Given that Tovah Feldshuh made her Broadway debut almost fifty years ago, it would be understandable if she chose to retreat now into a comfortable life, traveling with her charming husband and enjoying her children and grandchildren. She could revel in a career that has included six Tony and Emmy award nominations, several Drama Desk awards, and an easy level of fame. But Tovah had other plans. She spent the last year appearing in four movies, walking the red carpet at Cannes, touring with her own cabaret show, and shooting a new TV series for Amazon. Then came the crowning moment last month when she was announced as one of the new stars in the Broadway production of Funny Girl.
I care about people of any age seeing me and thinking about what they can do for themselves.
“One thing that happens at this stage of life is you do not want to waste your time,” Tovah says.
In the few years that I’ve known her, I’ve always been impressed with Tovah‘s incredible work ethic and her ability to mix intensity with humor. Shortly before her Funny Girl premiere, set for September 6, we met at a rehearsal studio near Broadway where she was working with a choreographer on a new tap dance routine. She had asked for tap to be added to one of her numbers in the production—and why not? She’s been hoofing since she was a kid in college and gets enlivened by daring to challenge herself on stage. Appearing on Broadway in Pippin a few years ago, she sang a song that includes the line “oh, it’s time to start living” while hanging from a trapeze.
“I care about people of any age seeing me and thinking about what they can do for themselves,” she says. “Everything is about inspiring hope.”
Her Own Funny Girl and Streisand’s Friendship
The original production of Funny Girl in 1964 starred Barbra Streisand, and nobody dared bring it to Broadway again until this past April when the revival opened with actress Beanie Feldstein in the starring role. After mixed reviews and disappointing box-office, the producers announced the big cast changes—with Lea Michele (of TV show Glee fame) as Fanny Brice and Tovah as her mother, Rose.
She still has Streisand’s curtains hanging in her apartment.
Tovah considers Streisand a “fond acquaintance.” They first met when Tovah played Yentl on Broadway, the role that Streisand played in the movie. Tovah loves to tell the story of Streisand calling her one day to say that she was cleaning out her apartment and would Tovah like some of her “chazerai”? (Yiddish for junk.)
“I said, ‘Barbra, I’m on my way over with a truck,’” Tovah jokes. She still has Streisand’s curtains hanging in her apartment.
Streisand made another call to Tovah that was even more meaningful (though resulted in fewer material benefits). In the movie Kissing Jessica Stein, Tovah played the mom of a young woman having her first lesbian relationship. One of the highlights of the movie is a scene where Tovah shows her acceptance of her daughter’s fluid choices with a touching story. Tovah cherishes the voice message Streisand left saying how much she appreciated the work. At one Funny Girl rehearsal, I noticed Tovah wearing a “Kissing Jessica Stein” T-shirt—maybe as a quiet statement to cast and crew that she embraced everyone’s choices.
Tovah has two grown-children of her own and on screen has been the mother of an impressive list of younger stars. She’s Anne Hathaway’s mom in the new movie Armageddon Time and Oscar Isaac’s parent in HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage. In the popular TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she played the classic Jewish mother to Rachel Bloom, but resisting all stereotypes, she opened the front door in one famous episode to her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend dressed only in her underwear. The three had a spirited conversation, then Tovah walked away and with her back to the camera, took off her bra and swung it in the air like a stripper.
If at this age you think you’re the center of the universe, you’re a mess.
“I have a sense of humor about myself,” she says. “It’s like when I’m walking around our apartment naked, and my husband worries because we have big windows over the park. I’ll say, ‘Who’s interested?’ If at this age you think you’re the center of the universe, you’re a mess.”
Tovah stays fit by swimming a mile a day and she was a runner until her knees began protesting. Ever since her kids were small, she could be seen bicycling all over New York City. When we had dinner one night, she arrived a few minutes late, pedaling up to the outdoor restaurant table on a pared-down bike. She removed her helmet, wiped her sweaty face, and locked the bike to a nearby pole. After dinner, we went to theater, and at 11 pm she unlocked the bike and took off again.
The Formidable Sparrow
She likes being fit, and at barely five feet tall, she refers to herself as a sparrow. “I’ve learned that in the current lingo, I’m not supposed to say I love doing musicals because it keeps me thin,” she says. “I’m supposed to say that being in a musical comedy is like being paid to stay healthy.”
Tovah is replacing actress Jane Lynch who is almost a foot taller. To accommodate the changed role, Tovah notes that “a lot of the staging had to be completely retooled. At the poker table, I have to sit on a pillow, and in any production number, they can’t put me in the second row or I’m gone, I absolutely disappear. It’s a riot.”
Working distracts me from the existential abyss we all face in this third act of life.
Thrilled as she is to be in a big-budget musical, appearing eight times a week at a gorgeous Broadway theater that seats 1,200 people, Tovah has also performed in indie movies, small cabarets, and even local synagogues.
“I like to be working,” she says. “I think of it as my higher purpose and it distracts me from the existential abyss we all face in this third act of life.”
Instead of complaining about fewer roles being available as she got older, she took control of her own career. Her performance as Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony got rave reviews and earned her a Tony nomination. It was also the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history. But after it closed in 2005, Tovah wasn’t done.
She created a new cabaret shows called “Aging is Optional.”
“I acquired the rights and did it all over the place—Montreal, Toronto, San Diego, London. We got it down to a suitcase version where I could go to whomever wanted to hire me. It was a marvelous experience.” She kept playing the role until shortly before the pandemic.
In another example of making things happen for herself, she created a new cabaret shows called “Aging is Optional” and performs it regularly. She also wrote a delightful memoir called Lilyville: Mother, Daughter, and Other Roles I’ve Played that focuses on her relationship with her mother, and she appears at book festivals to promote it. “I like to commit,” she says. “I think if I were a rug maker, I’d be a very good rug maker because I would commit to each stitch.”
Her commitment can be awesome and may explain (at least in part) why producers continue to call. For the first six months that Golda’s Balcony was on Broadway, Tovah would get to the theater at 5 pm and run through the entire performance—the entire performance—on an empty stage almost every night. When she performed a one-woman show about sex-therapist Dr. Ruth recently at a small theater, she did the same process of a full run-through before the show.
“I go until I’m solid,” she says. “I can’t stand not being at the top of my game. I work it until I get there. The people in the audience every night will be there once. They deserve to see you at your best.”
To Kilimanjaro and Beyond
In the spirit of fighting mortality and the existential abyss, Tovah admits that “the one thing I love as much as acting—and to some extent more—is adventure travel.” She climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with her son Brandon, which she describes is as “a life-changing experience that I hope never to experience again.” She has tracked gorillas in Africa and traveled to Antarctica and she still wants to see the sand dunes of Ethiopia.
You have one body and you should use it to experience everything you can.
“You have one body and you should use it to experience everything you can,” she says. “Forget your age. Anything is possible.”
Her husband Andy doesn’t often accompany Tovah on her wild excursions, preferring to return with her to beloved cities like Paris, but he supports her crazy trips and her endless work. They remain fiercely devoted to each other, and Tovah admits that despite all she does, she cares deeply about family and marriage. When her own daughter got married, Tovah told her that marriage can be challenging. “Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it isn’t but if you want a successful marriage, you stay in it. You don’t leave the field of play.”
Tovah can’t do every move on stage that she used to, and she loves watching the younger stars who she says “can still jump off the top of a piano.” But she spends most of her time looking at her possibilities rather than her limits, and the producers of Funny Girl are betting that she can still soar high enough.