Hershey Felder – pianist, actor, playwright, composer and producer – always wanted to meld music at the concert level with acting. For the past 15 years, the Canadian native has been doing that with one-man shows about great composers. For Felder the human side of the composer is even more interesting than his talent, and that keeps the shows vibrant.
“I play a character rather than an icon, a real human being,” Felder said. “It’s not just an idea. I relate to the character. His accomplishments and his personal history are part of the contiuum of his life.”
After learning how to play George Gershwin’s music, Felder created the role of American composer George Gershwin for the theatrical stage in the stage play George Gershwin Alone. Combining the craft of acting and concert-level piano performance, George Gershwin Alone was followed by the creation of the role of Fryderyk Chopin, the Polish composer/pianist, the roles of Ludwig van Beethoven and Gerhard von Breuning in Beethoven, As I Knew Him.
Together Felder’s works comprise “The Composer Sonata.” To date, Felder has appeared before the paying public with his Sonata as well as in theater roles and concerts for more than 4,000 performances. Felder has acknowledged that he will continue his theatrical one-man format with stories reaching further than just the art of classical music, and will also include his own compositions. Currently, Felder is the president of Eighty-Eight Entertainment, a music-based production company, producing new performance works worldwide.
Now Felder is MAESTRO: The Art of Leonard Bernstein. With a story spanning the entire twentieth century, Leonard Bernstein, considered by many to be America’s greatest musician, broke through every artistic ceiling possible to become the world’s musical ambassador. Conductor, composer, pianist, author, teacher, librettist, television star… for Leonard Bernstein boundaries simply did not exist. He was a major force in 20th Century music as a presence on Broadway, in Hollywood, at Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein possessed an exuberant and dramatic style and brought classical music to thousands of people from diverse backgrounds. He expanded the audience of classical music while maintaining a deep artistic integrity. While Bernstein toured throughout the world, he also concentrated on creating accessible performances for the average American in live concerts and on television. In addition to composing music, Bernstein created shows that were both entertaining and educational for children and adults.
Felder brings the composer of West Side Story, Candide, Mass and more to life at the Laguna Playhouse from January 4 to February 6. The show opened at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles and is slated for Chicago, Florida and San Diego as well.
“I came to this character, because people asked me to do him,” Felder explained. “I had been more inclined to do people who were more distant. I wasn’t sure this was a good idea at first.”
Felder added, “This is the first time I’m playing a character people immediately recognize. He’s much more than a celebrated composer. It’s easy to identify with him.”
Describing himself as a student of, more than a fan of, Leonard Bernstein, Felder immerses himself in the character as well as the music. “Bernstein was a conflicted character,” he said. “We show the conflicts about his art and his personal life. At the same time he had a great interest in leaving great works behind as a composer. There was a constant search for art. His ability to live his life in art is very inspiring.”
According to Felder, Bernstein “created the classical American music industry. He lived modern life in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. What was considered shocking then is no longer shocking, but he lived his life in public in the television era.”
Felder believes that the artists of today don’t have the art or the career that Leonard Bernstein had. “Today it’s a media machine,” he said. “I’m not convinced that artists today have the scope, the reach or the knowledge. The field is less pure and less creative. It has always been a business, but it’s even more so today.”
Still, according to Felder, in every era people are people who “crave human contact and imagination. They love to think, discover and feel. Looking back to the Enlightenment, people like to discover, and that will never stop. For all of the movies in the world, people still come to the theater, because they’re desperate for human contact.”
What lies ahead for Hershey Felder? He is working on a show about Abraham Lincoln called Nine Hours on Tenth. Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater on Tenth Street in Washington, DC, and he lived for nine hours after he was shot.
“The writing is based on an unknown story,” Felder said. “It’s a short, chunky Jewish boy telling the story of a 6’4” man from Kentucky.” On a serious note, Felder explained that the last hours of Lincoln’s life were “untold and fascinating.”
Once a President is shot, the focus is on the people left behind, according to Felder. Instead, Felder focuses on Lincoln himself from the moment he was struck by the bullet of John Wilkes Booth to the moment he died.
Meanwhile, Felder looks forward to coming to Orange County. “It’s a whole different environment from LA, and I had a wonderful experience here last year,” he said.
Hershey Felder is MAESTRO: The Art of Leonard Bernstein
January 4 – February 6, 2011
Music & Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Joel Zwick
For more information, contact the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; (949) 497-2787; www.lagunaplayhouse.com.