One evening last fall, Tovah Feldshuh was backstage in the Music Box Theater on Broadway, taking a breather from her acrobatic performance in the hit revival of “Pippin,” when she got some surprising news.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, had dropped by at the theater on a brief break from affairs of state and wanted to chat. She granted him a brief audience in Irving Berlin’s former office.
“He said, ‘Ms. Feldshuh, you’re brilliant. What you do, singing and dancing on that trapeze, is brilliant. You put me to shame,’ ” the 61-year-old actress recalled in a phone interview earlier this year from Bal Harbour, Fla. “I said, ‘Mister prime minister, I’m on the trapeze 12 minutes a day. You’re on a trapeze 24/7.’ ”
And she should know. Feldshuh is best known for her iconic performance as the iron-willed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who led the country during five tumultuous years from 1969 to 1974, in the one-woman show “Golda’s Balcony.”
She will give four performances of the William Gibson show in the 710 Main Theatre starting Thursday through May 11.
Feldshuh, whose demanding role in “Pippin” involved whittling her already slim frame down to 110 pounds and doubling her muscle mass, always seems to be recovering from something exhausting.
During a January phone interview with The Buffalo News, she was on four days of R&R after a marathon run of “Golda’s Balcony” in Fort Lauderdale and had just completed her customary half-mile daily swim.
“Because of you, I did this half-mile literally in exactly 30 minutes. I usually do it in 35,” she said, adding that she was still stuck on her acrobatics-heavy “Pippin” workout routine. “I found two things in this gym in this fancy condo complex that can imitate a trapeze. There are two poles, and I can lift my whole body weight ... And when you lift your body weight, you double your muscle mass eventually. And that’s what happened. I look ridiculous.”
She said the design team of “Golda’s Balcony” had to build extra padding into the Golda Meir costume in order to compensate for her new physique.
It’s obvious that Feldshuh, who has a long line of Broadway and film credits to her name, brings the same breathless dedication to her characters as she does to her physique. So for her, returning to “Golda’s Balcony” is less like returning to her old workout routine than changing up her exercises and delving even deeper into a character she already knows better than anyone else.
At the time of the interview, she was in the middle of Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s new book “My Promised Land,” a history of Israel praised for its even-handed consideration of the country’s struggles and mistakes.
Like any veteran performer, Feldshuh has come up with her own method of keeping each performance of the show fresh. The new books she reads and the fake veins she applies to her skin every night are only a small part of it.
“When Joe DiMaggio was at the end of his career, he hit a grand-slam home run, and an 8-year-old boy who was at Yankee Stadium said to him, ‘Joe! Joe! How do you keep hittin’ those homers?’ And Joe DiMaggio turned to him and said, ‘I keep hittin’ those homers because somebody ain’t never seen baseball.’ ” Feldshuh said. “And that is how I’ve run my whole artistic life.”
To remind her about certain aspects of Meir’s character, such as her dedication to the young soldiers that fought and died on behalf of Israel during her time as prime minister, Feldshuh has taken some drastic measures.
“During the time that ‘Golda’s Balcony’ went to Broadway, I had a picture of every killed American G.I. from the Iraq War. Every one of them was stage left. Now I don’t have those pictures. Now I have pictures of the little boys in ‘Pippin’ who wrote me love letters when I was leaving. In Golda’s life, she always said” – Feldshuh’s voice took on Meir’s nasal, Milwaukee-bred accent – “ ‘Wake me night or day if I lose a boy. I want to know if I lose a boy.’ She had a very, very personal relationship with her soldiers and with her state. I think she viewed her state as her firstborn.”
Today, as Israel faces continued threats from Iran and elsewhere as well as increased criticism for its own actions in the region, “Golda’s Balcony” remains a relevant reflection on the difficulty of leading the state.
Feldshuh compared Meir in certain ways to Netanyahu, a hard-liner who takes absolutist positions just as Meir did in the lead-up to the bloody Yom Kippur War of 1973.
“In terms of his policies? Look, he came to ‘Pippin.’ What can I tell you?” she said. “They’re pretty tough and they don’t come from trust, but they come from what he feels is common sense. And that common sense is very similar to Golda Meir. It’s why they had the ’73 war. They wouldn’t give Anwar Sadat eight kilometers. She said, ‘Eight kilometers today and tomorrow Tel Aviv.’ ”
It’s clear from the way Feldshuh talks that she is deeply invested in the state of Israel today, though she has not yet performed the show there. That’s at least in part because Meir remains controversial in the region because of the rocky end of her term as prime minister after the war in 1974.
For someone who’s sat through innumerable makeup sessions, there’s still not an ounce of weariness in Feldshuh’s voice when she talks about Meir, either as a character or as a human being.
“I’m honored to come to Buffalo and I’m honored to bring the story of a human being who really didn’t ask for power and fame. What is that wonderful Shakespeare quote?” she said, struggling to remember the famous line from “Twelfth Night,” which goes: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Greatness may have been thrust upon Meir. But Feldshuh wants you to know that every night, on every stage, she has to work for it.