BWW Interview: SISTERS IN LAW's Tovah Feldshuh - A Supreme Match for RBG
When I reached for my phone to call Tovah Feldshuh to interview her on her upcoming role as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the west coast premiere of SISTERS IN LAW at The Wallis, I never expected to be so enthralled for the fifty minutes that followed; not only by the irascible, most delightful Tovah Feldshuh herself, but by the razor-witted Justice Ginsburg - a two-for-one interview! (Well, actually more than two - bits of Katharine Hepburn entered our conversation. Tovah does a mean Hepburn impression!) The fascinating, versatile Ms. Feldshuh responded to my questions alternately as herself and as Justice Ginsburg. At times, she would answer in a very precise cadence:
"She (RBG) did not have halt-ing speech, she had care-ful speech. She chose each word care-ful-ly as she spoke, particularly extempore. She is very suc-cinct,. She doesn't rush. She's clear, but she is speak-ing the way I do at this point and at this mo-ment to make sure, with clar-i-ty, the points she is pre-sen-ting, the in-sights and dis-cov-er-ies she is pre-sen-ting to change the law, are getting into the brains of, at first, nine men, then eight men and one woman after Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed by President Reagan. Some of them didn't even understand that gender bias and gender discrimination existed. And those days as we know it are over."
At times, a New Yawk accent would become apparent in Justice Ginsburg's responses or quotes. "Ruth speaks with precision. I say court and she says cawrt, a New York thing. Marty isn't Marty. It's Marddy."
Even when I asked specific questions on Tovah's decades' long resume, I wasn't always sure if Tovah was answering as herself, as RBG would finish up Tovah's thoughts.
So entrenched in her detailed and deep-dive research into the life and soul of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tovah easily transitions into RBG in mid-thought or sentence.
For instance, when asked if working with SISTERS IN LAW's all-women design team was a noticeable first for her, Tovah answered, "It is marvvvv-elously noticeable. For Justice Ginsburg, it's almost like having nine female Supreme Court justices on the court at one time. She said her vision would be fulfilled when there are nine female justices for a hundred years just to equal things out. The men ran it for over a hundred years."
In Tovah's four-decade career, this role of Justice Ginsburg is the first to have given Tovah pause, as she tells it:
"The most concern I've ever had in taking on any role in my career is this role. This is a person at the height of her legendary-ness. She went into legend status towards her eighties, she's eighty-six now, so certainly within the last six years, if not necessarily the last twenty-five years. She went into full-out red carpet, global, viral legend status. She is the last person in the world to toot her own horn. She never in a million years expected this. So she's not beloved, She's BELOVED!!! All caps and exclamation points. Everybody loves Ruth Bader Ginsburg! Everybody needs her! We need a voice that is so dedicated to the truth. She said recently she's not the most liberal justice on the Court. But she has such a profound, memorized understanding of the Constitution. She carries a copy of the Constitution around in her purse. She has improved my character. I have to move my lipstick away and make room for the Constitution of the United States. She is book. She is a scholar of the first order to tell the truth and be believable.
"I start the play at forty-two years old. If you look at her earlier footage, she stands very, very erect; straight spine with her neck and her head poised properly on top of her shoulders, like the true lady she was told to be by her mother. She's as straight-spined as her intelligence is clear and brilliant.
"She loved her mother, she adored her mother. She lost her mother at seventeen, way too soon. Her mother's values, once her mother died, became ubiquitous for Ruth. They were everywhere. Be a lady, but be independent.
"And what you might not know (I made wonderful interviews with people that I cannot mention), she was great boss to her Supreme Court clerks. Even though the Justice slept very little per night, four hours maybe, maybe five; she understood and empathized about family, children; juggling a busy life, let's say a young baby, with the important life of the Court's decisions and obligations. The thing about the Supreme Court is they have death in the palm in their hands. They are the people who are called to do a stay of execution for inmates on death row. So, it's an incredibly important job. Most of the judges are pithy and very profound in their intelligence. They're not usually a laugh riot, because their job is very sobering. So Ruth Bader Ginsburg, most people do not know, she could make a friend of anyone, even though she is book. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is book. Is law. Is intellectual brilliance. I would say she relates to the book, the way I relate to my first grandchild Rafael, who just joined our family eight months ago out of my daughter's belly. It's one of her very most precious children, the actual Constitution and procedural law of the United States of America. We're talking about a person who's voraciously intellectual. She had seventeen choices or more of any number of similes or metaphors or synonyms that she could choose from. She tried to choose carefully, because words matter."
Tovah's research unveiled RBG's friendships across the political lines. She loved to debate with her colleague Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
"Even though he was an Originalist, and Ruth believes in the living Constitution. She very clearly says, 'We, the People,' would not have included you or me. There'd be no Jews, no blacks. No Catholics necessarily be even allowed. Certainly no people coming from south of the border. 'We, the People' referred to the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant male predominantly founding our country at that time. It had nothing to do with what 'We, the People' would look like today.' She struck alliances with all these justices, every single one of them. She isn't necessarily effusive socially. She's a lady. She's available, and she's yours in the work. She's dedicated to the work."
Already in rehearsals for SISTERS IN LAW, Tovah has nothing but praise for the people she's working with. "I have a remarkable director. Patricia McGregor is a rare animal of incredible intelligence and diplomacy and encouragement. She's just a person who is extraordinary positive and encouraging while she's brilliant. It's a rare combination. I think her insights are wonderful, and she's very empowering as a director.
"The great Stephanie Faracy, she's an actor of the first rank. She's wonderful, totally wonderful. Rebecca Phillips Epstein, the assistant director, is superb. These are real brainiacs, these people. It's an honor to share the room with them. And (playwright) Jonathan Shapiro, our lone male, was a Harvard grad, was a D.A., was a full-out lawyer for television; and this is his first play He's done a darn good job. I'm enjoying myself very, very much."
Tovah gently schooled me when I referred to Ruth Bader Ginsburg as "Judge Ginsburg."
"When you go to the Supreme Court, you are no longer a judge. You become a justice. 'Justice Ginsburg.' Never, never, never would you call her 'Judge Ruth' or 'Judge Ginsburg.' One of her closest allies was with her in chambers. She said, 'Go meet my dear friend Justice O'Connor.' She went to meet Justice O'Connor. 'Hello, Justice O'Connor. Ruth told me to come say, 'Hello.' Sandra Day O'Connor turned to her and said, 'You mean Justice Ginsburg told you to come say hello?' There's a protocol, and the play beautifully deals with Ruth Bader Ginsburg being the new girl on the block in 1993 when she just gotten there."
Tovah had seen the documentary RBG, which was produced by a good friend of hers Judy Cohen ("She was so delighted when I called her to tell her I was doing RBG."), and devoured twice Justice Ginsburg's 2016 New York Times Bestseller My Own Words. She's now reading Linda Hirshman's New York Times Bestseller, SISTERS IN LAW is based on.
Tovah's never met RBG in person. Although she did attend a large luncheon in RBG's honor. "During the Bush administration. I remember Laura Bush was there. To my knowledge, according to the people I interviewed, she does not to go fundraisers ever. She goes to be honored, and she goes to a press conference. She doesn't want to show bias as a Supreme Court Justice."
Like Justice Ginsburg, Tovah cares about the people and communities of the world. Tovah has a laundry list of prestigious humanitarian awards, while always working with various non-profits. One, Seed For Peace takes teenagers from different backgrounds to participate in a summer camp to learn of their peers' cultures and beliefs.
"I help and contribute to send children to camp in Maine. They bunk together, they swim together They learn to use words, instead of swords. God willing from these experiences; one, two, five, ten percent, whatever, will become diplomats, and they may be able to tilt the planet and get it back on its balance.
"What gives me gratification in my life is contributing to my highest level, on stage and off, to the wondrous people who are around me on this earth; and to this wonderful, suffering world that so needs the best of all of us. What gives me gratification is to ask the best of me, and let me try and get it for you.
"When 9/11 came, and our work collapsed all over the city of New York, I ran workshops in my home. We taught workshops called Actor's Approach to a Song. Twenty students for twenty hours on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was extremely successful. I enjoyed it enormously, enormously. Teaching is one way of giving back.
"I teach the way I want to be taught, as Uta Hagen taught me. She was my first teacher. She would never criticize her students, she would redirect them. She taught me how to coach children. I coach the five-to-ten-year-old girls at the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) in New York City. When they were five-years-old, they were called the Purple Barbies that year. 'Coach, coach, look! I made a goal with my elbow!' I would say, 'That's fantastic! Now let's try it with your foot.' So I would redirect the student. I would never, ever say, 'What are you doing?' 'How could you do that?' Never! Ever! There's not an equitable relationship between the teacher and a student. There is a disequilibrium. I am at the head of class dispensing information to people who want to ingest the information. I do not believe in anybody being a whipping post for any pedagogue, ever, ever. I taught the Actor's Approach to a Song at Yale, Cornell, Sarah Lawrence. These were master classes. I taught the way I wanted to be taught myself. Gentle, quiet, but with real clarion precision. I said to the students, 'Some of you will be with me forever, and will write this down like your Bible. Some of you will take this gold dust, use what you can. Some of you, it won't do it for you. It's ok.' It's all ok. I gave them the info and hoped for the best."
I asked Tovah whose advise she still religiously follows. "Ruth Gordon was one of the first. She was matron of honor at my wedding, Garson Kanin (Gordon's husband) was the witness. She always said, 'Dah-ling, you think it's hard to get there? Try to stay up there. Just never give up. And another thing, it sound a little cliché - always remember, you only need one yes. Samuel Goldwyn endlessly bothered Paul Muni to do a certain role for Goldwyn Pictures. Muni kept saying, 'No. No. No.' And finally said, 'Sam, why do you keep asking me?' And Goldwyn said, 'Because I only need one yes.' I think that's the most important advice. In my day, way back in the late 60s and 70s, we would send our picture and resume with a cardboard in a nice envelope to a hundred summer stock theatres. From one hundred theatres, I got ten responses. And from ten responses, I got one job. I took the job at Theatre By the Sea in Rhode Island, where Tallulah Bankhead had played. I did all the ingénue leads for the summer. Absolutely thrilling. It was the only summer I was 'Terri Fairchild.' My boyfriend Michael Fairchild said to me, 'What kind of name is Terri Sue?' (which is my birth name - Terri Sue) 'Terri Sue for a girl like you? What else were you called?' 'In Sunday school, Tovah.' 'Now, Tovah, that's a name!' And Tovah's my Hebrew name. I took on Tovah Feldshuh. I was so young. I was 17, going on 18. I had no idea that the state of Israel would fall on my head. Shakespeare said, 'What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.' It's really not true. There's great power in your name. People's lives are not about you. People's lives are about their own journey. So having a moniker, having a name is one way of short-handing who a person is. Sandra Day O'Connor sounds like she's Irish to me. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg sounds like she's Jewish to me. I don't know where they're from. but just the name itself rings from a different area of religious, ethnic background. So 'Tovah Feldshuh' is perceived as orthodox, foreign, European, and an expert in certain things. I was neither orthodox. I certainly wasn't foreign, I was born in Manhattan on 90th and Lexington. I was deemed an expert in things like Yentl and the holocaust mini-series."
Not one to shy away from heroic or challenging roles, Tovah has portrayed on the theatrical boards - Yentl, Juliet of the Capulets, Katharine Hepburn, Leona Helmsley, Polish Christian rescuer Irena Gut, and, of course, Golda Meir. "I played President Pauline Mackenzie on CBS Salvation and Deanna Monroe on The Walking Dead. I have been lucky enough to be offered many heroic roles."
I asked Tovah to - if possible in an alternate universe - group together some of the women she's played, and describe how they'd interact.
"In an alternate universe, I would pick Juliet who planned the escape for Romeo and herself. Leona, who could clean Juliet's castle very well, I have no doubt. Golda, who could figure out some strategy to save the nation, and Justice Ginsburg who would make sure the nation led a path of righteous justice and fairness and inclusion for all. I could either put them at a very interesting cabinet meeting or, as in Golda Meir's case, a kitchen cabinet where you have the women literally around the kitchen table, which is where the Israeli cabinet met. They met at Golda's house and she would make schnecken for them and coffee while they discuss trying to save the world and save the nation. So I would put them around a fabulous kitchen table and have them debate their visions of the universe, and have them reflected in what kind of food would be made, served, what kind of liquor was there, when was it used. So that the foods could be used in reaction to the conflicts of that plan. I'm sure there'd be huge conflicts. Leona Helmsley would keep calling for a maid to clean up."
Let's talk a 'challenging' role. Tovah had to master a trapeze routine in taking over Andrea Martin's role of Berthe in PIPPIN.
"That was something! I was already sixty. It was an amazing thing to try to master. And, gosh, darn it! I done did it! I worked my tail off literally. I weighed 112 pounds. I weighed 110 pounds in eighth grade. I was the leanest I've ever been. I loved my figure. I rode my bike to theatre every day. I lived on juices. When you do a musical, you immediately lose five pounds. Instead of eating at night, you're dancing every night. I had to do a full-out trapeze act and do it twice: 5:30 or 6 with your partner, to make sure you could do it at 8. I'm serious, the circus people never go on without doing their full-out routine first, to check the ropes. There was no belt, no mat, nothing. It was thrilling. You put an old bird singing a hit tune upside-down on a trapeze and it engenders hope in everyone."
In looking for photos of Tovah in her various shows, I happened to find photos of Tovah doing cartwheels on stage at an awards show.
"I love doing cartwheels. I did them as a child There's footage of me doing them when I was ten in the backyard for my father Sidney Feldshuh, whom I just adored."
Already having worked with a long, long list of notable directors, I asked Tovah if they were any others she would like to be directed by. "Baz Luhrman! I would kill! Tell him I could do the trapeze. I'd love to work with Spielberg. Love to work with Tarantino. That would be raw, interesting and fantastic."
As with other roles Tovah has dug down profoundly deep into, playing RBG has greatly affected her. "In playing her, even in the short time that I'm been playing her, I must say Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed a part of my life. I see differences differently. I feel that it is our obligation to see 'We, the People' as she saw it, completely inclusive - and that takes doing. She's a hands-on Justice. She's someone to be so proud of as an American. Growing up in a society in which virtually all positions of influence and power are held by men, women believed that they belonged to an inferior sex, and that is from her brief from Frontiero v. Richardson January 12, 1973. She even admits at one point in the play, and in her book, 'It took me so many years. I didn't have to be a second-class citizen. I had every right to be a lawyer as the men did. She is really the advocate for 'We, the People.' Thurgood Marshall was one of her idols, She always wanted to equate - 'Gender discrimination is as wrong as racial discrimination, and as powerful.' That took ten years of the ACLU, one strategic case after another to make some inroad and I think she still tries.
"The biggest thing about this play is that it crosses party lines. That you have a more classical, basically Republican Justice and a liberal East Side intellectual. She socializes with the top, top, top international power players that keep inviting her everywhere. What I want the audience to leave with is a sense that friendship and love can be spawned anywhere. It is a mindset. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg's best friend on the bench was Antonin Scalia, anything is possible. They had opposing legal views and they lived for those legal views. It wasn't their job to discuss politics. Their job was discuss the legality of the Constitution and how to apply it to the laws of the United States. This is a play about two women coming to terms with their differences, and choosing love and unity above all, no matter what. And if we had a little of this from the White House, we'd be in a different shape.
"Love is strong. Hate is strong. Trust is fragile. You don't want to break somebody's trust. Trust between the executive branch of the government and the United States is fracturing. It's cracking. It's a great concern to everyone who loves America. And that means everyone! Republicans, Democrats, Independents, vegans, meat-eaters, everybody. It's a mindset. The play is about the unity of our humanity across really, very different points of views. Some points of views that won't ever be resolved, but you love anyway. And if anybody who's reading this article has ever been married, you know exactly what I mean. I'm married 43 years to the most fabulous man Andrew Harris Levy. I worship, I adore him. But there are things we don't agree on, that we will never, ever, ever agree on. So either the marriage encompasses that contradiction, or it cracks. The whole point for a marriage that endures is a metaphor for peace. It's the microcosm of making peace despite differences. Any intimate relationship has its hiccups. The point is to stay on the field to play and to reach out as you can, otherwise, we're in terrible shape.
"I get to age from 42 -79, so hold onto your horse. It's very exciting. It's been a total delight!"
After hearing all of Tovah's very firm grasp of political factoids and policies, I asked if she's ever consider running for office. "You're an angel! I haven't because I don't feel knowledgeable enough about the three areas of the government. I'd have to study government. I'd probably have to go back to school."
Tovah has always valued the importance her audiences. "You guys, the audience, are the reason we're there to tell the story vividly. You're right there with us. You're right there around the camp fire with us. Hopefully, the story is expertly told."
Mz. Feldshuh, your answers and your Justice Ginsburg's answers have been most expertly told.
For SISTERS IN LAW's ticket availability (almost sold-out!) and show schedule through October 13 ,2019; log onto TheWallis.org/Sisters