If you're going to be a prude during this interview, this is not going to work," drawled Tovah Feldshuh after she'd opened a phone conversation with a particularly raunchy wisecrack. Of course, it wasn't the Tovah we all know from Yentl or recent TV appearances on "Law & Order." She was now in character as Tallulah Bankhead, the grand actress with an even grander public persona.
Tovah stars in Tallulah's Party, a new show about the deliciously bitchy diva, which began previews Mar. 12, at Off-Broadway's Kaufman Theatre and opens there Mar. 19. Tallulah's Party is a revised version of the musical Tallulah, with music by Arthur Siegel and lyrics by Mae Richard, staged back in 1983 at the West Side Arts Center. Helen Gallagher starred, alongside Russell Nype and Joel Craig.
Said Feldshuh of Bankhead, "This is one of the most difficult roles of my career. I've played Sarah Bernhardt, Sophie Tucker, Stella Adler. I've had my fair share of ingenues, but I'm now in my middle years of playing these legends. Tallulah was one of those people who could meet someone and use that connection for life. She was brilliant in this inter-personal skill. Pessimists would call it manipulation, or call her an operator. But she used people and gave them back. Yes, she was up for adventure, and gave her youth to important lovers who helped her. But she kept her eye on the ball of her own fame and fortune. She was fearless, and loved to shock and delight and humor her friends. She was magic."
But magic wasn't enough to save the legendary actress when her career turned from high class to low camp. "In her later years," Feldshuh continued, "she was raped of her reputation. Her persona ate up the artist in her. That's the price she paid. By the time she did a 1956 revival of Streetcar Named Desire, she was laughed off the stage. She had become too prominent, and they wouldn't accept anything but her extraordinary self. What price glory?"
Asked if there was a price to pay for playing such a raucous, foul-mouthed personality, Feldshuh, a wife and mother, admitted to having reservations. "At first I worried because Tallulah drank, did cocaine, lived in the fast lane... My mouth has become fouler on the days I play Tallulah. I'm much less censored in what I say, because there's no room for bourgeoise values when I'm doing her. Even my contact with my family has been much more limited. But my job is to play her, and my 14 year old son can see that, though I'm not bringing my 10-year-old daughter to see the show. Tallulah was generous, well-mannered (she actually saw herself as a Southern Belle), but she had a wild alternate persona that was a groundbreaker. She hit the roaring 20s with a roar. As one writer put it, `She cartwheeled across the stages of London and the audiences went mad.'" Feldshuh notes that the first act of Tallulah's Party shows how Bankhead constructed her persona; act two shows how "she reveled in but suffered from this mask." Bankhead made her Broadway debut in Squab Farm and appeared in such shows as Something Gay, The Little Foxes, Dark Victory and a revival of Private Lives. She was also the subject of a Kathleen Turner solo at the 1997 Chichester Festival this summer. Titled Tallulah!, the piece was penned by Sandra Ryan Heyward.
Feldshuh's previous credits include Sarava! and Off-Broadway's Tovah! Out Of Her Mind. She was nominated for a Tony for Yentl and has sung at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room.
Tallulah's Party was supposed to begin previews Feb. 24 at midtown Manhattan's Homefront Theatre. Instead, the piece postponed a couple of weeks and was to surface at the Soho Playhouse (formerly called the Playhouse on Vandam), opening March 19 after starting previews Mar. 10. (The idea was for Tallulah to run on nights when Grandma Sylvia's Funeral was dark.)
When that fell through, Tallulah's Party chose the Kaufman Theatre, 534 West 42nd St., previews still starting Mar. 10. Rehearsals were technically glitchy, so the Mar. 10 and 11 previews were then turned into invited dress rehearsals. Ultimately, the show did begin previews Mar. 12 and is now scheduled to open Mar. 19.
[Tovah fans should also note that the actress won't be in the show Mar. 20-27 due to a previous concert commitment. Understudy Deborah Tranelli will fill in, with tickets set at a lower rate.]
Asked why the Soho venue didn't happen for Tallulah's Party, spokesperson Brett Singer told Playbill On-Line, "They couldn't give us Friday and Saturday nights, because of Grandma Sylvia's Funeral. Those are the best nights in theatre, so the producer just decided to get another theatre. Originally, we thought about a cabaret venue, because Tallulah could play as a cabaret show, but once they got Tovah, that kind of bumped it up to a theatrical run."
Sources close to the production say the initial Homefront deal fell through because of rent issues between the landlord and the current tenant. The commercial run of Tallulah's Party came to fruition after a backer's reading Oct. 23 in midtown Manhattan. At that reading, Feldshuh was joined only by musical director/arranger Doug Katsaros on piano and Morgan Sills (who isn't in the show). In the new staging, Feldshuh has six ensemble co-stars, and a revised book, by Bob Griffiths, with Latifah Taormina and J.D. Maria. Asked why he wasn't using the original libretto by Tony Lang, producer Richmond Shepard told Playbill On-Line (Oct. 1997), "We wanted a different book, with more emotional depth." Taormina will direct the show, with Jerome Vivona choreographing.
Describing Tallulah, Shepard said, "It's a musical based on the fables and foibles of the fabulous Ms. Bankhead." Shepard also offers a sample of her humor: "Bankhead was a gravel-voiced actress-comedienne, and one day a man walked up to her and said, `Are you ever mistaken for a man?' She answered, `Are you?'."
Tallulah is budgeted at $200,000 and planned as an open run. Songs in the show include "The Right Man Will Ask Me To Dance," "Stay Awhile," and "A Lift."
Designing the show are Kent Hoffman (set and lighting) and Paskale Jutard (costumes), who replaces the previously announced Gail Cooper-Hecht.
For tickets ($45) and information on Tallulah at the Kaufman Theatre call (212) 279-4200.
-- By David Lefkowitz