It doesn’t take long for Tovah Feldshuh to burst into song. Five minutes and 32 seconds, to be exact.
“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today,” she begins. Suddenly, her voice drops an octave. “But not yet!” she snaps. “Don’t you know who I am? Fame! I’m gonna live forever!”
The tasteless musical medley comes courtesy the infamous Leona Helmsley — or Feldshuh’s characterization of the hotel magnate widely regarded as a symbol of arrogance and greed.
And she was imprisoned for it.
Tax evasion and fraud may have taken Helmsley down, but Feldshuh is bringing her back up in “Tovah is LEONA!,” an all-new show featuring highlights from the Broadway-bound musical, “Queen of Mean” — composed by Ron Passaro, with lyrics by David Lee and Alex Lippard — based on the biography by Ransdell Pierson.
“In the act, Leona Helmsley is up from purgatory for 60 minutes to set the record straight and sing a few show tunes,” Feldshuh says. “It’s very, very funny. She says, ‘All my afterlife, I’ve had two dreams: to come up from purgatory and get through those pearly gates, and to star in my own cabaret’ — and, in this case, ‘To star in my own cabaret at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.’”
On Saturday, September 15, the six-time Tony- and Emmy-nominated star of “The Walking Dead,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Salvation” will bring her newest show to the East End venue — not far from her second home in Quogue — singing about Helmsley’s meteoric rise from office temp to Queen of the Palace, and even her real estate rival, Donald Trump.
“I thought the character warranted a musical just like Trump warrants an opera,” explains Feldshuh, who created the show with director Jeff Harnar and musical director James Bassi. “Trump would make a great opera because it’s just Greek. You can’t believe it.”
For Feldshuh, the greater the transformation, the most interest she has. And Helmsley’s rags-to-riches story was impossible to ignore, she says.
“‘I was a hard-scrabble kid from Coney Island’ — she would smoke two packs a day, so my voice has to lower — ‘with a beautiful sister who was the apple of my mother’s eye and a sty in mine,’” she says, slipping into character. “‘I had a father who died young and a brother who was a lump. Oh yeah, and there was another sister, but she was fat. We don’t talk about her. And how did I escape all this? Manhattan.’”
She would go on to marry billionaire and real estate tycoon Harry Helmsley in 1972 — her fourth marriage — and became president of Helmsley Hotels eight years later, where she sealed her fate as the “Queen of Mean,” notorious for terrorizing the help at her homes and hotels.
“She has very little impulse control. She has boundary issues,” Feldshuh says. “If you want to get angry as Leona, just have a great time. Just scream your frickin’ head off. Be as bad natured as you always dreamed of being, as you’re lying in bed and you want to kill somebody, and you muzzle yourself to be socially appropriate. Leona didn’t have that control. She just let people have it, and it’s wild. It’s so much cheaper than therapy.”
Despite herself, and the more research she did, Feldshuh says she found herself relating to Helmsley, her rugged individualism and never settling for less than her best. She oddly admires her moxie and her grit, and her “American know-how,” she says.
“It’s my job to find what we call a ‘path in.’ I certainly hope I don’t relate to her in terms of her manners, but the freedom of her impulses, for an actor, it’s like taking a vacation from yourself, and a vacation from your understanding of how to see yourself through the world, and be appreciated and loved,” she says. “We all want to be loved and acknowledged, so if I behaved like her, I’d have no allies — which is exactly what happened.”
In 1989, Helmsley was convicted of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, three counts of tax evasion, three counts of filing false personal tax returns, 16 counts of assisting in the filing of false corporate and partnership tax returns, and 10 counts of mail fraud.
“She was sentenced to four years in prison and she was released in 19 months — and ‘not for good behavior. I was released because I did nothing wrong,’” Feldshuh says, taking on Helmsley once more. “And then she goes into a rap number.”
From singing to rapping and back again, Feldshuh describes “Tovah as LEONA!” as “quite a journey” — an intellectual and artistic one that stretched their envelope of creativity.
“We didn’t know we had anything on our hands that would succeed. We just hoped for the best. We didn’t realize it would take off like this, in this way,” she says. “It’s a small launch — let’s not get too fancy here, it’s just gonna be my fifth performance — but it is uncanny, and I feel very, very lucky to be booked in the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. I’m hoping my whole community will come.”
Tovah Feldshuh will present “Tovah is LEONA!” on Saturday, September 15, at 8:30 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. Tickets range from $65 to $85. For more information, please call (631) 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.