Broadway comes to Tucson on Thursday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m., when six-time Tony and Emmy-nominated actor Tovah Feldshuh takes the stage at Congregation Anshei Israel for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s free event, Together: A Night of Song, presenting her acclaimed show, “Tovah: Out of Her Mind!” with musical director James Bassi.
“The event is a thank you, but I hope to empower everyone to celebrate themselves however they can by giving back to the Federation,” says Feldshuh.
With a career spanning 40 decades, Feldshuh’s acting credits range from Broadway and Shakespeare to dozens of movies and TV shows, including “Kissing Jessica Stein,” “A Walk on the Moon,” “Law and Order,” “The Walking Dead,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and now “Salvation” for CBS, where she’ll play the president of the United States, Pauline Mackenzie.
Certain roles hold special meaning for her — especially Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, in “Golda’s Balcony,” which set a record as the longest-running one-woman play in Broadway history, and earned Feldshuh her fourth Tony nomination as Best Actress.
Acting in “Holocaust,” the 1978 TV miniseries, “was a real break for me, because it went global,” says Feldshuh. The content devastated many non-Jewish cast members, she says. “Everybody else was sitting there weeping because they couldn’t believe it; but any Jewish kid born in the ’50s was brought up with the specter of the Holocaust. My family came to America from England and Austria in 1902, so we had no immediates who perished at the hands of the Nazis — but the six million was an intimate part of my early education, and I was honored to be part of this miniseries that broadcast to the world what happened.”
Born in 1952 in New York City, into a Conservative Jewish family, Feldshuh, born Terri Sue, is the daughter of Lillian and lawyer Sidney Feldshuh. Her brother, David, is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright of “Miss Evers’ Boys.”
Her love for the stage began early. “At 3, I’d practice skits in front of the mirror, and then, with courage, I’d take my show on the road to the living room, and play for my parents.” She first hit the stage at 4 years old, playing Gretel in “Hansel and Gretel.” Other school productions followed. She also was a classical pianist, and played “Rhapsody in Blue” for her eighth grade graduation.
Feldshuh graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. She started her career at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where she was awarded the McKnight Fellowship in Acting.
Originally planning to be a lawyer, like her father, she was on the waiting list for Harvard Law School. “I was 21 when I took the fork in the road,” she says. “If I were accepted at Harvard Law I probably would have gone. Instead, I married a Harvard lawyer, and I played a litigator on “Law and Order” — a better choice, I believe!”
For her first professional job, she used the stage name Terri Sue Fairchild, inspired by her boyfriend, Michael Fairchild. After a while, he suggested she use her Hebrew name. “He thought Tovah was a more womanly, sensuous name. And the name has brought me great luck.” Tovah means “good,” and Feldshuh is German for “field shoe.” So, she quips, “I could have called myself ‘Goody Two-Shoes.’”
Beyond her career, Feldshuh received the Eleanor Roosevelt Voice for Humanity Award and the Israel Peace Medal for her charity work with Seeds for Peace camps for children, which take children of conflict and teach them to live and play together in a camp environment. “They learn the skills of diplomacy; of talking, versus punching,” says Feldshuh. Wouldn’t it be great, she asks, if every child, regardless of nationality, “were trained to speak with words, and not with guns?”
In 1977, Feldshuh married lawyer Andrew Harris Levy. They have two children, Garson Brandon, an economist and graduate of Harvard and Oxford Universities; and Amanda Claire, a physics graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At 64, her life is a hurricane of activity. She plays multiple roles, many of them overlapping. “Next week I play an Iraqi Jewish grandmother — that’s one film —and two weeks later I’m in another film, where I play a ‘mysterious socialite.’ In between, I’ll be in Tucson, Arizona, singing to you all.” In January, she’ll portray a man, in “Dancing with Giants,” her brother’s second play. “It’s about championship boxing. I’m going to play heavyweight champion Max Schmeling’s manager, Yussle Jacobs.”
Feldshuh thrives on challenges. In 2013, in the Broadway show “Pippin,” she did what she proudly describes as “a full-on trapeze act.” In 2015, she hiked Kilimanjaro with her son, and also starred in a one-woman show at 54 Below, titled “Aging is Optional (’Cause God, I hope it is!).”
Her bucket list remains full to overflowing.
“I’ve been to Antarctica, and I’ve tracked gorillas in Africa,” she says. “I’m going to Siberia and Mongolia next year. I’m going to live in a yurt … and I’d like to ride with the Mongols. I would like to go on a serious expedition to Alaska … with dog sledding, on land, exposed to the elements, heading in the direction of the North Pole.
“I just want to take advantage of every day. As they say, ‘You gotta make the days long — because the years are short.’ ”
The Together event is free but registration is required at jfsa.org or 577-9393.
The free concert will be preceded by a $36-per-ticket reception with Tovah Feldshuh for JFSA Ben-Gurion Society and Tikkun Circle members (donors to the JFSA 2018 Community Campaign of $1,000 (per couple) or $500 (individual). The reception, with a cocktail buffet and hosted bar, will be held at Anshei Israel from 5:30-6:45 p.m. RSVP at jfsa.org.
Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.