BWW Interview: Robert Kelley of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley on the HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN Livestream Benefit Performance Happening This Mother's Day
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has the perfect Mother's Day entertainment for you! On Sunday May 10th at 5pm PDT, they will band together with a number of theaters across the country to present a livestream of the hit show Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, a tribute to America's greatest songwriter. This livestream is almost a no-brainer as TheatreWorks has a close artistic partnership with Felder and his numerous shows have been enormously successful with their audiences.
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 COVID-19. Featuring some of Berlin's most popular and enduring songs including "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Blue Skies," and "White Christmas," this story of an immigrant who celebrated the American spirit through some of its darkest years is particularly timely. Felder will be performing the show live from his home in Florence, Italy.
BroadwayWorld recently caught up with TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley to chat about the company's ongoing relationship with Felder, and also to check in on how they've been managing to juggle so many unknowns in planning their 2020-21 season. Kelley remains steadfastly upbeat and enthused about future possibilities even as he winds down his astounding 50-year tenure as Artistic Director under decidedly different circumstances than he had originally envisioned. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Theater companies everywhere during this pandemic are finding creative ways to continue to engage with audiences, offer theatrical sustenance and hopefully bring in some much-needed income. Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin would seem to be an ideal candidate to do that. How did the idea for a livestream come about?
Well, we were sitting around trying to figure out what our next step was as we were closing all these shows we dearly loved. One of the first things we came up with was that Hershey might be willing to do something online. We were [thinking] "let's give our friend Hershey a call" because we really do have a great relationship with him. But as usual with Hershey, he was already ahead of the game. As we were just getting ready to call him, he came up with this idea for a livestream of the Berlin show from his home in Italy. I'd like to think the phrase "great minds think alike" would apply to all of us, but in this case the really great mind was Hershey.
This is a joint endeavor with a number of theater companies across the country, correct?
It is. There are a number of theaters and I think all of them have hosted Hershey at some point. I don't know how many have done as many of his shows as we have, but a lot of them are participating in this, which is really great. It's gonna be one of those moments where you can imagine thousands and thousands of people, all across the country, enjoying this show all at the same time. A number of them will be in places where Hershey has done other shows, but not the Berlin show, so some people will be seeing it for the first time.
For TheatreWorks, this was the first Hershey show we ever did, and people went completely wild about it. It was just really, really good, an astonishing experience in the theater. I went and saw it so many times that I probably could sing a whole lot of Irving Berlin songs for you, not necessarily in the same key for every measure. [laughs] It was really a wonderful evening in the theater, and totally inspiring.
And Hershey will actually be performing live from his home in Florence?
Yeah, he will be doing it for real from there. I don't know what time it's actually gonna be where he is. I don't know how he ever sleeps. He's one of the hardest working people I've ever seen. It's going to be in his home, and secretly, it gives all of us a chance to see what the inside of his place looks like in Italy. [laughs] I don't think he's shipped his set over there from wherever it is in storage in the United States so we'll see if, you know, a cool place in Italy can substitute for Irving Berlin's apartment, which is where the show is set.
We don't know what it's going to be like. I'm not sure how he'll go about doing this, but a big part of his work is not just bringing these outstanding composers to life, but also interacting with the audience - sometimes it's afterwards, sometimes it's during the show - and making them feel they are somehow part of this composer's life. At the same time, you're feeling part of Hershey's life, so it's a gift. It's a gift of genius. As many times as I saw the show and as often as I snuck in and listened to Hershey practicing for it, I'm eager for the chance to see it again.
He has pretty much set the gold standard for solo musical biodramas about famous composers. What do you think it is about his shows that connects so strongly with audiences?
I think his shows are totally unique and a big part of it is his ability to take two worlds and combine them. One is the world of biodrama, and his acting ability allows him to create the feeling that you are actually meeting and talking with this composer. You feel like "Oh, this is what this man was actually like." The other side of it is that Hershey can play, brilliantly, anything, he sets his mind to. You can leave the moment of the man he's playing and just climb into the music. Over and over again, there's this rapturous experience of music. And at least for me, I can't help but imagine that I'm watching the real person playing it. This is what it was like when Beethoven sat down at the piano and played these pieces of music. So I think it's putting those two worlds together at one time that really make it work.
And the other part is that Hershey writes these scripts himself and they're not just dramatic in some fascinating ways, but they also bring out the romantic, full life of the characters he's embodying. He has a great, great sense of humor and the humor of these people comes through in fantastic ways. You start realizing that everyone has humor and everyone goes through life with at least a smile in the face of any number of challenges. I think he has it all - he has this incredible music, this incredible biodrama that tracks the lives of people you wish you knew more about, and it's funny.
You mentioned TheatreWorks' close partnership with Hershey. How did you originally connect with him and how did that relationship develop over time?
Well, you know, I was a pianist of sorts for my whole youth. I was in a bunch of bands when I was in high school and college. I sort of segued from classical into rhythm and blues. I spent a lot of time just working on classical music on the piano, and so when I heard that somebody was creating shows about the great composers that I'd spent so many hours trying to master (at least their simpler pieces), I got interested. I first became aware of his shows happening down in the San Diego and Los Angeles area and thought "Well, why don't we pursue this?" And literally as I was trying to find out more about Hershey and what he was doing, I discovered that Berkeley Rep was ahead of me and were bringing Hershey in to do shows up there. They had a series of successes with his work and then one day they decided to let his next project go, for various reasons. Hershey had a show that was looking for a berth in the Bay Area and that was The Irving Berlin show. Berkeley decided not to do it. It wasn't that they didn't like the show; it was just the nature of the season.
Sometimes it's just not the year to program a particular show.
Yeah, it just didn't fit on their season. And I have to tell you that, and this is really the truth, within about 48 hours, it was on TheatreWorks' season. [laughs] I mean, we couldn't make an announcement yet, but that was it. And that was such a big, wonderful hit for us that it started the relationship. Fortunately, Berkeley got a chance to do it a couple of years later and it was hit all over again for them so it wasn't as if they didn't get a chance in all of that. We were delighted.
And there was just a combination of things once Hershey got here. He really did love the space, the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. He loved the sound in it and, I don't know how to put it any other way, he liked us, he liked the folks at TheatreWorks. He and I started to become friends and I think it was partly because before each show, whatever the show might be, Hershey would come in hours sometimes beforehand to practice, and it was mostly him by himself in the auditorium. I said "Do you mind if I pop in once in a while?" and he said "Sure." But once in a while became a lot.
I just loved the music and listening to him play and work on the pieces. I thought I was hidden in the back of the house, which I tried to do so as not to disturb him, but I've since learned that if it moves in the theater space, Hershey knows about it. If someone sneezes or coughs, he knows about it. And god help anyone if they take out a cell phone, you know?! [laughs] So I think maybe my thrill at his work and fascination with it helped to build this friendship and he came to appreciate TheatreWorks and what we do and how we go about doing it, the kind of family atmosphere that was part of it all.
One thing led to another and we've done a bunch of his pieces since then. Our audience loves Hershey and he also brings in a lot of people who come just to see him, from the Bay Area and also from outside the Bay Area. He has fans who come to see his shows, all of them. When he did a world premiere here with Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story, the Debussy piece, it was again a runaway hit and no one had ever seen it before. It wasn't like "Oh, we're gonna go see this hit show." It was "We're gonna go see it cause Hershey is creating it." And it turned out to be a fantastic show that really pushed the borders of what he had done in the past. It was not just about Debussy, but it also was about his own personal relationship with the music and ultimately with the composer, so you fully understood the biography of Debussy, but you also got a an incredibly intriguing glance into Hershey and what makes him tick.
There have been a lot of others that originated somewhere else and we did them later. We did Hershey Felder, Beethoven and that really landed with so many people. There are so many who have had a relationship with Beethoven through whatever instrument they might have learned or practiced from childhood onward, and it might still be a big part of their lives.
I remember going down to see Our Great Tchaikovsky that debuted at San Diego Rep. I didn't tell Hershey I was coming because I didn't want to draw any attention to myself. I just wanted to see something wonderful and of course my dream was that it would be a show that we might do someday. But sure enough, they found out I was there and we had a chance to get together afterwards and chat with him and his team. It was a remarkable show and it was another one of these things where - and this this wasn't 48 hours, this was like about 15 minutes! - we couldn't wait to do the show. It was particularly well-suited for the Bay Area. Tchaikovsky is such a complicated man, and it proved to be another big hit.
There are several more that we want to do. We're doing Hershey Felder as Monsieur Chopin, another one that I saw and went crazy for. I saw it in San Diego in a really small theater, and Tim Bond, our new artistic director who will be taking over on July 1st, got to see it up in Seattle. Hershey was doing a production of it at Seattle Rep, where Time was. He was literally rehearsing in one room while Hershey was playing in the other. We both love the show and were so enthusiastic about it, and put it on the season. We're now going to do it in March and April. It was going to start in August and we mutually decided with Hershey that that was risky. We had to move a few things around to make that happen, but we were just so thrilled that we could get it later in the season and in a place where we're, at least at the moment, more confident that his thousands and thousands of fans and friends will be able to see it.
How are you and Tim approaching planning for next season with all these constantly shifting unknowns?
Well, like all other companies all over the country, we had a solid season that we loved and were so excited about. It was going to be Tim's first season. I did a lot of work selecting it, but he was also a big part of the process, knowing that he was going to be stepping in after the season had already been announced. It was a season we were both thrilled with, and then since the whole Covid situation has unfolded, we've been trying to figure out what to do. We had to close two shows in one day, it was a very emotional day for everybody involved, probably toughest on the kids in Ragtime who were pre-teens. Then on the heels of that, we hung onto The Book of Will which was our last show of the season and hoped that it would be able to happen. We finally had to cancel that one and all of that somewhat affected the next season. It's really how all the different shows line up and what's possible in terms of artists' availability and lots of things like that.
Do you know yet if The Book of Will is still going to happen at some point?
That'll be up to Tim. He loves the show and he said he will certainly try to get it on the season. There are so many unknowns at this point, not just this next year but the year after that. Like everybody else, we're looking at the size of shows, what's really possible, what the budget will be, if you do this show, can you do that show? and so on. And, you know, if somehow we get the rights to a lost Shakespeare play nobody knows about, we probably would do that! [laughs] You want to leave yourself a little flexibility. We have moved a couple of shows around that are going to be in the following year's season, including Nan and the Lower Body the world premiere that we all are totally thrilled by and are eager to produce. We bumped it ahead into the summer of the following year to try to make the season work.
To return to your question, like all decisions at TheatreWorks, it's a team effort. We're working with Phil Santora, our Executive Director, and also other members of our team, including Giovanna Sardelli, the New Works Director, Jeffrey Lo, our casting director, of course our finance people, Scott DeVine, and even our marketing folks. They are all part of trying to figure out what the next season will be. It's not just about the art of a particular play, it's about the arc of the season, and what you might be able to afford to do at any given point, what we can guess about when people will feel comfortable in the theater and how many people could come to the theater. In a nutshell, you don't want to put on the biggest show of the year at the time when you're most likely to have social distancing in the theater.
You can expand on what the implications of that are as you're looking at the year and at the season, but all of that went into our new planning. It wasn't all about what we already had planned and how to save it, but also what we want to say to our supporters, our public, our subscribers, our donors. That was part of the decision to put It's a Wonderful Life in as our holiday show. It's such a celebration of American values and family and also of finding hope and moving forward in the face of despair. We all concluded that if we're gonna move some things around, that would be a great holiday show. We've been looking at the show for a couple of years now and wanting to do it. It's not just a great story that many of us have seen a lot, as the Capra film, but the technique of bringing it onto the stage by imagining it as a radio show in 1946 gives it a whole new life and level of theatricality and fun. It's Frank Capra meets The 39 Steps. There's a huge number of characters played by a radio show cast, including doing all the sound effects. We think that's going to brighten lives at a time in our community when we are all gonna be ready for some serious brightening.