Interview: Hershey Felder of GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE at Mountain View Center For The Performing Arts Reprises the Role that First Brought Him International Acclaim

Felder's musical biography of the great composer runs for a strictly limited engagement March 2nd to 5th

By: Feb. 24, 2023
Interview: Hershey Felder of GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE at Mountain View Center For The Performing Arts Reprises the Role that First Brought Him International Acclaim
Hershey Felder at the piano as the title character in George Gershwin Alone
(photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

Virtuoso pianist/actor/playwright Hershey Felder will soon be returning to the Bay Area in the role that first brought him massive acclaim over 25 years ago. In this strictly limited engagement, he will be performing what is still perhaps his best-known show, George Gershwin Alone, a piece he has done a mind-boggling 3,000 times all over the world, including a Broadway run back in the early aughts. In this tour de force solo performance, Felder incorporates popular Gershwin hits such as "Fascinating Rhythm," "I Got Rhythm" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" along with excerpts from the ground-breaking Porgy and Bess and a complete performance of "A Rhapsody in Blue."

George Gershwin Alone proved so popular that it essentially became a template for numerous other hit shows Felder has subsequently written and performed, each a unique combination of gorgeous music, biographical detail and character study. While Felder is a wizard at the piano, what really sets his work apart is his ability to find a specific emotional connection to each composer and their music. Thus, we don't just hear the music, we actually feel it.

Last week, I caught up with Felder by phone from Venice, Italy where he maintains a residence and develops many of his projects. Felder is one of the most interesting people you could ever hope to encounter. Born in Montreal, Canada and raised in a Yiddish-speaking home there, he first came to attention as a teenage piano prodigy before relocating to the U.S. where he created his distinctive form of musical theater. Now based in Europe where he lives with his wife Kim Campbell (a former prime minister of Canada) and beloved dog Leo, Felder's career has further blossomed with his recent forays into livestreaming performances and creating musical films under the umbrella of Hershey Felder Presents. His most recent such effort, "A Musical Conversation About Stephen Sondheim," explores the music of perhaps the greatest theater composer of our time.

When Felder and I spoke, it was at the end of another long and fascinating day for him. He'd just returned from getting a personal tour of the Teatro Goldoni, the world's oldest extant theater, for a new project he's working on. Our call was interrupted at times by colleagues and even his wife needing quick answers to things they were actively collaborating on. Yes, Felder's life is like that - a sort of hive of endless creativity. We talked about his first performing "Rhapsody in Blue" as a teenager, how the Gershwin show originally came to be, what it's like to revisit it again some 27 years later, and an opera he's written that will premiere in Italy this summer.

Any conversation with Felder inevitably becomes a sort of wild ride between seemingly disparate cultural reference points. For example, a simple query can prompt him to evoke the names of Michael Feinstein, Kitty Carlisle and Leopold Godowsky III. He also manifests a polyglot's love of language in his penchant for using unexpected idioms. Even when discussing some fairly highbrow topics, he's liable to throw in a random "dude" or "Holy smokes!" The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Gershwin's music is so deeply ingrained in our collective cultural consciousness that it's hard to recall when we first heard it. What is your own earliest memory of encountering his music?

Quite late actually because I was steeped in classical music for the longest time. I came to George Gershwin when a friend in music school recommended I study the "Rhapsody in Blue." I was 16 or 17 years old, and he didn't really figure on my radar. I would have heard his music just in the ether, because one did, but in terms of knowing the music and perceiving it as a piece of classical art, I came to that quite late. Then again, I don't really know what is considered late. I suppose if you were from California 16 could be considered late?

Well, my life story is very different from yours, but interestingly my own first real experience with Gershwin's music also occurred when I was 16. My high school musical that year was the Gershwins' political satire Of Thee I Sing, and I was thrilled to be cast in a good role. Standing backstage and listening to that sophisticated overture every night I realized "Oh, right. This is Gershwin. This is the music everybody's been talking about."

Of course, Of Thee I Sing is not one of the shows with the "popular" tunes, so it's interesting to have studied that in high school and what a wonderful thing that you did. I didn't have that opportunity. My high school didn't do those kinds of things. I was in music school very young, but we were doing very serious things and Gershwin seemed - back in the 1980s - to be a thing that was the summer music, the outdoor music, the pops concert. But that's only because I didn't know, didn't really understand.

George Gershwin Alone was the very first show you created about a composer and their music. What was your original impetus to do that? What did you think you were making at the time?

Um, hopefully rent payment. [laughs] Literally. You know, I had played the "Rhapsody" as a kid in London. I actually played it for the first time at Southbank [Centre] in London when I was 18. I got hired by somebody who had heard me and so on. I played with the orchestra there, and I was astounded at the response from the audience. And it was not just my playing (you know the playing was whatever it was), but the response from the audience was clearly for the music. This was something the crowd really adored and it excited them very much.

When you're inside of the music and you're playing it, ya don't really play it for the crowd, you play it for the music, so you don't feel the same thing [they do]. You're doing the work. Once you finish playing, you can sort of step back and assess what that felt like or why it got the reaction it did. But I was astonished, I didn't know anything about him - which was kind of irresponsible at the time. All I knew was that I needed to pay attention to the piece, play all the notes and make it sound rhythmic and beautiful.

And then I went to learn about him and realized "Ooh, there's a story there." Quite a bit later on, I played the "Rhapsody" and it came to the attention of the Gershwin family. One of my friends said, "Why don't you play the role of George Gershwin?" and the family said, "Absolutely not, we've never let anybody do it." And all I needed was that challenge, which led me to say, "Let me try!" Not even thinking for a second that, you know, anyone beyond my aunts and uncles would ever see this. But if somebody says "No" I say "Okay, let me give it a shot." And they allowed me to do it, and it became a beloved public piece.

But how did you get them to okay it? Back in the 1990s, the Gershwin estate was pretty notorious for never permitting anyone to do any kind of Gershwin bio show.

Well, there were two people I met in California who knew me and liked me. One was Greg Willenborg, who is no longer with us. He was a producer who he introduced me to Michael Feinstein, and from there it went in circles. Michael gave me the names of some of the Gershwins because he was dealing with them. There was a close relationship there with enough trust he could put me in touch with Leopold Godowsky [III], who was the child of George's sister. I said I'd like to do such a piece and he said, "Well, why don't you speak to Adam Gershwin? He's the new generation and he lives in LA."

I called Adam Gershwin and took him to lunch and said what I'd like to do, and he says, "Well, we don't really do these things." So I said, "Give me a couple of weeks in a small theater in Los Angeles, and let's see how it goes." And so they did, you know thinking it would be two weeks, they'd humor me and that would be the end of that. And it turned into a thing. "CBS Sunday Morning" found it and did a piece - and all of the sudden I was sold out for a year. And so began a journey that lasted 3,000 performances. Which is a lot, come to think of it! [laughs]

I mean, it was a matter of really that I wanted to work. I don't want to say it was my dream to be onstage, my dream to appear on Broadway. No. It was really my sense of I wanted to work. And I love telling stories and playing music, so I wanted to do that. You know, you're a writer and that's what you do. It's what we do.

Which is why - as a total sidebar - I get offended when people call other artists out for wanting to do something. You know everyone has a job. It's not a vulgar thing to want to be a performer, or to want to do what we feel we can contribute, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Lately I've become much more intolerant of people who become negative about anything than I ever am about a piece that doesn't work. Because what's inherent in a piece that doesn't work is that somebody at least made an effort. Sitting back and just being mean about people is no effort at all.

Interview: Hershey Felder of GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE at Mountain View Center For The Performing Arts Reprises the Role that First Brought Him International Acclaim
Hershey Felder portrays the great composer in George Gershwin Alone
(photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

After having done George Gershwin Alone over 3,000 times now, what's the thing about performing it that you most look forward to?

What I look forward to is just being able to engage with the public. There's something very moving about that, and it's not pre-COVID or post-COVID, it's not that anymore (whether it ever was, I don't know). What it is really about for me is this idea of just being able to be human and share in some kind of humanity. I think it's why I do what I do, in order to communicate. We get to feel human that way, I think, for a bit.

Over all these years, have you made many changes to the show?

Well, I've changed some things that I felt needed smoothing out and I've added things that I felt needed to be clear. When I started this thing, I was a young artist who didn't have much experience, and then as time went on I became an artist with a lot of experience by virtue of the fact I'd just been doing it for so long, and that teaches you a whole lot about how to approach certain things. So I think if anything has changed over the years, it's the presentation of the character, and how this character relates his stories, how he plays. He has become someone who is more weathered than he was in the beginning, which was more a wannabe.

In the early days, I was playing him that way because I hadn't gotten there. And then all of the sudden when you do that many performances and you have that much experience in front of an audience, you can sit back and take it easy a little bit and do things from a more reserved point of view and make them work. So that's been an interesting growth.

There are very few people who have 27 years on a character. I mean, it's quite literally 27 years since I first performed this character. To be able to go back 27 years later, with more or less (mostly more) the same material that you started with, very few people have that luxury of being able to discover that as an artist. It's a great lesson. I can track my growth in one character, so that's really something.

Like many people, I suppose, I know George Gershwin's music very well, but I don't really know much about the man himself. What was he like as a person?

You know, people say a lot of different things. A lot of people pretend to know him, know how he was. So first of all, he died in 1937 when he was 38 years old. I only met two people who knew him personally, one who suggested they knew him very well, which was Kitty Carlisle. But I don't really know how well she knew him other than having met him a few times. Apparently, she claimed that George wanted to marry her, but that's very easy when the dude has been dead for a whole lot of years and isn't there to say, "No, that's not true." Ya know?

So I'm not really sure what he was like. I can tell you that people said he was very self-centered on his music. Now, what does that mean if you're a musician and it's music-music-music all the time? Does that mean you're self-centered and an unpleasant person, or does that mean that other people want other things out of you, but you'd rather work on your music? So defining this kind of character is complicated, it's not an easy thing. But my sense is that he was actually a decent guy and that he was serious about his music and worked very hard.

Is the idea of his being so focused on his music what you're alluding to in the title of "George Gershwin Alone"?

Not really... Well, you know, it may be. Let's take what you suggest a step further - that it's so necessary for him to be alone to do what he does. And at the end of the day, dying when he did and how he did, he was left alone. I think that he was a lonely character, if that's what you're asking, so maybe the answer to your question is yes, I am referring to that in the title. Not self-centered as much as left alone.

When Gershwin died so suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of only 38 do you know what was he working on at that point?

His brother Ira had been written this question by somebody, and I saw the letter when I was doing my research. Ira did say that he was working on the idea for a ballet, that he was thinking about an opera, he was very interested in chamber music. But the key phrase of what Ira says is "Whatever he would have produced, I can guarantee you it would have been completely Gershwin." So that's an interesting comment, an interesting idea as to the fact that it was acknowledged that Gershwin's composing was very specific to him.

I'm a huge ballet fan so the idea that we never got to experience that Gershwin ballet -

Yeah, and there were also operas he thought about writing. He thought about writing The Dybbuk and somebody else had the rights. I wonder what would have happened if he'd done that instead of Porgy and Bess. It's funny to think about that, that George Gershwin couldn't get the rights to something. Really?! But you know - they were all real people doing real things, so we have to remember that.

Your most recent project is A Musical Conversation About Stephen Sondheim that began streaming just a few days ago. Is there any chance you might convert that into a live stage show?

No. First of all, Sondheim is very present in our memory. Secondly, he's not the kind of character that I think would lend well to what I do. I was able to do something in this conversation about him that I thought worked quite well, I think I managed to tell a good story there, but to talk about creating an entire character - there I don't think I would succeed with Sondheim.

I am intrigued that your approach was to explore Sondheim's music apart from his lyrics because people usually seem to approach him through his lyrics first.

Well, he made it very clear that the lyric-writing thing was not his prime goal. He said it was "three times more fun" to write music and that's what he preferred. All said and done he was just more interested in that, so my view is that was the way to deal with him. Also so many people have already talked about his lyrics that I wanted to talk about his music.

And it's funny when I started looking at it. In fact, the first scene after the introduction deals with "Send in the Clowns" and the actual composition of it. It is completely fascinating how I uncovered things, not because I uncovered any miraculous things, they were always there, but I paid attention to a couple of things that he writes in the score, and it illuminated it even for me, even I was surprised. I said, "Holy smokes! Look at what he's actually written."

You always have so many different irons on the fire. What other projects are you currently working on?

I have an opera opening this summer in Italy that I am working on now. It will premiere in July at the Teatro Romano in Fiesole, which is a 2,000-year-old amphitheater. I've also got some theater projects here in Europe so it's a lot of creative stuff going on at once. But the American stuff is going to be Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin, the pieces that I began with 27 years ago, and people still want to see them. They're in revised versions, but all of the sudden I look at my schedule this coming year and I'm doing the first three pieces I ever created, so that's kinda fun in its own way.

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Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone will be presented for six performances only, March 2 through 5, 2023 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA. For tickets and further information, visit tickets.mvcpa.com/GGA or call (650) 903-6000. Please note: ticket availability is extremely limited.




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