When President John F. Kennedy welcomed an audience of Nobel laureates to the White House in 1962, he famously remarked that it was the most extraordinary collection of talent that had ever gathered there, “with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
That quip easily could be reworked to apply to Hershey Felder: actor, pianist, writer, director, composer, conductor, mentor, producer and conjurer of the spirits of George Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Leonard Bernstein and (coming soon) Irving Berlin.
Felder, 46, the Canadian-born artist whose solo shows have been seen across America—at the Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Hartford Stage, American Repertory Theater and Cleveland Play House, as well as in long runs at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre and in brief engagements at New York’s Town Hall, among many other venues—is in a category all his own.
Felder has devised a type of performance that feeds on his unique gifts as a seductive portraitist, compelling storyteller and superb concert pianist. Musical biographies? That doesn’t come close to suggesting what it is Felder does. It would be one thing for an actor to arrive onstage, as Felder does in his show George Gershwin Alone, and present a self-penned study that captures alluring if often anguished aspects of the composer who died far too young. It is quite another to also sing and play your way through the story—including an aria from Porgy and Bess—and then top it all off with a knockout rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Similarly, it’s conceivable that you might be able to find an actor who could capture a sense of the polymorphous talent that was Bernstein, an impression of his ability to teach and perform in the most seamless way, a suggestion of the man’s desperate energy, intellect and neuroses. But it is the rare performer who also possesses the profound musical understanding that could bring this legend to life—or the ability to sit at the piano, as Felder does in Maestro Bernstein, and play and sing excerpts from West Side Story and Candide as if had composed them himself.
And then there is the way Felder finesses an enthralling performance of “The Moonlight Sonata” in his show Beethoven as I Knew Him, a portrait that draws on the memoir of Gerhard von Breuning, a friend of the composer in his later years. Felder can captivate an audience with little or no background in classical music while at the same time satisfying aficionados. And, when he is dealing with masters of the great American songbook, he can easily leave a crowd unable to suppress the desire to sing along.
Felder has become a sort of one-man cottage industry. At the same time he’s busy creating a new show—most recently, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, slated for its world premiere Nov. 11–Dec. 21 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles—he keeps his other productions in rotating repertory. Over the course of the past 15 years, he has given more than 4,500 performances and never canceled a single date.
Work ethic? Call Felder for a chat at 9 a.m. and he might tell you he has just completed three hours of practicing the piano.
“I’ve been working on an interesting project for myself,” says Felder. “I’m playing all the preludes in Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier,’ and all the Chopin preludes, and have been looking for the connections and dramatic through lines in them. I’ve also been consulting what has become my greatest teacher now, YouTube, which gives me access to so many archival recordings and rare videos of great artists. I study them, and they help keep me on the ball pianistically.”
So which came first, the acting or the piano? They seem to have blossomed in tandem. Felder was born into an observant Jewish immigrant family in Montréal, Quebec, in 1968, the child of a Polish father and Hungarian mother, and was educated at the city’s Hebrew Academy Day School. He admits to being something of a ham from the start.
“I was a quiet child, but I loved telling stories, and my parents would put me in the center of the room where I would repeat things I’d heard in funny ways,” he recalls. “Friday nights we observed the Sabbath, so there was no television or Atari, just singing and storytelling at the table. The fascination with music began when I was four and visited my grandmother at a senior home in Montréal. They had a piano there, and I would escape the adults and pound on it. The lady in the gift shop at the place finally said: ‘Kill that kid or give him piano lessons.’”
His grandfather gave him an upright piano as a Passover gift and a friend of his mother’s began giving him lessons. He took to it, but confesses, “I wanted to be accomplished right away, and I struggled with the discipline you need to make that happen. I also had an ability to read music very quickly, which could have been my downfall, because while that enabled me to learn things easily, I would also muck things up just as easily, and blur the details.”
Acting also came naturally. He began playing roles in a semiprofessional Yiddish theatre in Montréal from the age of nine, and loved the whole environment of the stage. Still, he says, “My childhood was far more of a rabbinic world than a cultural world. I went to the synagogue, and unlike my secular friends, I saw only a couple of musicals. But I think my sense of storytelling began in that world. And my understanding of how theatre is important—not in the showbiz sense of it being an exclusive universe—is a result of that upbringing. I also think it’s why I create my own work.”
The piano began to take precedence as Felder studied with teachers from McGill University in Montréal, then headed to New York while still a teenager to work with pianist Jerome Lowenthal at the Juilliard School. “I wasn’t crazy enough to be an actor at that time, and I wasn’t ready to take those risks,” Felder admits. “Then, at 19, I was hired as a pianist for the workshop of a new musical based on The Master and Margarita being showcased at Hal Prince’s Musical Theatre Program in New York. That’s where I met actress Tovah Feldshuh, and found myself friends in a whole new circle of theatre people.”
It was Stu Silver, a film and television writer, who noticed Felder’s energy and told him he should meet his pal, movie director Joel Zwick (who turned out to be a distant cousin of Felder’s, and who, many years later, would direct him in George Gershwin Alone). At 21, Felder headed to Hollywood, thinking he would get work as a pianist, but instead was asked to do interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation (in part because he spoke Yiddish). While at the Canadian consulate to get his passport updated, he met the new consul general of Canada, Kim Campbell (who briefly served as prime minister of Canada). The two married in 1997, and now have apartments in New York and Vancouver, and houses in Paris and San Diego.
Zwick told Felder to contact him if he had “anything interesting.” A friend, producer Greg Willenborg, suggested to Felder that he do a play about Gershwin. He spent five years researching what would become George Gershwin Alone, along the way realizing that securing the rights to the music would be difficult. But, as Felder explained, “I just pestered the estate—not to be defiant, but because I had a vision of what the show could be. I asked them to just let me try. I did a reading in Los Angeles, and realized I had something. Then I took it to Florida, and finally, in 2000, to the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. It ran for 12 weeks and got some nice reviews, but it got lost amid the fervor surrounding The Producers, and it suffered from having practically no advertising budget.”
That was hardly a setback; in fact, the show got better as it moved forward.
“I think my gift is to know when and how to listen to criticism,” says Felder. “I knew how to fix the show. I also learned what it takes to be a producer. Gershwin ran for six months at the American Rep in Cambridge, went on to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and in 2004 arrived in Chicago, running for 11 months in a theatre that some had warned me was ‘cursed.’ My time in Chicago marked the launch of the mature part of my career.”
In recent years, Felder has been approached by others inspired by his particular mix of storytelling and live music. His greatest success as mentor has been as the adapter and director of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, in which the superb concert pianist Mona Golabek spins the story of her mother’s experiences as a young pianist sent to England from Vienna as part of the Kindertransport during World War II. Chris Lemmon’s recent memoir of his father, Jack Lemmon Returns, which Felder also helped adapt and direct, turned out to be more problematic.
“I approached Hershey after I saw him in his Beethoven show, and he just took me under his wing,” said Golabek, who debuted Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012, and has had successful runs with it in Chicago (also at the Royal George, where Felder’s Gershwin Alone ran), at Berkeley Rep, at New York’s 59E59 Theater and, this past September, at San Diego Repertory.
“Hershey has an incredibly generous spirit, but he also is utterly, painstakingly demanding, and uncompromising in his vision,” said Golabek. “He is adamant in his attention to detail, and insists that every element of the production be at the highest artistic level. Having him as your director is no picnic—I will always remember him telling me, ‘Absolutely no water during the show, and if your mouth gets dry, just use spit.’ But he is the first to say that anything worthwhile is achieved at a tremendous cost. And the way he was able to help me blend the music and narrative of my mother’s story was magic.”
If Felder can be hard on his collaborators, he’s no less demanding of himself. Says Randall Arney, artistic director of the Geffen since 1999 and a presenter of most of Felder’s shows, as well as Golabek’s, “Hershey does something that no one else does—he has the ability to forge an astonishingly personal, deeply connected relationship with his audience. He can hold an audience at attention, teach them things, bring such nuance to many different characters, then sustain the incredible focus required for playing the most technically demanding music. He is prolific, indefatigable.”
It was Arney’s predecessor at the Geffen, the late director/producer Gil Cates, who was not only a fan of Felder’s but made him promise that he would create a show about Irving Berlin.
“It is an amazing story, and in many ways the most dramatic piece I’ve done,” Felder ventures. “It’s really the story of this country—about an immigrant kid who created America’s most iconic music, who went with the flow of every style for six decades, who faced anti-Semitism even as he wrote two of the most iconic songs about Christian holidays [“White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”], and then felt completely betrayed when rock-and-roll pushed him out of the picture.”
Felder admits that the world of the one-man show can be lonely, but he has a team of offstage collaborators that has worked with him on many productions. And he has begun work on that most collaborative of all endeavors—the stage musical—teaming up with journalist Joshua Hammer to adapt his book Chosen by God: A Brother’s Journey.
“I suppose you could call me an auteur,” Felder says, summing up. “But I create and produce my own shows because the only thing I care about is quality. It’s not about ego—it’s about responsibility. I have to keep my promise to the audience.”
Hedy Weiss is theatre and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and WTTW-TV’s “Chicago Tonight.”
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