BWW Interviews: Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at Westport Country Playhouse
Starting on July 16, the Westport Country Playhouse will present the one-man show, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin. BroadwayWorld wanted to know more about the man who has several one-person shows including last year's The Pianist of Willesden Lane.
BWW: You've done a number of one-man shows. How do you pick your subjects?.
HF: Each show has a different specific origin in terms of how it actually came to be. The Gershwin because I played the Rhapsody in Blue in public at a very young age and was fascinated with how much the public loved the piece, but I knew very little about Gershwin the man. Chopin because he was the poet of the piano and created colors and piano stories that moved me in ways I wanted to better understand. Beethoven because I couldn't put together how he composed the Grosse Fugue when he was completely deaf. Bernstein because Mike Nichols told me that he was friends with Bernstein -- and he saw something similar in Bernstein and myself and he thought I needed to explore the musical similarities. (Very kind of him and generous, but it did lead to the show...) and so on. What I have discovered is that, in the end, all the characters came from humble beginnings and changed the world of music.
BWW: What, in particular, appeals to you about Irving Berlin?
HF: His natural ability for creating music that appeals to the ear, and his storytelling capacity that evokes simply human feelings that we all experience.
BWW: What's the most challenging thing about playing Berlin?
HF: All the characters have similar challenges in that making them human and true is about keeping them simple and straightforward. This doesn't mean they aren't complicated individuals -- but the important thing is to always remember to keep them human and not "ACT."
BWW: Has the show changed since you first performed it?
HF: I'm older, so things settle. But the truth is the show itself hasn't changed much. What has changed is the world around us, setting Irving Berlin's genuine patriotism in a much different context.
BWW: Of all the solo shows you've done, which did you find most challenging, and why?
HF: They are all challenging each in their own way. Whether it is the combined skills of acting, and playing, storytelling and playing, and so on. Anything done well is challenging, and the work never ends.
BWW: Tell us more about your experience in Yiddish theater.
HF: My first professional stage experience was in the Yiddish Theatre and it began when I was a very little boy. It was in the Russian tradition of (Solomon) Mikhoels, the Moscow Yiddish Art Theatre -- and the works were directed by a student of Mikhoels, who was a student of Stanislavsky. It was not what we have come to know as Borscht Belt Yiddish theatre comedy (a wonderful thing I must say... and a real craft) or an Americanized version of Yiddish Theatre. It really was traditional Yiddish Theatre. If one looks at the 1939 Maurice Schwartz film of TEVYE - the stories upon which the beloved Fiddler on the Roof is based, it was that style of theatre. Very serious, very Russian, very strong. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
BWW: What did you do as Scholar in Residence at Harvard University's School of Music?
HF: While I was performing at ART (American Repertory Theater) -- I was a regular there some years ago -- I was invited to be a Scholar in Residence. Which meant that I was able to engage with Harvard resources to advance my work, and also to give master classes to Harvard students and students at ART. It was a very memorable time in Cambridge.
Previews for Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin begin July 16. The show runs through August 3, and takes you from Czarist Russia to Broadway and Hollywood with Berlin's iconic songs including "There's No Business Like Show Business," "White Christmas" and "Blue Skies." For tickets call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.