and Sara Ramirez. In her acceptance speech, Ramirez — who won for her purposefully over-the-top performance as the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python's Spamalot — jokingly thanked "Claritin and all of my doctors" as well as her cast and her family and made special mention of Spamalot director Mike Nichols: "Mike Nichols, thank you. Thank you for this opportunity of a lifetime. You've changed my life completely, and you've given someone the time of their life, and so I just want to thank you for that."

While accepting the award for her beautiful performance as Margaret Johnson in The Light in the Piazza — a role she is still playing — Broadway favorite Victoria Clark said she wouldn't be "standing here without my amazing family, my steadfast friends, my teacher . . . and this role, which has to be one of the greatest written for the stage, musical or otherwise. I'm a very, very lucky actor." Clark also thanked the show's cast, creators and producers and joked, "Thank you so much for not offering this role to Glenn Close or Cher." Clark touchingly concluded her speech with this thank you: "And, finally, to my acting coach on this project, my ten-year-old son Thomas Luke. I love you: You are my light in the piazza. Thank you."

If three hours of Broadway aren't enough this Sunday, there are a few other Tony-related programs also set for June 11. "Breakfast with the Arts" (A&E, 8-10 AM) will "celebrate the stars, writers, directors, composers and choreographers who made this a year to remember on Broadway." Segments will focus on The Pajama Game's Michael McKean; the history behind Jersey Boys; Sweeney Todd nominees Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris; the road from screen to stage for The Color Purple; and History Boys playwright Alan Bennett. The two-hour program will also feature a look at what is now the longest-running show in Broadway history, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, and four top theatre critics will offer a recap of the 2005-2006 theatrical season. . . . WCBS-TV (Channel 2) in New York will present a one-hour tribute to the Tony Awards. The June 11 television program, simply titled "CBS 2 at the Tonys" will air in the metropolitan area from 5-6 PM ET. Dana Tyler will host the special, which will feature segments about many of the Tony-nominated performers and shows, including chats with LuPone, Rivera, Lynn Redgrave, Phil Collins, Frank Valli, Julianna Marguiles, Amanda Peet, Ali McGraw, Jonathan Pryce, Cynthia Nixon and Tony Roberts. . . . And, Roma Torre, Donna Karger and Patrick Pacheco will co-host NY1's 90-minute pre-Tony special, airing 6:30-8 PM ET. In addition to live interviews with many of this year’s Tony nominees, a special segment about finding just the right outfit to wear to the ceremony will spotlight nominees Sutton Foster and LaChanze.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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