He has an ear for musicians' lives
Actor-pianist brings Chopin and Gershwin to life in his plays
What do George Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin, and Ludwig van Beethoven have in common (besides, well, the obvious)?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Each composer's artistic triumphs were mirrored by personal tragedies, with Gershwin and Chopin dying before 40 and Beethoven going deaf. They're also all being reborn onstage thanks to Hershey Felder, himself a composer and pianist.
As a writer, Mr. Felder has meticulously researched their lives. As an actor playing them, he's got a trump card: He's an outstanding pianist, who can authentically bring each man and his art to the stage.
Felder's one-man show "George Gershwin Alone" has just completed a 1,200-performance tour across the US, including a stop on Broadway, to generally strong reviews and packed houses. Friday night marks the world première of "Romantique," his three-person play about Chopin, at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Mass.
For "Romantique," Felder dons a blond wig to play Chopin. He's called in two friends, actress Stephanie Zimbalist and actor Anthony Crivello, to play the roles of Chopin's lover, author George Sand, and his friend, painter Eugène Delacroix.
The play takes place at Sand's serene chateau in the French countryside on a weekend in 1846. It was the last time Chopin and Delacroix ever visited there. What we learn about Chopin, Felder says, "is that sometimes the art may be perfect, but the man is not."
To research "Romantique," Felder took his entire 22-member cast and crew to France to visit neighborhoods in Paris and elsewhere associated with the three artists. "We had the greatest time in the world," he says. "Whether it will add anything to the play, I don't know," he says with a shrug. "But, God, it was fun."
Each of Felder's plays has something a little different to say. The Gershwin show is about the songwriter's "relationship with his audience," he explains. "Chopin is the relationship of artists to each other and to their art." The yet-to-come Beethoven play, he says, is about "man's relationship to God. He was perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived. He was deaf. Is that an injustice? Was it a necessity? ... Think what it means to be deaf and yet have that gift."
TV and film director Joel Zwick ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") codirected the play with theatrical veteran Andrew Robinson. But make no mistake: This is a Hershey Felder "imagination," and he loves being involved in every nook and cranny of it.
"It's my nature," he says of the personal way he runs his production company. "I just enjoy being creative." With his wavy dark hair, he looks even younger than his 30-something years as he settles into a seat in the ART auditorium to talk about "Romantique" and his career.
"I want to create an ensemble in which people trust each other and have a good time," he says, explaining why he chose people he already knew and didn't hold auditions. "It's just my style. I don't know if it's right or wrong, but it's the way I want to do it."
Felder, who is married to Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, is able to talk passionately about everything from the importance of music at dinner parties to his ultimate wish "to be an ambassador for peace." He can even avoid making that last sound ridiculous - maybe because he's the first to concede it's a "ridiculous thing to say."