BWW Preview: MAESTRO at 59E59
BroadwayWorld.com's Peter Danish talks to the playwright and star of "Maestro," Hershey Felder as he prepares to open a six-week run at 59E59 Theater.
Hershey Felder is anything but ordinary. At first glance, he is an accomplished actor playing the role of world class musician. On closer inspection, he is a remarkable concert pianist who happens to be a superb serious actor as well. How apropos is it that a man with such world class talents in so many fields should be playing another famous uber-over-achiever, Leonard Bernstein?
Since the Canadian playwright/pianist/actor began his incredible one-man musico-drama industry over a decade ago, he has built a large, loyal, bordering on fanatical following who never miss his latest incarnation whether it be George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin, Irving Berlin, or as he will be playing for six weeks at 59E59th, Leonard Bernstein.
To call Mr. Felder "multi-talented" is really an understatement because his performances are more than the sum of his talents, they are the consummation of an extraordinary level of research into the characters, their psyches, their passions, their art and ultimately their humanity. And what drives this herculean degree of examination and scrutiny is Mr. Felder's love of these characters. It comes pouring through immediately while speaking with him.
"Maestro" is Felder's latest and most personal "composer show." It chronicles, through reflective monologues and musical selections performed by Felder himself, the life, loves and music of the 20th century's most celebrated musical genius.
When asked what drew him to the musical characters whom he has covered (Gershwin, Chopin and Bernstein), Felder said: "I'm not sure exactly if it is what drew me to them, but certainly one of the things they all had in common is that they all came from nothing, from very modest backgrounds and went on to achieve the extraordinary, to conquer the world so to speak in their fields."
And what was it that made Bernstein so appealing?
"Well for one thing, he was certainly the one whom I was most familiar with, beginning from his Young Peoples Concerts, right up through his talks at Harvard, which I recently re-watched in preparation for this run of performances. And he led such a storied and dramatic life. He was a genius, and not merely as a conductor, as conductor, a composer, an author, a TV personality and as a musician. But he was a conflicted genius. He had tremendous difficulty when the public didn't readily accept his material. He wanted...no he really almost demanded that they accept all of his works with the same level of adoration that he received for his early work."
Why do you think that was?
"I really think all his life he had it too easy. He achieved such success and popular acclaim so early that he simply came to expect it. And expect it in all things. He really never had to struggle - that is to say after his childhood of course - it seemed there was no hill he couldn't climb, no world he couldn't conquer. But for all his success, I don't think he ever had anyone in his inner circle who was willing to stand up to him and tell him when he was wrong or when something he had done was less than great."
When you did the show at Town Hall last time, I was extremely impressed by the degree of honesty your brought to your characterization of Lenny. More than any actor I've ever seen portraying a historical character, you have managed to really crawl into Bernstein's skin, showing us more than just his genius, but his nagging insecurity and his flawed humanity. How did you arrive at the specific combination of elements of such a complex character?
"As honestly as possible, I hope - but always within the context of the overall story. If anything, with Bernstein, there was almost too much material to choose from as he was such a complex character, but his public persona and his private one were often vastly different, so I felt it was important to balance both sides, the arrogance and the brilliance. He was brilliant, a genius, but he was tormented, ravaged by guilt and insecurity, and that plagued him his entire life."
The show runs just over 90 minutes yet you cover a great deal of time and various periods and people in Lenny's life. To what degree is the physical performance staged and blocked by your director?
That's a good question. Although I'm the only one on stage, with all my shows, it's very much a collaborative effort with my creative team. When we begin developing a new show, it always begins with an arc, a form and a structure, and every aspect is borne of a story. And by now, I've worked together with my director enough that we both know immediately what's working and what's not and I know that we share a goal of respecting the artist being represented on stage.
How has this show changed from its initial run?
"How hasn't it changed? Every performance brings new and deeper insights into the character and I've been lucky enough to have lived with this particular piece and this character for six years now. The character goes through changes and develops over his lifetime just as we do, and he never stops developing."
You've performed this role countless times now. Has the show gotten easier to do over time?
"I'm a firm believer that it is never easy to do anything well. Whether it's acting, performing in a play or playing the piano or anything else. It takes a lifetime of dedication and hard work."
I asked you earlier if you preferred producing your own work or having a producer and you gave an interesting answer.
"Well, I'm very aware that I have been extremely lucky to be in a position to make my own decisions about what I chose to work on. I have my own Production Company that produces my work, but I do have a producer. The audience is my producer! And if the audience doesn't like my work, they let me know."
So what's on the agenda after Lenny?
"I am actually booked solid for the next eighteen months! But the next new production is my Tchaikovsky piece, "Our Great Tchaikovsky" which will have its world premiere at the San Diego Rep in January."
Is there enough piano music to fill a full evening around Tchaikovsky?
"Oh my yes! So much piano music. Perhaps not as well-known as his other works but that's my current job - doing the reductions and arrangements for the piano. But that's the fun part of the work!"
Will you have any time in the next year to develop any new works?
"As always, it will have to happen while I'm working. After Tchaikovsky, I'm really looking forward to getting back to my composing, which I've neglected a bit, but which is equally important to me. There just hasn't been time. But I am not complaining, it has been nothing short of miraculous for me to be able to perform these characters and this music every night and be so warmly embraced by the public."
That warm embrace will continue on August 31st. Two years ago, Hershey Felder's "Maestro" arrived on New York's theater scene in a sold-out performance at the Town Hall Theater. The show was a revelation and Mr. Felder's performance was the stuff of legend. Beginning on August 31st, "Maestro" returns for a six-week run at 59E59th Theater, and tickets are going fast. Don't miss out on your chance to see this indisputably one-of-a-kind performer in a truly enchanting theatrical experience.
BroadwayWorld.com would like to thank Hershey Felder for taking time out of his crazy schedule to talk with us, and we wish him well on his run!
"MAESTRO" - Starring Hershey Felder
Aug. 31, 2016 - Oct. 16, 2016 / 59E59 Theaters is located at 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues.
- Peter Danish