Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tovah Feldshuh: Dolly Levi, Paper Mill Playhouse 2006: A Master Class on an Artist's Approach to a Role!


Terri Sue Feldshuh (pronounced feld-shoe) was born to a Jewish family in New York City, the daughter of Lillian (née Kaplan) and Sidney Feldshuh, who was a lawyer.She was raised in Scarsdale, New York, an affluent community in Westchester County and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. She started her career under British director Michael Langham at the Guthrie Theater where she was awarded the McKnight Fellowship in Acting.

Dolly was still glowing, still crowing, and still going strong at the  Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006, where a production of “Hello, Dolly!” was presented in high-stepping style starring Tovah Feldshuh.

Prior to descending those stairs at the Harmonia Gardens via Paper Mill Playhose, Tovah Feldshuh’s thoughts about Hello, Dolly! involved ownership. Ownership by a previous persona, Carol Channing. Tovah  also remembers,however, the excitement that David Merrick had when Pearl Bailey was coming into the show.
Photo courtesy, Mark Hobee, Paper Mill Playhose

Mr. Merrick made a big fuss that she was the most “organic” of the Dollys. When Tovah went to Lincoln Center to begin her research in preparing to play Dolly, she keyed into Bailey more than any others. Tovah was not a fan of the “cartoon.” She loved Gower Champion. He wanted Tovah to be the standby for Mack and Mabel.    She had just understudied at the Guthrie and she vowed she would never do that again. So far, thirty-eight years later, she hasn’t. She missed working with Gower, unfortunately. Jerry Herman, we all love. He is an inspiration to us all not only because of what he has composed but also of what he has survived. He is one of the first miraculous survivors who got this disease when it was a killer. It was killing people and he had the money at that time and the wherewithal to outlive the fatality of that disease. That is extraordinary. She was invited to his apartment several times on Central Park West when they wanted her for Mabel. She remembers it was all grays and elegant. He was a designer. He had a great eye. Tovah was competing with Bernadette Peters, eventually being offered understudy.

Back to Dolly…Tovah understands from Gower that the idea of a cartoon came into play. Once Carol Channing was cast, not Gower’s first show, the entire tone of the production changed including additional casting choices.
Tovah, Mark Hobee, Carol (Courtesy Mark Hobee)
First of all, who doesn’t love Carol Channing. Second of all, as an artist, it is essential that there is no right or wrong. 

This is not a religion. 
This is not a rules game. It is just one person’s opinion against another. Whether it’s Hamlet, Olivier or Jude Law or Hello, Dolly!: Carol Channing vs. Pearl Bailey or Tovah Feldshuh or Mary Martin or Ginger Rogers or Barbra Streisand.  The long line of Dolly’s include Channing, Rogers, Raye, Grable, Osterwald, Bailey, Thelma Carpenter on matinees and various other performances, Diller, and Merman. Interestingly enough, Dolly has been revived ONLY with Bailey and Channing. Jerry Herman is VERY PARTICULAR as to how Dolly will be played on Broadway and with whom much to Tovah’s sadness.

Tovah and Walter Charles (Mark Hobee)
In Tovah’s preparations, she watched Channing’s production once. Tovah got the movie and watched it many times. Tovah worships Streisand. Tovah played Yentl on the stage prior to Streisand’s film. Streisand has been so kind to Tovah. Her possessions are all over Tovah’s apartment, planters, crystal, Streisand even gave her Tovah her Donna Karan sneakers!  Tovah asked Streisand if she would sing better if she wore them! 
Fred Curt, one of the dancers in the film, and Debby Boone have both expressed to me that Streisand is one of the nicest people they ever met. Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene Kelly’s widow, says that Streisand was not the problem on the film as far as temperament goes. It was Walter Matthau. Streisand is exacting. She is specific. Christopher Plummer was the star of Tovah’s first Broadway play, Cyrano.  He was formidable, but not if he respected your talent. He was very specific. That climb from a B+ to an A or a ninety-two to a ninety-eight is a very steep climb. 
You make it or you don’t. Tovah remembers Jerry Herman saying that the film is the only time that Dolly failed. There is that and  Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote Yentl, asking Tovah, “Why does Barbra have to sing this? This is not Funny Girl.” Tovah explained to him that without Barbra there would have been no film and no one would have known about it. In those days, performances weren’t filmed like they are today.  There is no footage of Tovah’s performance in the archives at Lincoln Center, just pictures.
(Courtesy Mark Hobee)
Again, in her research for Paper Mill, Tovah was more engaged with Bailey’s production than Channing’s. For one reason only, in Tovah’s opinion, Bailey owned it. She believed her. She needs to believe the person. That is Tovah’s modus operandi. She doesn’t want to just be entertaining. She teaches a course called The Actor’s Approach to a Song every summer at Yale. She is skipping this summer because her beloved son is getting married. She believes her job is not to just entertain an audience, it’s to engage them and to move them. 
She did Gypsy this year at Bristol Riverside Theater. They cast Robert  Newman, at Tovah’s dire request, as Herbie. She wanted to know why she couldn’t have a gorgeous, handsome, sexy Herbie. They wanted to know what he would be doing with Rose? Why would he stay? Tovah’s response was, “Why not? We don’t know about his soul.” The wonderful script will take care of why he does what he does. He will figure out why he is being lured in by Rose. Why does he have to be an unattractive man, a schlubber?  Tovah won out and they had a chemistry that lit fires. It was marvelous, it wasn’t a cartoon, that’s Tovah’s “thing”. When she was studying Pearl Bailey, she thought, “This Dolly is not only great, she’s black.” 
The actress was black and the character was played like a black woman. She did her thing. Tovah was touched and moved and engaged and she listened. We have so much to thank Channing for because she established the role. Before The Parade Passes By was written in Washington DC. It was not written at the beginning of the shaping of the piece. She was a very smart star. In those days, and in any day, stick with a hit. Tovah stuck with Yentl. She stuck with Golda’s Balcony making it the longest running one woman show in Broadway’s history. Tovah, and her marvelous producer, David Fishelson, just didn’t give up and you don’t if it’s a hit. 
Shelly Long made a huge mistake leaving Cheers after one season. What was that? That was a really bad move. That show made Ted Danson a star.

Once Dolly was Tovah’s, her perceptions of the show completely changed. She is a classical actress.  She is a classically trained person. She is a classically trained pianist. She went back to Thornton Wilder’s original text.

Tovah loves to sing. She sang on Broadway all through her twenties. She did Cyrano, Rodgers and Hart, then Straws in The Wind off Broadway with Josh Mostel, with Steven Schwartz writing for her and Phyllis Newman directing. Everybody loved her and gathered around her. Leonard Bernstein, Cy Coleman, Betty Green and Adolph Green were all showing up for rehearsals! Then, Tovah did Sarava. She also did Peter Pan in Philadelphia opposite George Rose.
 She then moved to Hollywood, got married, and essentially “stopped singing”.
She had her first born child and started doing television. She preferred New York. They moved back and she immediately got a job with the Roundabout, She Stoops to Conquer and two other shows with them. Tovah loves to sing and made her cabaret debut at the Algonquin Hotel Oak Room with her act, Tovah: Crossovah! From Broadway to Cabaret, which was followed by Tovah: Out of Her Mind!, which she took on the road to Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Hong Kong, and Sydney. The West End production sold out an eight-week run at the Duke of York's Theatre. The Boston Globe selected her as "Best Cabaret Artist of 2000". She turned to her wonderful agents, The Gage Group, who also represented Sutton Foster and Debra Monk, Marcia Lewis, and told them she was desperate to sing and told them she knew she could be very winning in any musical that Mary Martin has sung. She knew she could do those shows easily with no stress. She had already done Peter Pan. How about Hello, Dolly? When Hello, Dolly was being planned at The Papermill Playhouse, it was offered to Tovah and she grabbed it.

Mark Hobee and Tovah (Courtesy Mark Hobee)
She began her research. She went back and watched a very good LORT production of The Matchmaker at Lincoln Center. Speaking of The Matchmaker, Ruth Gordon was Tovah’s Matron of Honor at her wedding. The Matchmaker REALLY put Gordon on the map. One night in her research, it hit her! The line, “Mrs. Dolly Levi, Born Gallagher.” Tovah said, “Wait a minute, Dorothy Gallagher? She’s Irish!”  She thought what could be a better more vivid choice than to have her as an Irish immigrant at the turn of the century, marrying a Jewish guy who had aspirations? We don’t know if he was chubby and bald, or handsome, but he had aspirations. He was a go getter. He was making a better life. One came from the potato famine and the other came from the steps of Russia, probably from the Russian Pes Mintz, the Czar and Czarina confined all the Jews because they did not believe in Christ and kept them isolated from their country sometimes without the ability to live in town. Golda Mier’s father lived in Kiev like with the apartheid because he had a card, he was a cabinet maker and they let him, a Jew, come inside the city limits.    

Courtesy Mark Hobee
So, Horace and Dolly are both immigrants, they both came from struggle, they both want a better life.  The only thing she didn’t count on from Ephraim was that he would die. He died suddenly, Tovah believes. 
He had a coronary, a ventricular fibulation from his work. He was some kind of garmenta, probably not a “Schneider” or tailor. Maybe he was better than that. Maybe he owned a sweatshop, we don’t know, a shop. Maybe he rented. He wasn’t a rogue or a creep. He loved her. He was making his way in America, like Tovah’s grandfather Gershin who came to America with a sewing machine on his back.  Ephraim met this Irish girl, fell in love with her, and they got married and then he popped off. They had no children.  Now, everybody has a match but the matchmaker, so the play begins. Who better could make successful matches than an Irish Catholic who had been married to a Jewish man and making it work. He loved her. She ends up with Vandergelder, a Dutch name.  The aristocrats of that era were not just the British. They were the Dutch. The Dutch came in and founded New York around 1628, much earlier than the British. It was called New Amsterdam. Peter  Stuyvesant was the governor of this island. 
Dutch names were very “up stream.” They were the first people to be landed gentry before the British. Horace Vandergelder had this beautiful estate or home in Yonkers. Yonkers wasn’t Yonkers Raceway then. It was like Pelham, like Bedford, like Greenwich. It was quite chichi. What does Dolly teach Horace to do? She teaches him to dance and to jig, in the Irish vernacular, that means to also make love. That was the money shot for Tovah. She hoped that Mark Hobee, director, hoping that he would allow her to do it this way. 

Speaking with an Irish accent she said to Mark, “I’d like to play it like this. Why not? She’s got the gift of gab. ‘This is Mrs. Dolly Levi, born Gallagher. Social introductions. Object: Matrimony.’ She’s just charming, charming and so successful because everyone was a kind of immigrant and no one took exception . The Irish were maids to the British. They were the underlings. That’s why they made cops and firemen. They gave birth to sons that would go into local politics and become cops so they wouldn’t be beat up by the British. The Irish were under the thumbs of British thuggery and British oppression. If you want to know British oppression, visit Tibet. I just came from there. Once again, in order to beat prevent harm to their clan, they came to the new world and took over Tammany Hall. They took over city hall, the police, and the fire department. The Jews in order to avoid anti-semitism moved into journalism. They moved into media. They moved into movies. Jewish men casting shiksa goddesses in movies.   
Tovah Feldshuh and cast members of Hello, Dolly! (Source: BroadwayWorld.com)
The original movie directors in Hollywood wore riding jodhpurs because their people had been murdered yearly by the Cossacks. They were killed by horses. They took on the garb of the conqueror to make sure they were no longer conquered.   ” When Tovah was Terri Sue growing up in Scarsdale, what do you think her father got for her? A horse! Aristocrats want a part of the American dream, to own a horse! She rode horses as a child.

Getting back to Dolly, Tovah traced Dolly and looked at this classic in a new way. She was not going to just bluster through it. Once again, the cartoon doesn’t work for Tovah. Her whole living is trying to move people and tell a story.  Not necessarily nicely, but with mastery.

Brian Sears and Jonathan Rayson (Source BroadwayWorld.com)
Tovah’s research was very intense leading up to the first rehearsal. Fortunately for Tovah, Mark Hobee and company was completely behind her. When Charles Isherwood in the New York Times wrote, “   Seeking to avoid invidious comparisons with Carol Channing, her most celebrated — and most possessive — predecessor in the role, the enterprising Tovah Feldshuh has traced the roots of Dolly Gallagher Levi back to an imagined homeland in Ireland, locating the character's feisty spirit in an early life of want in the days of the potato famine. Speaking — and even singing — in a brogue as thick as the shtick it must serve, Ms. Feldshuh places her own stamp on one of the musical theater's most celebrated female roles. As they say in old Eire, you go, girl!” They all knew that they had succeeded. That’s where the shot was. Tovah hopes to one day bring this interpretation to Broadway. She would even consider doing her in Russian, if she could do it that way on Broadway. She would do it as an American, and if it would please Jerry Herman, if, God willing, he were alive and well to enjoy it. He is so wedded to Carol Channing’s interpretation, and if that’s what he would want, Tovah would figure it out. But it works well as an Irish immigrant, and what a great idea that turned out to be.  The first seed of that came from the Thornton Wilder original and watching Pearl Bailey not trying to be white.

Tovah scanned The Merchant of Yonkers, in which Dolly doesn’t exist, but it was of no use to her until she got to Dolly in The Matchmaker.   
There is also that connection to Ruth Gordon. Tovah has her Equity card and a few items left to her in her will. Tovah also went back and watched the film with Shirley Booth. The movie was ok but she LOVED the DVD she saw of a prestigious stage production of it.
The whole experience was absolutely marvelous. First of all, she was so grateful to be starrin in the musical. Her mother judges her roles by how she looks. 
Tovah in Yentl

She had such wonderful costumes designed for her by  James Schuette. Mark Hobee was a doll. Mark brought openness to the production. He was open to EVERYONE contributing at their highest levels. He didn’t smack anyone around. The first step towards genius is to know you don’t know. Interestingly enough, Joey Patton(director) said the same exact words. Read my chapter on him. When I mentioned this to Tovah, she says she is an evolutionist and believes in the fourth dimension, so there you go. The biggest fun of “ignorance” is to know you don’t know.  Tovah did not know that she didn’t know that changing her name would change her life. She changed her name at eighteen. 
She did not understand the consequence of that. She may not have gotten all these great roles that she has without the moniker helping her. On the other hand, if she had gone with Terri Fairchild, which she did for one season at Theater By The Sea, in Matunick, Rhode Island (where I also appeared), maybe she would have had a whole different career. She may have become a musical comedy star. She was asked to star opposite Raul Julia in Where’s Charley. She was going to get five hundred a week at Circle in the Square on Broadway. She had accepted the job and on the 104 bus, she was returning the script to her agent for Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy and she couldn’t put the script down. When she got there, she asked if the auditions were still happening. He sent her out to Brooklyn and she wore a robe and high boots and got that role for a role. She turned down Amy in Where’s Charley. At that moment, her entire career took a left hand turn. She went back to classical roles, classical rep, classical Tovah. 
Michael Gennaro, Walter Charles and Tovah Feldshuh (Source: BroadwayWold.com)
It all came from a very sturdy foundation.


The choreographer for this production of Dolly was Mia Michaels. She worked very organically with Tovah. Tovah did not want her to “dummy the choreography down.” Tovah loves to dance. 
She is very athletic and loves to be thrown around like they did in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Michael Kidd, choreographer for Seven Brides AND the film version of Hello, Dolly!, even directed Tovah in Cyrano. For Tovah, it was very organic. Mia would ask her to show her what she did and she would incorporate those things into her choreography.  
This era is also Tovah’s era. She learned to ballroom dance with her dad. Waltzing, fox trot, any of those dances come easily to Tovah. She had worked with Donald Sadler who taught her how to descend stairs without looking, with the back of your leg hitting the fronts of the stairs. Eberyone was very loving all around. Walter Charles, Horace Vandergelder, was wonderful.
Walter Charles and Tovah (Source: BroadwayWorld.com)
He was very kind and very dependable. She had a wonderful time with the “kids.”
Working on the production was a lovely time. Tovah’s mother was dying. It was a very trying time and the theater told Tovah that whatever they could do, to tell them.  She would finish the show each night and the theater would drive her to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. An experimental procedure was tried on Tovah’s mom who was in stage one feasibility and it worked. 
She lived. She STILL IS LIVING! She’s one hundred and one now. She was taken by ambulance and she saw Tovah in Hello, Dolly! There was a performance on July 4th and after the show that night, Tovah was once again at Columbia Presbyterian. She needed a break from the hospital room and walked out of the hospital room.  She walked out onto the George Washington Bridge and watched the fireworks alone.

Tovah would LOVE to do Dolly on Broadway. She would love to explore her even deeper.
She wants to take the audience by the “kahonas” and move them. She wants to show an early American immigrant love story. It doesn’t need a cartoon.
Tovah’s approach to Dolly was no different from her approach to any other character she has embodied. Her approach to Gypsy was one of the best things she ever did. That script was so clear. She could be monstrous in the script. The script has done the job. It is not interesting seeing Hitler being Hitler. It’s interesting hearing Hitler say, sotto voche, “So kill them. Kill them. ”  Screaming “Kill them” has been done. That’s the cliché. So she did Gypsy with beat, beat, beat, no judgment, no judgment, no judgment. 
Jonathan Rayson, Kate Baldwin and Brian Sears (Source: BroadwayWorld.com)
She knew she didn’t no. She willed that she didn’t know. She met Herbie and fell in love with him. She loved her girls to the best of her ability.
Tovah loves people. That’s why she’s in the theater. It gives such happiness to people and it’s a safe space. It’s safer on stage than in life. Carol Channing says it’s the safest place in the world. The audience are already converts. They’ve paid their money.
Jonathan Rayson (Source: BroadwayWorld.com)
They want to be with you. They already love you. During her run of Dolly, Tovah’s mother died…and then didn’t die. Tovah took her surgeon and his parents to see the show. Tovah’s brother had a dream. What if they could get their mother to India to an Indian doctor and they could just open her up. This procedure could not, however, been done on a ninety-five year old because they couldn’t close her up. They replaced the aortic valve, which was dead, with the aortic valve of a pony! The doctor, who was Indian AND had lost both of his parents to cardiac arrest, created this “arts and craft” way of healing. It’s a different world! 
Dolly Cast Members (Source: BroadwayWorld.com)

If a woman, God forbid, has to have her overies removed, it is now done laparoscopically. The procedure is done at ten AM and by one, she’s calling a taxi to take her home to lie down. It’s a miracle. Tovah’s mother’s doctor was the protégé of Martin Leon, the genius. 
He and his parents, father in a Nehru jacket and mother in a sari, went to the show. I was there that night! Tovah, during the curtain call, announced that the man who saved her mother’s life, the surgeon was in the audience. 
He took his mother from her death bed and gave her life and asked the audience to sing “Hello, Kidally” Talk about rejoining the human race! Life imitates art!! It was a Sunday night, July ninth, seven thirty show. I still have my ticket! I was in the front row.

Cast members and creative team of Hello, Dolly! (Source: BroadwayWorld.com)


Again it was a great company. It’s not that they were just capable. When you are with an actor who understands that they are enough, there is magic from that solid place.
The highlight for Tovah, “the schmaltz herring”, was the restaurant scene. Also, standing at the top of the stairs at the Harmonia Gardens. When she came down those stairs and greeted those boys, she was so glad to see them. 
Between acts of every show, these “poor boys” were called backstage to run this number with Tovah. They would run through the Dolly number with her. She did the same thing in Gypsy. She runs her numbers during intermission. She does what Fred Astaire taught her to do. 

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Tovah Feldshuh at ease at the Walter Kerr Theater.
He always said, “If you can do it at five, you can do it at eight.” She would get to the theater early, warm up, she touches EVERY SINGLE SONG. It is also in her contract that there is a study desk baskstage for her in an area that is hers to continue researching even after the show opens. She doesn’t always sing them at full tilt but she sings them and she makes that first entrance every single time at the top of her game and ready to move those audiences lucky enough to see a master crafts-woman, just like Dolly Levi!

 Thank you Tovah for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!


With grateful XOXOXs ,


Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
I want this to be a definitive account of Hello, Dolly!  If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with you!

Do you have any pics?
If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at Richard@RichardSkipper.com.


NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED.  FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY!



Please do what YOU can to be more aware that words and actions DO HURT...but they can also heal and help!    
               
My next blog will be... My Exclusive Interview with Fred Curt with his memories of working on the film version of Hello, Dolly!


Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!





  
Here's to an INCREDIBLE tomorrow for ALL...with NO challenges!





TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED DAY

Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com                            

 
This Blog is dedicated to ALL THE DOLLYS and ANYONE who has EVER had a connection with ANY of them on ANY Level!



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