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.
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.
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