by Ellis Nassour

    Tovah Feldshuh has made a career playing heroic women: three queens of Henry VIII, a Czech freedom fighter (in a TV mini-series), nine Jews who age from birth to death (in an Off Broadway play), a young Jewish woman masquerading as a man, a Brazilian bombshell fielding two husbands (in a Broadway musical) and such divas as Sarah Bernhardt, fashion doyen Diana Vreeland and Tallulah Bankhead. She's also an acclaimed cabaret/concert attraction and, as she proved playing the hip Jewish mother in last year's Kissing Jessica Stein, is a deft comedienne.

    Now, among her 90-something characterizations, she's just opened on Broadway tackling the many facets of Russian-born, American-bred Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony by William Gibson of Miracle Worker and Two for the Seesaw fame. Prior to the uptown move, it had an extraordinarily successful four-month run at Soho's Manhattan Ensemble Theater.

    [On December 8, Feldshuh and veteran Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks will be honored with Tree of Life Awards by the Jewish National Fund in a star-studded event. For details, see below.]

    Gibson, now 89, had reworked his 1977 Broadway play Golda [starring Anne Bancroft and a cast of 24, directed by Arthur Penn and which had a three-month run] into a pared down monologue. A friend of Feldshuh's saw it at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox and called her. "She told me the play had my name on it," explains Feldshuh, "but my response was ëOi vey! Another old, Jewish woman! Just what I need! That was becoming a career trend for me. I was in my 40s [well, she's a bit older] and going out and auditioning -- trying to convince directors that I'm nearly 60. It's hysterical. But, now, I've really done it. I'm playing a character 25 years my senior!"

    Prior to opening, Feldshuh found a window of opportunity to visit Milwaukee, where she absorbed the world of Golda Mabovitch, as she was known when she immigrated there from Kiev. Prior to the opening on Broadway, she was able to get away to Israel to absorb herself even more in the Meir characterization.

    Feldshuh's performance garnered almost unanimous critical acclaim and, among others, a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. The play also received an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Best Play.

    By show business standards, Golda's Balcony came about very quickly. In February, 2002, Feldshuh and director Scott Schwartz visited Gibson in Stockbridge, MA, in an attempt to secure permission to restructure his restructured play. He was agreeable to some things; not so agreeable to others. "When he was reluctant," reports Feldshuh, "I said, ëThis is going to be such an under-the-radar production in a small Soho theatre, that the stakes are not that great. The worst-case scenario is that the critics will say I was lousy in a great play.'"

    And if you know Feldshuh, she does have persuasive powers. They worked because she and Schwartz got almost everything they wanted. "I kept after him and wore him down," she admits. "He finally said, ëOh, do whatever you want.' I think he just got tired!" [The clincher was that Mr. Gibson would see a late rehearsal and give his approval. He did.]

    Golda's Balcony is a triumphant return to Broadway where she's been absent for 13 years. Feldshuh, a New York native and the sister of playwright David Feldshuh [Miss Evers' Boys], made her Broadway debut in her 20s, going on to star in Yentl, Sarav?! and Lend Me a Tenor, each earning her a Tony nod for Best Actress - and three Drama Desk Awards.

    Her first breaks came as a rock singer and on the little screen, especially in a recurring role on Ryan's Hope. In a 1975 TV movie about Howard Hughes, she portrayed Katherine Hepburn, which no doubt brought her to the attention of the esteemed John Willis, who named her as one of 12 "Promising New Actors of 1977."

    She later won an Emmy nomination for her role as freedom fighter Helena Slomova in the mini-series Holocaust. In addition to numerous film roles, she does frequent TV guest stints, most recently in a recurring role of defense attorney Danielle Melnick on Law & Order.

    A consistent Feldshuh career trend has been one-woman shows. "When you're looking for subjects for interesting one-person vehicles," she says "who's going to sustain that type of scrutiny but a heroic woman? Vreeland, Bankhead and Meir, like many of the women I've portrayed, were groundbreakers. They had heroism. They broke taboos. They were feminist without being a feminist.

    "I've never drawn parallels between Diana Vreeland, Tallulah Bankhead and Golda Meir!," she continues, "but there are parallels. They were women with access to power who demanded respect - or, in Tallulah's case, disrespect. None of ëmy' women made apologies for rubbing people the wrong way. Vreeland set new trends in fashion, Bankhead saw herself as a groundbreaking member of the full life movement and Meir envisioned a state. All were women to be reckoned with."

    Feldshuh's research really educated her on Meir. "In particular, Golda was a woman of remarkable intelligence, voracious appetite and untrampled emotional freedom. She was not your sweet motherly or grandmotherly type. She could be a fierce warrior. A lioness. She had no fears because she was dedicated to a cause greater than herself. The seminal incidents in Golda's life were the pogroms she experienced as a child of a poor family in Russia."

    The actress went all-out to portray the chain-smoking, black coffee-loving Meir. "Golda was a woman who took chances that were extreme. I don't drink much or shoot up. I have a fairly normal life - marriage, kids, no maid. My acting career is an opportunity to explore parameters without living them, but truth is always vital."

    She is extensively made up with body fittings and a prosthetic nose. Since she never smoked, Feldshuh took lessons. She grins, showing her "tobacco stained" teeth. "So far," she adds, "I don't inhale and I'm not hooked. We tried using vegetable cigarettes, but they smelled up the place. It was as if someone was cooking vanilla and marijuana."

    The play is based conversations Gibson had with the P.M. in 1977, a year before her death, and is set during the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict known as the "Yom Kippur War" - when Meir, in a high-stakes game of poker, perhaps, bluffed the U.S. into thinking Israel had a secret weapon - the nuclear capability to drop a bomb on Egypt and Jordan.

    The P.M. was a pretty shrewd character - and, as Feldshuh's interpretation of her take on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proves, pretty good at impressions, too. But her demanding political career had consequences. It destroyed her marriage and family. She also did her share of fiddling, and not on the roof. One very surprising aspect was the number of lovers she had. Oi vey!

    However, as a stateswoman, Meir wasn't exactly loved by everyone. "Friendly with everyone in politics actually doesn't work," states Feldshuh. "Golda always tried to take the higher ground."

    How does Feldshuh balance her acting and concert career with family? "That's easy," she immediately replies. "My husband [Andrew Levy, an attorney and East Coast coordinator for an international real estate firm] and children come first." The couple have been married 27 years and have a son at Harvard and a 15-year-old daughter.

    Feldshuh laughs, "Andy's the most tolerant husband in the world. I love him. He loves me. We get along, but we fight. We have bad days. We have worst days! We have better days. There's a love affair and, after marriage, building a life with someone. I am blessed. I not only married a great man, but a person who took our intelligence gene pool and put it through the stratosphere."

    For more on Tovah Feldshuh, visit www.tovahfeldshuh.com.

    [For her charitable work, Tovah Feldshuh is the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanities Award, Hadassah's Myrtle Wreath, the Israel Peace Medal and the 2002 Jewish Image Award. On December 8, as a co-honoree with Broadway/TV director Jerry Zaks, she will receive the Jewish National Fund Tree of Life Award at a gala at New York's Marriott Marquis Hotel. Lewis J. Stadlen will host. Nathan Lane, Kristin Chenoweth, composer Andrew Lippa and Richard Dreyfuss will be among those to entertain and pay tribute. For information, contact Norma Balass, 212-879-9305 X. 502.]

    Friday, October 24, 2003 at 9:00 AM | Item Link

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

    The last five columns written by Ellis Nassour:

    07/02/2010: Summer in the City: Fireworks on the Hudson Launch a Season with Plenty to Do and See

    06/13/2010: The 64th Annual Tony Awards Celebrating Broadway Achievement

    06/10/2010: Tony Honoree Marian Seldes: Grand Duse of the American Theater

    06/08/2010: Starry, Starry Nights [Hopefully] with the Bard; Broadway by the Year Celebrates 10th Anniversary; Old Flames Reignite [Onstage]; Summer in and Out of the City; Stars Rally for Dancers; Cast CDs and Re-releases; New to DVD

    05/21/2010: Patti LuPone Hosts Sunday's Drama Desk Awards; A Starry, Starry Season; Tovah Feldshuh, Sherman Brothers Honored; Broadway By the Year Season Finale

    For a listing of all features written by Ellis, click here.