Tovah Feldshuh says she has played many strong, heroic women over the course of her career, but feels she was very lucky to have won the role of Golda Meir, “this Milwaukee-raised little girl who grew up to be the prime minister of Israel.”
She is reprising her performance of Meir in Golda’s Balcony, returning to Toronto starting June 6.
Meir’s and Feldshuh’s lives intersected in 2002. Feldshuh was doing a cabaret at the Tanglewood music festival, when she received a message from a friend that read, “Tovah, they’re doing a one woman play about the prime minister of Israel at The Mount. You’ve got to see it. It’s your part.”
Feldshuh never got to see that production of Golda’s Balcony because it was sold out. However, that autumn she learned that David Fishelson, the producer of the show was going to run it off Broadway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. Her manager called Fishelson to tell him, “I have the woman who should play the prime minister for you.”
Feldshuh got the part. The show was sold out every night during its 16-week run.
Three months after closing off Broadway, Golda’s Balcony opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. It ran for 493 performances making it the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history.
She of course knew Meir’s history but says that placing oneself in that body and seeing through those eyes is an entirely different experience. “It’s one thing to play a Jewish mother and an entirely different thing to play the mother of a Jewish state. Jewish or not Jewish the greater the arc of a life and the transformation that is demanded, the greater the applause. It has nothing to do with me.”
Clearly Feldshuh feels she has been fortunate to portray a person of great substance, who became a major player on the world stage. However, fortune had little to do with rising to the task of bringing this legend to life and revealing her inner experiences at times when her decisions would affect the lives of millions of people.
Feldshuh’s commitment to her craft, to Meir and to her audiences is what draws people to Golda’s Balcony. It’s known that to prepare for the role Feldshuh traveled to places in the United States where Meir lived and worked in order to get a sense of the context of Golda’s experiences.
Born in New York City in the booming 1950s, Feldshuh was raised in Westchester County. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she fell in love with theatre in her teens.
In 1973, she debuted on Broadway, in the musical Cyrano. Since that time, Feldshuh has played numerous roles on Broadway, on television, and in film. She’s been nominated for four Tony awards for Best Actress, and two Emmy awards and has won four Drama Desk awards.
She says that in order to play a role, “An actor has to find a way in that is accurate, excellent and effortless.” In order to be Golda and to advocate for her, Feldshuh strove to discover a key that would allow her to enter the character. What she found was that “Golda’s obsession was to birth the child called Eretz Israel, a land where Jewish people could live in peace.”
Now after playing the role for over 13 years, Feldshuh claims, “the part has marinated in me.” Over the years, she said while she doesn’t see Meir differently, “my body responds to her differently. I’m 13 years closer to the age when she died.”
When the show came to Broadway, Feldshuh had the right to say “yay” or “nay” regarding the choice of director. After considering many possibilities Scott Schwartz’ name came up. It turned out that the young man who was quickly making a name for himself was the son of Stephen Schwartz, the lauded composer and creator of Godspell and Wicked. Feldshuh and the producers of the show met Scott and knew immediately that he was the person to sign on.
Felshuh gives credit to the creators and the design team for keeping the show fresh. She allots special praise to Mark Bennett, the sound designer, who she calls her scene partner because he created the 300 sound cues that she responds to during performances.
Ultimately, it is the audience that Feldshuh plays for and with. She says that before each performance she reminds herself that, “This is the only show I will be doing on this date. This is somebody’s first play; this is somebody’s last play.”
And what does this play have to say to contemporary audiences? Feldshuh pauses for a moment and then says, “It is a warning about refraining from rash behaviour especially when considering deploying weapons of mass destruction.”
Golda’s Balcony, presented by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, runs from June 6-19 at the Greenwin Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts. The June 6 premiere is a special sold-out performance for Magen David Adom for Israel.