Hershey Felder returns to Boston, this time as Leonard Bernstein
Is there anyone Hershey Felder can’t play? He may be best-known for playing famous composers, but recently he played a little-known figure from American history: the Union medic that cared for the wounded Abraham Lincoln in a new solo piece: "Lincoln - An American Story - For Actor and Symphony Orchestra" in Pasadena. (He had previously recorded the work with the Chicago Symphony). Mixing traditional songs with original ones, Felder told the story of that fateful night in 1865 to great acclaim.
But this Lincoln show is something of an anomaly in Felder’s artistic work: playing great composers is what the 43-year old actor/musician/playwright is known for. Over the past decade he has become a regional theater favorite with his solo works based on the lives Gershwin, Bernstein, Beethoven and Chopin (that are collectively known as "The Composer Sonata").
He brings his latest in the series, "Maestro: Leonard Bernstein," to the Paramount Theatre on April 28 for a four week run.
The Boston connection
In reviewing the show during its recent run in Southern California, the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Written by Felder and directed by his longtime collaborator Joel Zwick, "Maestro" is plenty slick but also expert... it takes a certain chutzpah and considerable talent to impersonate this uniquely charismatic and supremely talented Bernstein. And Lenny liked nothing better than chutzpah combined with talent. Somewhere, he is looking down on this show no doubt bitching like crazy yet deeply touched that we still, 20 years after his death, care."
It shouldn’t be surprising is that "Maestro: Leonard Bernstein" (produced in Boston by Arts Emerson), has already been extended, and there’s talk that Felder may reprise what is his signature show, "George Gershwin Alone," for another Boston run. It previously played the American Repertory Theater where it was the highest grossing show in the theater’s history up to that time.
One reason why the Bernstein show is selling so well is that the late composer/conductor has strong Boston roots. He was born in Lawrence, raised in Brookline, attended Harvard and burst on the American musical scene in a spectacular manner: subbing for an ailing Bruno Walter in a New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall in 1943 when he was just 25 years old. "It’s a good American success story. The warm, friendly triumph of it filled Carnegie Hall and spread far over the air waves," wrote the New York Times of his debut. The national broadcast of the concert made Bernstein an instant celebrity, and he remained one of the most vital figures on the American musical landscape for the next 45 years.
An important story
He became the conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, the same year as his epochal score to "West Side Story" premiered on Broadway. His Young People’s Concerts, which were broadcast on CBS, introduced Baby Boomers to classical music. Throughout the 1960s, he was a tireless advocate of the works of Gustav Mahler, helping to renew interest in the Austrian composer. He stepped down from the Philharmonic in 1969, at which time he became a leading international conductor, most notably with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Israel Philharmonic. He famously led the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of "Beethoven’s Ninth," substituting the word Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy), when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989; and virtually ended his career on the podium --- conducting the Boston Symphony in a memorable performance of "Beethoven’s Seventh" at Tanglewood in August, 1990, just three months before his death at the age of 72.
He was a personality not above controversy. Some criticized his populist attitude towards serious music, others found fault with his liberal politics, and he was plagued with gay rumors (later confirmed) throughout his life.
"I think there is an important story to tell," Felder has written about his portrayal of Bernstein. "As with Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven, Bernstein’s story is one of a creative artist and his struggle. But what’s different about him is that, because he has been gone for twenty years, time hasn’t yet confirmed for us whether as a composer he is a Beethoven, Chopin, or Gershwin. Or not."
Pull back the curtain
In creating these shows, Felder researches and absorbs all he can about his chosen subject. He painstakingly shapes a work, in the manner that a sculptor might - from assembling the raw materials to polishing it into a finished work.
In his candid diaries, written from 1995-2003, published online at the "All About Jewish Theatre" website, he describes this process, specifically about his work on "George Gershwin Alone."
"I visited every location in the United States that still exists where George either lived or worked. I studied George and Ira’s [lyricist Ira Gershwin, George’s brother] correspondence as well as their use of language. Most importantly, I studied the structure and then learned to play, every one of George’s pieces of music," he wrote.
Sometimes, Felder confesses, this process can be maddening. Take this diary snippet from 1999:
"Panic. The script isn’t working. Dump it. Start all over. Piles and piles of notes. What is George about? What’s the core of the play?" he wrote.
Felder isn’t afraid to "pull back the curtain," as he calls it. He reveals himself with stark honesty - warts and all. He confesses to a heightened state of trepidation about performing in front of an audience. He worries that the critics might not like his show. Other artists would be loath to share such details. Not Hershey Felder.
Not going to fake it
"I decided long ago," he tells me, "that I was never going to fake it. As important as what I am doing is to me, it still is not brain surgery. It’s not the end of the world. You go on. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I go to work. Then you give birth to your baby. And at the end of the day, you go back and make it better."
Felder, born and raised in Montreal to Jewish immigrants, makes his home in Paris, where he resides with his wife, Kim Campbell, who served briefly as the Prime Minister of Canada, and who is 21 years his senior. When the couple was first betrothed, the press found their union titillating.
"I think the press has since grown up," Felder says, dismissing that early onslaught of published gossip mongering. "They’ve come to discover we’re just a boring couple like everyone else."
But now, he says, he needs to make haste. Ever the gentleman, he doesn’t want to be brusque, he just needs to go. There’s a lot to be done, much more to ponder, to absorb.
The work, for Hershey Felder, is never finished.
"Maestro: Leonard Bernstein" plays April 28 - May 30, 2012 at the Paramount Center 559 Washington Street Boston, MA. For more information, visit :WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=F957BD58-B046-41B6-86E0-1E88C091BADF:the Arts Emerson website.