When it comes to performing, Tovah Feldshuh has seemingly done it all. The actress and singer has been a mainstay in the entertainment industry for the past four decades, amassing dozens of award nominations for her work across television, film and theater. She’s played everything from a shrewd survivor in AMC’s “The Walking Dead” to an Israeli prime minister in “Golda’s Balcony” — the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history.
Fortunately for New York audiences, Feldshuh continues to inhale theater roles at a breakneck pace, playing not one but two characters during a recent performance of the “The Soap Myth,” presented by the Center for Jewish History and Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. Penned by Jeff Cohen and co-starring Ed Asner, the play follows a handful of characters as they attempt to prove — or disprove — the belief that Nazis made soap from the corpses of their Jewish victims. It’s a weighty production, one that serves as a grand meditation on power, survival and the fallibility of man-made histories.
ALL ARTS, which will be broadcasting the play on its streaming app and broadcast channel in Fall 2019, sat down with Feldshuh to discuss her career and the timeliness of the production. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you walk me through what “The Soap Myth” is about?
The Soap Myth explores: “what is the truth?” With our current government it’s a very important issue to explore and to yell about. I think no matter what your political view, and no matter what your feelings about the policies of this current government, it cannot be denied that the person who is occupying the White House lacks the statesmanship and the understanding of what it means to be the chief executive of what was the greatest democracy in the world. And I hope will become again. Because you cannot behave the way he’s behaving with overstepping bounds that are I believe unconstitutional and still expect that you’re living in the democracy that I knew growing up in and for many decades of my life.
What was your first experience with the so-called “soap myth”
I was a conservative Jew brought up in Scarsdale [New York], and one of the few in the area. We went to conservative Hebrew school eight hours a week from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays, and the soap myth was part of our education. It was absolutely an accepted fact. I never even knew the word myth existed in that context until I met Jeff Cohen… he’s a very generous man. So I had no idea that it was a rumor from the French that the Germans were doing this with their own prisoners of war or dead soldiers.
How is it working with these wonderful actors on this?
Working with Ned Eisenberg, Liba Vaynberg, Ed Asner and Jimmy Burke is a profound privilege, also Pam Berlin, our director. You know, after you can laugh or cry on stage, the whole game is clarity because we’re supposed to be master storytellers. And I hope to heck that after 45 years sharing two thirds of my life with the American international and particularly the New York public, that I have become a vivid and accomplished and maybe even expert storyteller. That’s my job. So I’m with three actors who are brilliant at their jobs. And it makes mine easier. All I’ll have to do is listen to them and respond to the stimuli they’re sending me. Also we’re working with a legend… and this man’s 89 years old. So lines like that have much more resonance when they come from the real McCoy, and Ed Asner is the real McCoy. He’s not afraid for a moment to be grouchy, a curmudgeon, to be naughty. He’s not seeking your love or popularity. He’s seeking his own truth, and I think that’s what made him a great artist and the winner of eight Emmys. There’s a reason for that.
This play does function as an education of the Holocaust, but it also feels like an examination of truth in a post-truth world.
That’s an excellent question. That is the river — the crucial river of common human experience — that the play must touch upon in order to be universal. So the universal here is, “what is truth?” The outcome can be whoever’s got the strongest vision, whoever can manipulate the press in the mightiest way. You know, the meek will inherit the earth. If only. The mightiest way very often wins the day.
I mean, Hitler was a media genius. He really believed he was the greatest housekeeper of the world. He just wanted to clean it up. No Jews, no children with Down Syndrome, no Poles unless they were going to be slaves. No clergy who talked against the right. He had everything stratified and organized so that it would be pretty and neat. So this play examines the nature of truth and how in the end, I guess, truth ultimately ends up being subjective because it combines fact with your perception, with the limits of your eyes and your ears. So that’s what I believe. The foundation of this play is about what is truth and who gets to be the winner.
Transitioning a bit to your other work, you do a lot of TV as well. What’s the difference between doing something like “The Soap Myth” and something that’s for television? How do you approach that?
Being in a play is like running a marathon. You go for 90 minutes straight. TV and film is the sprint. You have to always be at the ready. The preparation is similar, because you want a reservoir of experience. You want to over-prepare to go with the flow in television, because you get no rehearsal. And you have to understand where you are in that society. If you’re a continuing guest star like I was in “Law and Order,” like I was really in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” like I was not in “The Walking Dead” (I was a regular), it’s a very big difference, but nonetheless you never want to keep the wheels of progress halted for your sake in the television genre.
I want to ask you about “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Your song “Where’s the Bathroom” is arguably one of the most popular songs from the show. Does it surprise you at all that it’s so popular?
It does. You know, whenever you do anything, you don’t know if it’s going to make it… You don’t know. All I knew was, they sent me this five-page solo without audition and said we want you to play Rachel’s mother and I knew it was Rachel who said it. She went to [NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts]. She was a New York kid that way, even though she was born in California.
The first concert I did with Rachel in New York we did at Town Hall. Rachel said, “You’re going to get huge applause and they’re going to all sing with you.” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” I’m a Broadway entity. I’m local talent. They’re not going to do anything. But, I walked on. Twelve-hundred people went to their feet, and then I started singing “Where’s the Bathroom” and twelve-hundred people sang back “bathroom, where’s the bathroom, I need to use the bathroom / tell me that you have a bathroom in this hovel you call home.” And they went right through with me. I was thrilled.
ALL ARTS’ Jake King contributed to this report.
Top Image: TovahFeldshuh.com