He has an ear for musicians' lives

Actor-pianist brings Chopin and Gershwin to life in his plays

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

What do George Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin, and Ludwig van Beethoven have in common (besides, well, the obvious)?

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.

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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."

Mr. Robinson says he's run into another one of Felder's passions: a demand for authenticity. When Robinson wanted to make dialogue changes, Felder insisted that any new words come from either Delacroix's diaries, Sand's autobiography, or Chopin's notebooks. Robinson tried to convince him that the audience won't know the difference, but Felder "doesn't want anything that we're just concocting," Robinson says.

Felder listened to Gershwin's playing when he created his one-man show, but Chopin lived before the era of audio recordings. So Felder is drawing on "tons" of written material about the Polish expatriate's style and technique.

"Probably a lot of people nowadays play better than Chopin ever played," Felder says. "But we imagine it to be something else. It was new in those days - the quiet playing, the virtuoso stuff. This is a whole other time now."

When he sits down to write, Felder concedes, "it hurts just to get the stuff on paper." But he has found writing for three characters this time "much more fun" than creating a monologue.

"I don't want to tell the audience everything," he says of his playwriting style. "Clues. Clues. Always clues. And let the audience put the pieces together."

"Romantique" was originally "two huge acts," he says. But he cut and cut until "you only see what you need to see to get the picture." It now runs at less than two hours, with no intermission.

What music and playwriting have in common, Felder says, is a certain mathematical structure, carefully planned but hidden. Rhythm and sound are crucial. "Sometimes an actor will suggest a line, and I'll say, 'No, no, you can't do that.' And they'll say 'Why?' And I say, 'because if I'm sitting in an audience, my ear doesn't hear that.' "

"George Gershwin Alone" won kudos from critics as thoroughly entertaining. But some questioned whether Felder really revealed anything significant about Gershwin and his demons.

"Gershwin was a man who wasn't looking deep inside [himself] and that's what I reveal in the play," Felder says. "And it took the right critics to understand it. That was the darkness of the character, that he refused to let anyone inside, or couldn't let anybody inside."

In the course of a four-year run that ended this summer, that criticism "slowly disappeared because people saw this was a success: [They began to say] 'maybe he knows what he's talking about.' "

He says he now realizes that some people are always "going to tell you you're not worth anything. And I'm going to get that on ['Romantique'], too."

Felder says his interest in pursuing his own "imaginations" isn't about having to have control. "The only power I want is to be completely and unequivocally generous," he says.

Ms. Zimbalist, who once teamed with Pierce Brosnan on the TV detective series "Remington Steele" before going into a long career in theater, can attest to that. Recently, during Felder's only night off from a grueling schedule of Gershwin performances he invited eight people, including Zimbalist, to his home for a dinner he prepared. "That's Hershey Felder," she says in a phone interview. "He didn't even think about it."

But Felder isn't about to relinquish control, either. Right now, commitments to take the show to Philadelphia, Washington, Florida, and New York are tentative.

"I will make the final decision about whether it's going to happen," he says. No matter what anyone else says, "If I don't like it, it ain't happening. So we'll see."

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