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BWW Interview: Tovah Feldshuh Talks Starring in BECOMING DR. RUTH Off-Broadway

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We spoke with Tovah about her personal friendship with Dr. Ruth, how she prepared to play the role, what it means for her to tell Dr. Ruth's story, and much more!

Becoming Dr. Ruth

Six-time Tony- and Emmy-nominated Tovah Feldshuh's remarkable resume reads like a who's who of history's most iconic Jewish women- Golda Meir, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and now Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Tovah is bringing her tour-de-force performance as the famed sex therapist in Mark St. Germain's Becoming Dr. Ruth Off-Broadway to Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, after a sold-out run at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor this summer.

Becoming Dr. Ruth tells the incredible story of the world's most famous sex therapist, from her life as a young girl who fled Nazi Germany and lived as an orphan in Switzerland, to her service in the Israeli armed forces as a sharpshooter, to her life and career in New York, and more.

Directed by Scott Schwartz (who also directed Tovah as Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony, which became the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history) the show begins previews tonight, Saturday, December 4 and opens Thursday, December 16 through Sunday, January 2, 2022.

You can purchase tickets at mjhnyc.org.

We spoke with Tovah about her personal friendship with Dr. Ruth, how she prepared to play the role, what it means for her to tell Dr. Ruth's story, and much more!


You starred in Becoming Dr. Ruth over the summer at Bay Street Theater, how much did you know about Dr. Ruth prior to taking on the role? Were you familiar with her and her incredible history or was there a lot to learn for you?

I think you'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to be familiar with Dr. Ruth. I have the great privilege of being one of her many, many friends. She was at my daughter's wedding. She has many friends and she loves people and she collects friends with positive mental attitudes, that's what she does. And she spreads the joy. I think it's called 'Kinderstube'. She's an expert in joie de vivre, that's the term she uses.

That's so nice to hear that you're personal friends, I didn't know that! With that being said, what was the research process like for you? Did you sit down and speak with her? Did you go on YouTube?

It was all of those things, and it's still an ongoing process, I will never stop researching her. As long as I play her, I read about her, I keep up with her. But fortunately, unlike RBG, who I also played and who is now dead - and I got to spend time with her as well- Ruth is alive. And that is a huge advantage in playing a historical character. You get it right from the source. So, I call her, I was with her last night. I read her books, more importantly, I listen to the books she narrates, I study her history. You start out with Wikipedia, but I've been to her home, I've seen her diaries as a young girl in Switzerland, I've seen pictures of her life in Europe before she came here, of all her husbands. So, I studied her in depth, and then you have to do more than that, you have to apply your knowledge to making the play deep. You've got to bring the play into the river of universal experience, and that takes excavation. That's what I do.

Was it easy to pick Dr. Ruth's brain on a psychological level and get into her headspace during different moments in her life? Was she willing to open up and share easily?

She shares the pleasant things. Her secrets are the unpleasant things. It's not that she's closed, it's that she has a certain bar of excellence that she expects of herself, she expects herself to behave in a certain way, to be pleasant, to smile, to lift a space, to light a candle, to amuse. So, I've never seen Ruth badly behaved, but I know that she, like any human being, has a temperament, and if there is something that is oppressive, or that she doesn't believe in, I'm sure she has the moral courage to speak up.

She's had such an astounding life. How does it feel for you personally getting to tell her story?

It's not only a great honor, but between Golda, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ruth Westheimer, I'm able to imbibe their virtues because I spend so much time playing them, that each character, particularly these great, great heroines, can enhance your life. Heck, even Leona Helmsley enhanced my life, I learned much more about housekeeping and orderliness from Leona Helmsley than from anywhere else. With Ruth, she exercises with great discipline, the obligation to be a social magnet based on her joy. And that is something. So, when I come into work in the morning and people say, "How are you?" I say one word, "Great! How are you?" I mean, 'I feel great, don't worry about me. How are you?" She is also very interested in people.

By nature of her profession alone I think you would have to be! More so than other people, I would imagine.

She's the kind of person - this is in her book, it's not in the play- that is invited as a speaker on a cruise. She gives a lecture, but then she offers a free lecture for the crew and the captain after the passengers have fallen asleep. She'll stay until midnight to talk to the crew about human sexuality. And that's for free, that's just something extra. She's a something extra girl.

You just mentioned playing RBG and Golda Meir, you attract these roles of strong, history-making, iconic Jewish women. Why do you think that these parts come to you, and what does it mean for you to get to represent these powerful women? I mean, you yourself are a powerful Jewish woman, but what do you think it is inside of you that puts that out into the universe?

It means everything to me. After all, life inside your own body is still finite, we have a certain amount of days and years on this earth, and to spend time with these people, like spending time with Shakespeare, or Neil Simon, or Mamet, the great playwrights, it's a privilege. When I changed my name from Terri Sue to Tovah- Shakespeare says, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet." There's a lot in a name. I was born Terri Sue Feldshuh. Once I changed my name to Tovah Feldshuh everybody thought I was either Eastern European or Israeli, Orthodox, or if not Orthodox, an expert in Judaism. And I was none of those things! I was a cheerleader for Quaker Ridge school. But I was a very good student. Very curious. And in that sense, when you're playing a character you look for cellular coincidence. And both RBG and Ruth Westheimer were and are insatiably curious about learning. They want to learn. And Golda, of course, was insatiable about birthing and saving the Jewish state. A lot of these things sourced from their childhood.

I do think that's interesting that you decided to change your first name to something more Jewish sounding. It's something that people in the entertainment industry have typically tried to shy away from, and I love that you did not do that, you did the opposite.

I did indeed, and my parents- my mother in particular was very upset with me. She said, "We didn't come to America for you to call yourself Tovah!" But, in the end, what's happened is that some roles I've had to win, like Yentl, but once I did Yentl and excelled in it, I was given Holocaust, I was given Golda Meir, I was given A Fierce Attachment, I was given RBG, I was given Ruth Westheimer, I didn't audition for any of these parts. And it's been magnificent being in their company. It's a ball, I love going to work, and I think that's one of the keys to a very happy life. But Ruth Westheimer doesn't settle for less than happy. She gets into the present moment, and she goes for it. She calls me and says, [in Dr. Ruth's accent] "Tell me the news. Only the good news!"

Was it easy or hard for you to get her accent? She's got the most distinct voice, her tone and her accent.

[In the accent] The accent, what makes it what it is, Ruth Westheimer is so optimistic, that even the ends of her sentences go up! I have a good ear and I studied hard. And I'm always working on it.

It sounds fantastic. And you reunited with Scott Schwartz for the show, and you previously worked together on Golda's Balcony. How has it been working with him this time around?

Delicious. I love that boy, I'll always love him. He's brilliant and he is my go-to director, particularly for solo pieces. But we've done two other plays together, Arsenic and Old Lace at the Dallas Theater Center, and the world premiere of The Prompter by Wade Dooley. We did that two years ago at Bay Street Theater. So, it's been good. I love working with him, I consider myself very lucky to work with him. I tried to take whatever crew from Bay Street was available here with me to New York, not only to give them the credit and honor of doing a play in New York, but also because they were good! And good should be rewarded. Merit should be rewarded.

And this is your first time returning to the New York City stage in 7 years, how does that feel?

It's a very unique feeling, I love it, but we're in a very unique situation. We're playing in the most gorgeous, pristine theater, they just had a multi-million dollar renovation. It has a lighting system and sound system to die for. Just state of the art. And we're inside a museum that is heavily protected and guarded, at the base of New York City where you can view the Statue of Liberty every day of your life. It's fantastic. It's part of the American dream. And Ruth so deeply believed in the American dream, and so deeply crafted the fulfillment of her own dreams. Her life, some of it is a synchronicity of opportunity, but she created the richness of her life. She has long learned to take the 'Yes'. That the word 'Yes' is one of the most important words in a successful career. I'm very honored to be her, portray her, to bring her voice to audiences both of our background and not of our background. How can you complain about bumper to bumper traffic or bad WiFi when you are exposed to the journey that she had to take to be who is?


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