Shakespeare taught us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Tovah Feldshuh says her own name has been vital to her 50-year career on Broadway, television, and film. And Feldshuh, born Terri Sue Feldshuh, very nearly didn’t have the name at all.
“I was at my first professional job in Matunuck, Rhode Island [being billed] as Terri Fairchild,” she reflects fondly. That was because Feldshuh's boyfriend at the time was named Michael Fairchild. But one day, he asked her, she recalled, "What kind of a name is Terri Sue for girl like you? You're from the North. It sounds so southern. What else were you called?" She responded that her Hebrew name was Tovah, and then Fairchild responded, "Tovah—now that's a name."
Thus Tovah Feldshuh was born, with the actor noting, "Changing my name from Terri Sue to Tovah Feldshuh would change the landscape of my entire life, and my entire artistic life. But it has been a very rich and good one.”
Yes, for an actor who counts Yentl, Golda Meir, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and now Mrs. Rosie Brice (in Broadway’s Funny Girl) amongst her most beloved roles, the name Tovah Feldshuh and its origins in Judaism would become a hallmark of Feldshuh’s career, and one she’s quite enjoyed.
But 50 years ago when Feldshuh was just getting started, it was her singing and dancing that set her apart. Feldshuh spent her earliest years training to be a concert pianist while growing up in Scarsdale, New York. When that didn’t turn out to be quite as successful as she’d hoped, she turned to musical theatre—specifically a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Feldshuh knew immediately that was the ticket.
Below, watch Feldshuh share her stories from 50 years of working on Broadway.
Fast forward a few years to Feldshuh’s time at Minnesota’s esteemed Guthrie Theatre, where knowing one's way around iambic pentameter was the best skill one could have. It seemed that Guthrie and Feldshuh might not be the best fit, until one day, while rehearsing in the ensemble of a new musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac(starring Christopher Plummer), famed Broadway and Hollywood director-choreographer Michael Kidd walked in. The previous director had been replaced.
“All of a sudden, what did not have perceived value when I started had tremendous perceived value under the baton of Michael Kidd,” remembers Feldshuh. “One day at rehearsal, he said, ‘Can anybody do a cartwheel?’ I said, ‘I can do a cartwheel!’ And he goes, ‘Feldshuh, at the end of Act One, I want you to do two cartwheels from stage right to stage left and then come downstage and start singing.’”
Feldshuh’s career took off then. She would become the Foodseller in Cyrano, which transferred to Broadway in 1973, giving Feldshuh her Broadway debut. “If I had to name another memoir, I would call it And She Can Do Cartwheels. It saved my job!”
Just two years after making her debut as an ensemble player, Feldshuh had both an offer to star opposite Raúl Juliá in a revival of the Frank Loesser musical Where’s Charley? and a request to audition for a new play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer called Yentl. The latter, based on Singer’s short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, tells the story of a young woman who defies sexist tradition to attend a yeshiva and study the Talmud while disguised as a boy. Barbra Streisand would bring the role to the big screen several years later.
Where’s Charley? was a star-led Broadway revival for Feldshuh, while Yentl was an Off-Broadway affair. The decision seemed like a no-brainer to Feldshuh: Pick Where’s Charley. On her way to drop the Yentl script back off at her agent’s office, she gave it a read. By the time she arrived, she knew she had to do it. Barbra Streisand would star in the eventual film adaptation, but Feldshuh created the character onstage.
“There was no stone unturned to play Yentl,” says Feldshuh. “I was snuck into an all-boy yeshiva in Borough Park. I studied those boys like I had one minute more to live. I was not brought up as an Orthodox Jew. I am not kosher. But the name Tovah Feldshuh has put me on a horse that often gallops in a certain direction. And as long as the role is great, why turn it down? Everybody’s different, whether it’s Golda Meir, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—these are great human souls who have great differentiation. If you go deep enough—how specific can we be? How deep can we go so we can get into the river of common human experience?”
Another throughline in Feldshuh’s life and career has been her beloved mother, Lily Feldshuh, so much so that Feldshuh published a memoir titled Lilyville in 2021. “My mother came to every show I ever did,” says Feldshuh—with one exception.
In 2002, Feldshuh became one of the final groups of celebrities to do The Vagina Monologues during its original run. When Lily found out, she was less than pleased, according to Feldshuh. “Wait a minute, Tovah,” she remembers her mother saying. “I’m not coming to see you in The Virginia Monologues (I can’t say the word). Three women in black dresses standing in front of three music stands talking about their choch burgers—forget it! If there’s movement and there’s color and there’s dancing, give me a ring.”
Feldshuh knew how to make it up to her. A couple years later, she decided to take Lily to the 2004 then-Actors Fund (now Entertainment Community Fund) benefit concert of the rock musical Hair. “It had movement,” says Feldshuh. “It had Will Swenson in his loincloth coming out into the audience at the end of Act One. He would select an audience member and straddle their armrests. Will Swenson chose my mother. He was over my mother like the arch of St. Louis in his loin cloth.” Feldshuh watched the scene in mild horror as her mother, dressed to the nines—including pearls—nervously looked up and down at Swenson’s crotch. “As the house lights came up, I say, ‘Mommy, how did you like Act One?’ She said, ‘Like it?! I haven’t had sex like this since Daddy died!’” Success.
Several years later, Feldshuh got the call from Barry and Fran Weissler to come in and replace Andrea Martin in the Broadway revival of Pippin. The role, Grandma Berthe, sings the audience favorite song “No Time at All” while dangling from a circus trapeze—with a very muscled circus acrobat. Step one was finding out if Feldshuh could handle the trapeze.
“When I was a little girl, my backyard in Scarsdale had two swings, what we call the pedal pusher, and a little metal trapeze on chains,” she remembers. “I would hang upside down with my knees hanging from the trapeze. So when I was [in Pippin] up there 30 feet in the air in my 60s, I was both 60-ish and three years old. I got my circus body!”
Feldshuh says starring in Funny Girl has helped maintain that circus body. Starring opposite Lea Michele and Julie Benko as real-life Jewish vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice has kept her singing, dancing, and laughing since she joined the production last year. Feldshuh says her leading ladies and the revival’s incredible ensemble has felt like full-circle after 50 years in the business.
“I watch them every night in 'Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat.' I’m standing there, offstage left, ready for the next scene. I watch them dance and sing, and I think, ‘Gee whiz. I’m on Broadway.‘”
My Life in the Theatre is filmed at New York’s Alchemical Studios.