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BWW Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: BEETHOVEN LIVESTREAM at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Brings the Legendary Composer to Life

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BWW Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: BEETHOVEN LIVESTREAM at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Brings the Legendary Composer to Life
Hershey Felder as Ludwig van Beethoven
(Photo by Christopher Ash)

What better way to spend a summer evening than in the company of artistic genius in the form of iconic composer Ludwig van Beethoven as interpreted by renowned musical theater artist Hershey Felder? On Sunday July 12th at 5pm PDT, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley will present a livestream of the hit show Hershey Felder: Beethoven, an intimate and theatrical portrait of the legendary composer. Tickets to the livestream are available on TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's website (www.theatreworks.org) with proceeds to benefit TheatreWorks while the Tony-winning regional theatre remains dark due to the Covid pandemic. Inspired by an account of a Viennese doctor who spent his boyhood by the Beethoven's side, this enchanting musical features masterful performances of some of the composer's greatest works, from "Moonlight Sonata" to the "Ninth Symphony" and the "Emperor Concerto." The enormously popular show's 2017 World Premiere still holds TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's box office record to date.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Felder from his home in Florence, Italy where he will be performing the livestream. As cicadas whirred in the background (really!), we had a wide-ranging discussion about Beethoven, Felder's relationship with TheatreWorks, the pandemic and the wonders of Florence. In conversation, Felder is an engaging amalgam of seemingly contradictory qualities, at once erudite and folksy, brainy and empathetic, quick with an arcane cultural factoid or a self-deprecating remark, equally expressive of joy and sorrow. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

For your shows to work as theater pieces, you need to create actual characters. How did you go about finding the character of Beethoven?

I started out by looking at his letters and words that came out of him other than music and notes, to give him things he would have said. What I came to very quickly was that that wasn't exactly theatrical. I mean reading the letters would be okay, but they didn't really do anything for the character, they didn't advance the story. To find a conceit for such a thing was hard, and I wanted to do something that I knew was true, something that happened. If you know my work, I try not to make things out of whole cloth.

I looked for stories I could tell, and all of a sudden found this one I hadn't known, Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus, Gerhard von Breuning's memoir of Beethoven when Gerhard was a little boy. His father was Beethoven's best friend. Essentially the last two years of Beethoven's life he was a lonely soul, rather removed from society. Gerhard's father thought it would be a good idea for Beethoven to give this boy lessons. So he landed in the world of crazy, so to speak, and ended up becoming very close to Beethoven from the time he was 12 to 14, so 1825 to 1827, when Beethoven died.

On the 100th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, Gerhard wrote a memoir. There are those who profit from knowing people and those who are integral to people's lives from the very beginning. He was a family member essentially with Beethoven so he had no reason to profit from an alternative story, which many people were doing in those days. Certainly, Anton Schindler's biography of Beethoven is largely about Anton Schindler and mostly made up. Gerhard had no interest in that; he was just telling an honest story.

And what's even more wonderful is that I kind of feel like Gerhard when I'm in Beethoven's presence - the idea of being this little boy as we all are in Beethoven's musical presence, yet at the same time able to discern that Beethoven was, how shall we say, extreme in his moods. Gerhard had wonderful powers of observation as a little boy.

So I thought why don't I take on the character of Gerhard von Breuning and when it's time in that story to bring Beethoven to life, use Beethoven's own words? Wouldn't that be fun? And as you know, the road to hell is paved is paved with great intentions. [laughs] In the beginning people would say "But why aren't you playing Beethoven more?" and I said "Look, the man went deaf very young, he was very angry most of the time, and he did a lot of yelling. I'm not sure we have anything theatrical to say about that. Maybe some genius can find it. I'm not smart enough!"

If I've understood anything about these characters [I've played] it's that some part of them has to be identifiable to an audience. If they're so strange and elusive then we're just watching kind of a freak show. And Beethoven isn't a freak show and you do feel for him a lot and you do meet him. I mean he has more text than Gerhard does, but Gerhard is the narrator. What lands up happening is that we have an inside view of the man that we wouldn't alternately have.

There have been so many portraits of tortured geniuses, and I feel like they're all the same. The artist is young and talented, then they enjoy great success, then they go crazy. End of story. And, to me, that is never interesting.

Because it takes away from their humanity. One of the things that we tend to do, and I can be just as guilty of it as the next person, is that we deal with the icon and forget that they were actually people. One of the things I like to focus on is that they were people, and that they had the same problems that we have. The genius and the iconography came only after their work, not the other way around. They weren't icons who produced these great things, they were people who produced iconoclastic work. So I like to deal with the humanity of it all, to remember that they were mere mortals but it's their work that is godlike. To me, that's interesting to the audience, for people to see reflections of themselves. You know, we call them tortured artists, but have you ever met a human being who isn't tortured in some way or other? We've all got somethin' goin' on! [laughs]

BWW Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: BEETHOVEN LIVESTREAM at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Brings the Legendary Composer to Life
Hershey Felder as Ludwig van Beethoven
(Photo by Christopher Ash)

You've performed the Beethoven show many times and revised it over the years. What do you enjoy most about performing it?

When all of the hard work falls away and I'm just telling the story to an audience.

Which is easier said than done?

Of course.

So how do you make that happen?

Years and years and years of peeling away at phoniness, of being able to walk on a stage and honestly tell a story and not perform it. One friend, a great actress, once said to me "The moment I catch myself acting, I stop." Ya know? It's just the idea of being - and being is a lot of work. Because you have to be bigger than life onstage and yet at the same time you have to be real. One of the things that's fun, surprisingly so, about doing these very theatrical pieces in an environment where I'm talking directly into the lens is that I get to be human, as if I'm talking to one other person, and that person is on the other side of the lens. There's something magical about that.

Several months ago, I interviewed Mona Golabek whom you directed in The Pianist of Willesden Lane. She said you cautioned her to be rigorous in her process because "When you go out there, no one can save you, you're on your own."

Yes, this is true.

Does it ever get lonely up there onstage?

Well, yes and no... Let's put it this way. It's wonderful I don't have to negotiate with anybody so I get to do what I want. [laughs] But there is also is a "non-loneliness" because when you're onstage you're talking to a thousand people at a time as if they're a collective. And if they're with me, it's a very elating feeling. We're communing, having this time together if the barrier breaks down and I'm doing my job well. I've gotten better over the years. I started at a particular level, I was good at what I did, but I know now what it means to be really good at what you do. And that's years and years of work.

You need to be rigorous in the development, rigorous in the work. Nobody is there to save you, but also understand that nobody is there to kill you, either. People do want to be entertained, to have a good time. They're not paying money to criticize, they don't want to see you fail. They're paying money to enjoy, so give them something. And it's about learning to be generous. I sort of have that kind of streak in my nature.

Tell me more about what that means to you - being generous.

Well, I'm generous to a fault, which gets me into a lot of trouble and sometimes gets me angry because you give and you give and you give. I'm not talking about with audiences; I'm talking just in general. You give and you give and you give and all of a sudden you realize you're depleted. Where I get to be most generous and enjoy the generosity is with the audience, and it's basically the understanding that it isn't about me, it's about them. It's not about how I perform and "Look at me! Aren't I good?" It's about have I done my job sufficiently that they are entertained? Have I done my homework? And there is a generosity in that.

You have created such a singular career in the way that you combine theater and music. As a kid growing up in Montreal, what kind of career did you imagine for yourself?

I didn't. It was one of those things where I knew I wanted to do music, I knew I wanted to do theater, but I didn't know that was anything you could actually make a living at. Although when I was 11 years old, I got invited to play at a school event. I made my first hundred dollars and said "Holy smokes! This is a big deal! I can do this. I'll be able to go to movies and buy so much popcorn. It'll be perfect." I realized there was a business in it, that people would pay and I thought "Okay, this is cool!"

Interesting! I'm more familiar with the path for theater kids where there's never any promise of payment, and you often get the message from your parents that theater can be sort of a hobby, but not a career.

Well, I used to get "OK, this is enough. Everything in moderation." They used to tell me that about food and about practicing the piano. (And I suppose they're right about food, but I'm not sure they're right about practicing the piano.) I don't want to say they weren't supportive - they were - but it was just not something that was part of our vernacular. I was creating something that wasn't born of my environment, and I think that was weird for my folks.

And I had a tragedy when I was young, although in retrospect it's no greater than any other tragedy. My mother got very sick and died when she was 35. I will say that because of that, becoming a musician became easier. I think people felt guilty not letting me do what I wanted to do because life had been so rotten. It was quite a tragic passing, years of illness from the time I was 6 til I was 13. With that kind of tragedy going on, I think people sort of had pity and let me pursue what I wanted. And then when I was 16 and actually making money from directing music theater to playing to doing chamber music and so on, I think everybody kind of realized "Uh, oh - this is too late!" I decided it was what I was gonna do and that was it. I suppose my father was prepared to look after me for the rest of my life [laughs], but it worked out okay. I'm also a workaholic, so if you work-work-work something will come of it somehow.

You enjoy ongoing relationships with theater companies all over the world, but seem to have a special connection with TheatreWorks. You've done many of your pieces there and are set to return with Monsieur Chopin in March. What is it about TheatreWorks that keeps you returning so often?

Well, first of all, I love [Robert] Kelley and Phil [Santora] and the whole gang there. It's just a nice bunch. And there's nothing like going to a bunch that really respects what you do and takes what you do seriously. That's the internal side. The external side is the audience keeps on coming so how can I turn them down, you know? [laughs] They keep coming year after year, and it's become kind of a thing. We just have a lot of fun. I hope to God we get to be there in March & April. I'm very worried because we just don't know. But this is not happening just to us - to you, me, the theater world - it's happening the whole world over, so we're in it together. Something has to give somewhere, and it may be in the form of the way we do and see entertainment.

You'll be performing the Beethoven livestream from Florence, Italy. How did you come to live there?

When I was 17, I came to town. My grandmother gave me a 16th birthday kind of a thing, three thousand dollars, and you know this was quite a few years ago so it meant a lot. It was her big graduation gift, like "Save this for a rainy day." And I'm thinking "Save this for a rainy day? Are kidding?!" So I bought my own tickets and made my own arrangements to come to Europe. I went to various places and one of them was Florence. I stood on a hilltop and looked down the mountain and there was the Uffizi where the piano was invented and two blocks away the Palazzo Tornabuoni where opera was invented. I was just mesmerized by the grandeur as well as the delicacy of the city.

Over some 30 years I found myself painting my home like Florence, buying little furnishings and things that they had in Florence, and eventually I said, "Why am I painting my house in New York like Florence? I'm always on a plane anyway. Why don't I just go to Florence?" I'm very happy here. It's such a beautiful, soft city.

Florence is maybe my favorite place in the whole world. What is it like to actually live there?

Oh, it's mystical. Florentines are difficult until they realize you're there for real and you don't just want to be a tourist and to take away. When that happens, they will give you everything they have. I've made so many friends here and you find circles of people. The other thing is everybody knows everybody, and there's a little bit of terror in that. [laughs] "Oh, yes! I know your grandmother. Oh, yes yes yes, of course I know exactly who you are. Well, I'm friends with so-and-so who knows so-and-so." The fact of the matter is it's a village.

I'm sitting on the terrace overlooking the Duomo and my olive trees and fruit trees and it's that afternoon golden sun. It's so mystical, the sky today is blue-blue-blue and the sun is about to set beyond the mountain. And my house is 920 years old. The fact that people have been on this property for 900 years is just amazing to me.

When I'm in Florence I feel so connected to our cultural history that it's like an out-of-body experience.

I know exactly what you mean and not to make you envious, but I'm living it every day. I literally get up in the morning and am happier than I've ever been. Because my life has been really the stage, which I love, but it's all-day rehearsal, from rehearsal to the performance at night, from the performance at night to home, you fall asleep whenever you can and 8 o'clock in the morning you're right back in a dark theater. This is the first time I've gotten to sit outside during the day. It's the longest I've been home in my adult life, which is 27 years. That's a long time to not be home for more than 2 or 3 weeks at a time. And usually that's 3 weeks out of 6 months. So the fact that I've been home for 4 ½ months is just... I'm beyond, beyond sad for the world, but at least I'm making the best that I can at home which is making me very happy at the moment.

The Covid pandemic in the U.S. unfortunately seems to be getting worse and worse while in Italy and most of Europe things have turned a corner. As someone living there, any lessons on how we collectively survive this or learn from it?

What happened here was so many people died so quickly it was such a shock. You couldn't get away from it, you would watch the news every night. You'll always have your irresponsible people, but here the percentage is very low. And remember it's a family-oriented country. Whether you like each other, don't like each other, you're still from one family, you know? And I don't think people are as entitled here as they are in America and it concerns me. I do believe in freedom of speech and I believe in Black Lives Matter. But what a perfect storm. To have all these demonstrations, and yes that was necessary, but look what happened. Then you have an argument, "Well, if they're demonstrating for their cause, we're going to the beach for our cause." So the whole thing turned haywire. How many people are going to have to die before people realize how serious it is?

It's a terrible thing what the world's been put through. However, here's something to ponder. I have now [created shows about] 4 composers who lived through the 1918 flu pandemic - Debussy died during it but he didn't die because of it (he had cancer), Irving Berlin lived through it, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and Rachmaninoff. So that's 4 or 5 composers. I've dealt intimately with their biographies, and not one of them, in any biography, ever mentioned the pandemic that killed 50 million people. A lot of people were sick all the time and it was only when I was doing a Berlin broadcast that I asked Mary Ellin Barrett, Irving Berlin's eldest daughter, "Was there any talk of a pandemic? I can't find it anywhere in the history books?" And she said, "Oh, Dad got very, very, very sick. They took him out of the army and nursed him to health at home. If not for the New York nurses, he would have died." And we know this only because her mother told her.

I was mesmerized that I couldn't find any talk of it in one history book about all of these characters, that Rachmaninoff never said "Oh, we have to be careful about it." Debussy never said he had to be careful, he had cancer. And people were dying left and right. Or Gershwin, I don't even know what the Gershwins did that year. 1919 was when he composed [his first big hit] "Swanee" so he was a kid, 20 years old in 1918, going and playing, but there's no mention of "and after the pandemic, he composed 'Swanee.'"

If you can't find it in history books, it's probably that when it was over, people did their very best to get on with it and forget that it happened. It was a thing that came and went, and I suspect that will happen here, too. Hopefully we will learn from it and it will be a very long time before we have to contend with anything so severe again.

BWW Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: BEETHOVEN LIVESTREAM at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Brings the Legendary Composer to Life
Hershey Felder as Ludwig van Beethoven
(Photo by Christopher Ash)

Getting back to Beethoven, over the years of playing him have you learned anything about him that might surprise most people?

Well, you'd be awfully surprised to realize nowadays how many people have no idea that he composed most of his greatest works when completely deaf. But you know what surprised me - surprised is not really the word - what really moved me is understanding what that means. Cause I think you can say, "Oh, Beethoven composed when he was deaf? - Really, you mean he couldn't hear at all? - No, he couldn't hear anything. - But how did he compose? - Well, he understood the notes. - But that doesn't make sense. He was deaf." and go in circles. But it's getting into the character of someone who can never enjoy, the way the rest of us enjoy, his wonderful music. He can create it, he can take a certain inner pleasure in knowing that he's accomplished something, ultimately he can look at notes on a page or hear them in his head and imagine what they are, but he can never sit back in an audience and say "My god, that's beautiful." He can never go into a theater, into a rehearsal and say "Wow, just the vibration, the sound, it moves me." He can't ever do that. And that's where I began to understand the depth of what he must have gone through. You know, you put on the 5th Symphony, the 9th Symphony, whatever, you enjoy it and you always go "Oh, Such a pity Beethoven was deaf when he composed it." But we don't really associate that with the fact that he never heard this music the way that we hear it.

And then there's the other question that I have. As someone goes progressively deaf, at what point do they forget what sound sounds like - or do they? Can you recreate sound always? For instance, if you hear in the afternoon a sound and that evening you're somewhere really silent, you can generally recreate the images of sound that you heard in the afternoon. But after 10 years, after 20 years, can you still do that? Hard to know, isn't it? If you're living in the country and don't hear [music] for ten years, does the memory of a symphony fade? I suppose so, but what if you don't hear anything? You don't have birds, you don't have animals, you don't hear something fall onto the floor and break. What happens if your world is silent and it's a world only that you create in your head? How much pain and sorrow does that cause him? As he said, "What am I supposed to do - go out to a party as someone who once heard perfectly, better than anyone else, and scream at people 'Speak up! I can't hear you because I'm deaf!'?" I mean, you think of that and it's heartbreaking. Here was a man who decided not to take his life, because he talked about committing suicide, and didn't because he said "I still have art to produce and that's the only thing that keeps me alive."

So I look at that and say, "I have nothing to complain about!" The pandemic - there's nothing to complain about. We can still do things. It's tragic and terrible what's happened in the world - the sadness and the jobs lost and the sickness and death. Terrible as it is, most of us can still go out and do something. But what if you can't do the one thing that you want more than anything in the world? What happens then? On that note (forgive that pun), there's a lot to be said for Beethoven and what he survived. I sort of feel if he did it, we can do it, too.


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From This Author Jim Munson