Israeli-American Actress Dazzles Broadway in Cabaret Revival

Hani Furstenberg plays Fraulein Kost alongside well-known stars like Alan Cumming in the celebrated Broadway revival of the now-classic musical.

Dan Keinan

Hani Furstenberg was four months pregnant when she first auditioned for the Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” whose opening night was scheduled for April 24, 2014 — her due date. “I wrote Sam [Mendes, the director] a letter trying to convince him I could do it pregnant, that Fraulein Kost was a prostitute who didn’t have condoms, and it would make sense she was pregnant.” She told them she could take a week off to have the baby and would go right back to work, and that her mother (Israeli actress Brynie Furstenberg, who had played the same role in Ramat Gan 10 years earlier) had performed a week after giving birth to Hani’s brother.

But the “Cabaret” people didn’t think it was a good idea. “And thank God for that, because having a baby wasn’t what I expected it to be,” says the American-Israeli actress. Furstenberg is known in Israel for her movie roles in “Yossi & Jagger” and “Medurat Hashevet” (“Campfire”) and for playing Lilach in the television series “Haburganim” (“The Bourgeoisie”). In the United States, she is known for starring alongside Gael Garcia Bernal in “The Loneliest Planet.”

“Cabaret” was cast with someone else playing the brazen hussy who traipses sailors past her landlady in the decadent Berlin of 1931. (Based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” “Cabaret” debuted on Broadway in 1966 and on screen in 1972; it highlights the seedy nightlife at the Kit Kat Club and portends the rise of the Nazis.) “‘Cabaret’ has always been one of my favorite musicals,” Furstenberg says. “As a Jew, of course, the subject of the play speaks to me.”

Six months after she gave birth (her first child, a girl), the producers called to say her role was opening up again.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

“I was very surprised,” she says. Furstenberg was called in for a dance audition. (“They wanted to see how I was doing after having a baby.”) She was offered the role, with only three weeks to learn her songs, dances, a German accent and how to play the accordion — which was challenging, since her daughter was afraid of the noise.

But onstage you can’t see any of that — that Furstenberg is a new mom who only joined the cast a month ago. With her red hair and freckles, Furstenberg is as loose and professional as Emma Stone (playing Sally Bowles), and as lively and raucous as the debonair and wanton Alan Cumming (the Emcee), the musical’s costars.

“Alan spreads the party atmosphere that everyone should feel backstage,” Furstenberg says of the Scottish-born actor. Cumming may be most widely known as Eli Gold on the U.S. television series “The Good Wife,” but he is a veteran stage actor, who won a Tony Award for the same part in “Cabaret” in 1998 and has also starred in “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “The Threepenny Opera,” among many other plays. Furstenberg relates that on her first day, Cumming organized a party at which everyone toasted her. “It wasn’t what I imagined a Broadway musical vibe to be,” she says.

But imagine it, she did, growing up in New York City, attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. “What else would you dream of but Broadway when you’re growing up in New York and attending La Guardia?” she laughs. “I wasn’t dreaming of [Tel Aviv’s] Cameri Theater — I didn’t know what that was!”

Moti Kimche

Furstenberg is quick to call herself an “American-Israeli.” She was born in Israel — her parents were already living in New York, but her mother traveled to Israel for the birth, returning when Hani was six weeks old — and she lived in Queens until she was 16, when the family returned to Israel.

“I was very against moving back: I wanted to go to Juilliard and be on Broadway, but my parents wanted to go back to Israel,” she recalls. She says she didn’t fit in at her Israeli high school: Her background in Jewish studies was poor and she did not read and write Hebrew fluently, though she did well in math and science. So after six months or so she dropped out and enrolled at Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts, in Ramat Gan. She stayed in Israel until she was 24, acting first in movies and TV before moving into theater, but spent the next decade traveling — to Los Angeles, New York, Israel.

She’s hesitant to compare the acting scenes in Israel and America (“the profession is the same profession anywhere you go, hopefully you’re surrounded by talented people who are happy and grateful to be doing what they’re doing every moment”), or to talk about the difference between being a big fish in a small pond and a small fish in a big pond.

“I know Israel tends to give that vibe, that you’re leaving Israel to make it somewhere better and bigger,” she says, noting that it’s not like that for her. “I always wanted to be an actress, so if I’m living in Israel I want to do as much as I can, if I’m living in New York I want do that here.”

Does she plan on moving back to Israel?

For now, with a Broadway show ending March 29, a husband, a toddler and a film (“Five Nights in Maine,” starring David Oyelowo and Rosie Perez) coming out in the spring, she’s staying put in New York City. “We have till she’s in nursery school to decide” where to settle down, Furstenberg says, referring to her daughter.

It’s a mixed bag, being American-Israeli, says Furstenberg, whose husband was born in Israel. “Every few years I get sick of the Israeli mentality so I move to America and then I get sick of the American mentality so I go back,” she said. “I have two homes — it’s a blessing and a curse at the same time, you’re always missing something.”