Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER AS GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE & HERSHEY FELDER'S GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK SING-ALONG at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

The perennially popular multi-hyphenate performer returns to Mountain View in two of his signature shows February 7th to 12th

By: Feb. 01, 2024
Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER AS GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE & HERSHEY FELDER'S GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK SING-ALONG at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER AS GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE & HERSHEY FELDER'S GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK SING-ALONG at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
                 Hershey Felder as the title character
                          in George Gershwin Alone

Hershey Felder is soon returning to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and all seems right with the world. The virtuoso actor/pianist/filmmaker has a long track record of sold-out shows at the Tony-winning theater company, the most recent being his benefit performance for them last October. He will be in town for just a week to reprise his enduringly popular George Gershwin Alone and give a one-night-only performance of his wildly entertaining Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Sing-Along. The man continues to be one of the busiest people on the planet, alternating touring with moviemaking and tackling his new role as Artistic Director and Manager of the Teatro della Signoria, his exciting new venture in Florence, Italy where he lives.

I spoke with Felder by phone a few days ago from Southern California where he had just completed a run at South Coast Rep and was looking forward to attending the theatrical premiere of his new musical film Noble Genius: Chopin & Liszt in Beverly Hills. We talked about why his Gershwin show continues to resonate with audiences, reminisced about its original run in LA some 25 years ago, delved into why what we think of as the Great American Songbook was largely the work of Jewish composers, and checked in on how things are going with his Florence theater (or what he jokingly refers to as “the Italian Folly”). Felder is always fun and interesting to chat with, funny and forthcoming, and his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of, and passion for, music and the arts always takes the conversation in unanticipated directions. The following has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

George Gershwin Alone was your first-ever solo show and I think it's safe to say it continues to be the most popular show you’ve done.

Well, they’re popular in different ways. For instance, Gershwin has played the longest, but Beethoven and Chopin sell more tickets in their individual runs than the Gershwin does, cause I don’t do Gershwin as much anymore, so it’s hard to define which is the most popular. I think people kind of enjoy them each on their own terms, really.  

What do you think it is about George Gershwin Alone that continues to connect with audiences so deeply?

I think good music is what connects. It’s the story of an immigrant boy making good, the story of a person dying at a young age before he gets to see his legend, him becoming a legend, his brother living to see him become a legend – you know there’s good emotional things in there. I think audiences connect with the humanity of it, but I also just think they really just connect with the music. It’s what I see with all the characters [I portray in my shows] - if there’s music that moves them, they connect with it.

This run coincides with the 100th anniversary of “Rhapsody in Blue,” a piece you have played literally thousands of times.

Don’t remind me! [laughs]

At this point, just as a performer, what goes through your head when you play it?

Lots of prayer. [laughs] I mean, I’m saying that ironically. I don’t pray about those things, I just work hard. It’s about maintaining the quality and making it as fresh as possible. As time goes on, it gets more and more demanding, the responsibility to keep it correct and fresh and not lazy, and looking for new things but not to the degree where you distort the whole piece. That is a very big responsibility and it’s less what goes on in my head than what the directive is, which is “this needs to happen.”

Thinking back to the initial run of George Gershwin Alone in LA back in the late 1990s, I think –

Yeah, 1998.

Did some of the old Hollywood crowd come to see you?

Oh, yeah, people who knew George Gershwin did. I mean it’s 25 years ago so there were a lot of people who knew him, and who certainly knew Ira very well.

Can you share any special memories of meeting any of those folks?

Well, Kitty Carlisle. I went up to see her on Park Avenue and 64th. She told me all about her relationship with Gershwin, then she told me that he wanted to marry her, but her mother didn’t think it was a very good idea. Then she made me play the piano that he played on (she said it was his piano, but who knows?) that she had in her apartment. Then I did a few concerts with her in Palm Beach.

Lawrence Stewart was my favorite. He was a professor of English at UCLA at some point and then he left to become Ira’s cataloguer and worked alongside Ira. Lawrence was always full of stories and he wrote a biography about the Gershwins. He was the dearest, dearest man to walk the face of the earth.

George Furth came to see me in the show, Annette Bening and Warren Beatty came to see me, Neil Simon came… I mean, the cast of characters that came was enormous, and it was a lot of fun in those days.

Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER AS GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE & HERSHEY FELDER'S GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK SING-ALONG at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
 Hershey Felder at the piano as the title character in 
                           George Gershwin Alone

I’ve always been fascinated by George’s brother Ira, who outlived him by several decades. What was his relationship like with George, both as sibling and collaborator?

It was said that they were two halves of one brain, and Ira was always the bookish one, a little bit more reserved, more an observer. George was the more forward one, and I think that made for a great symbiosis, and they really did work together. You know, throw out music and throw out lyrics, “I have an extra lyric so I need a few more notes.”  Or “I’d like to put in a few more notes, can you give me two more words.” That is the traditional way that people work with in this thing. You have to somehow collaborate so that the ideas go together, and they had a very wonderful collaboration.

Out of all their songs, “Love Is Here to Stay” is my own personal favorite, and that was really a collaboration after George’s death in a way.

Well, with multiple people, cause not to burst your bubble here, but Vladimir Dukelsky (otherwise known as Vernon Duke) actually finished the song. It was only left in sketch style. Ira did compose the body of the lyric while George was there, but he composed the opening verse after George died.

That’s fascinating because it’s one of those songs that to me sounds so effortless.

It does, but the way it works of course is it’s also about their collaboration, both when George was alive and posthumously. Ira’s writing about the love between two brothers and what they produced, rather than some relationship between a man and a woman.

Maybe that’s why I think the lyric is so universal.

Well, it’s very touching, you know?

In Mountain View, you’ll also be doing a performance of Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Sing-Along. How is it that you define “Great American Songbook?”

Um, you’ll find out at the end of the show, but it’s songs that had a particular effect on me growing up. Kind of like you say “Love Is Here to Stay” for you means something, these songs are my Great American Songbook, not the Great American Songbook. So there is a very specific reason, and it’s something that seems to touch the audience a great deal.

So much of this music that we think of as quintessentially American was written by Jewish composers who were the children of immigrants. Do you have any theories as to why this music emanated specifically from that community?

Well, Jews have always been displaced all over the world. Even today, look what’s going on – Where is home? What’s home? How do you defend your home? The only thing Jews really had as they wander in this proverbial huge desert is the stories that they take with them. A little story about my grandmother is that she always had a suitcase packed in the front closet with all the very important things of the family, as opposed to having them displayed. When I was 8 years old I asked her why, and she says, “Because you never know when they’re gonna send you away.”

So that is the ethic. These Jews, these composers, I wonder if it’s that they wanted to create some form of home in this new golden land that was here, in America, and to do that they told stories, and that’s what came out. The fact that these stories are universal and touch a lot of people is because, well, I guess a lot of people feel the same way. But on a complicated note, it’s interesting how many people – and I’ve gotten a bit of hate mail from this over the years - don’t want to accept that a Jewish person could have written “God Bless America,” that Irving Berlin wasn’t as Jewish as I made him out to be. And, yes, he was.

I’ve also been ruminating recently on the music of Aaron Copland, which evokes for me the wide open spaces where I grew up in the rural Midwest. And yet Copland was a New York Jew, so how did he manage that?

Well, he captured a sense of what that was. I think it sounds like you growing up because you grew up with that becoming the sound. But he created that. I don’t know if Rodeo (or Ro-day-o … I’m in LA now so we call it Ro-day-o!) became Rodeo after it became Rodeo, or if it was what Rodeo was and turned into that. You know what I mean? It's horse and cart, or chicken and egg.

I think there’s a symbiosis in that, it all sort of comes together in a very interesting way as things change and times shift. Copland created that sense of harmony and composition and found his thing. It’s just like Debussy created what French music is supposed to sound like and a lot of it has Eastern influence, you know? He somehow managed to create this very French sound with this very Eastern pentatonic scale. So it’s a lot of coming together of a lot of things, and I think Copland was similar.

How’s it going with your new theater company in Florence, the Teatro della Signoria? Are things still on track to begin performances in the fall?

Uh-huh. We’re in heavy duty restoration, and the team is so great. It’s a lotta work, a lot of city planning, because when you do not just a building, but a restoration of a 17th-century building in a 12th-century palace there’s a lot that has to be maintained. It’s day by day discovering more things that need to be done, things that need to shift, getting in touch with artists who will be interesting for programming, all that kind of stuff. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s completely crazy because it’s so much to do in such a little amount of time. But it’s going and I think a lot of people are quite excited about it. It’ll take time for it to find its footing, but so do all good things, I think.

How are you planning to include theater offerings as part of the programming?

We have three spaces – 310, 70 and 50 seats - so there will be Broadway artists who will perform both on the big stage and the smaller ones. Then we will have a play series, probably four plays in repertory per year, two and two, along with star performances, largely American-style although we have Italian things also and French things. So it’s international, but a large part of it appealing to an American audience because Florence has 43,000 tourists a night, 15,000 of them American usually. Because we’re the main theater in the center of the city, the idea is that if you come to Florence for three days of sightseeing and eating you have something that you can see different on each night.

It’s wonderful that the location is so accessible, right there in the center of Florence.

Exactly. You don’t have to go looking for it. It's right in the center of town on the Piazza della Signoria - as I say, facing David’s backside. [laughs]

Given all that you’ve got going on with that in the coming months, are you going to be stepping back a bit from performing? I know you’ve done several benefits lately.

I’m not really stepping back. I don’t know that I can afford to because a lot of what I do will support the Italian Folly [laughs] – the Italian Theater. But I’ve got things divided now into three – movies, live performing and the theater. But then again, after COVID I’m not performing 11 months out of the year. I’m really up to about 5 months a year, and that’s fine for me. It’s still 150-170 shows, and that’s more than most people do, certainly soloists.

And I’m getting older, you know? I still can do it, because I just did eight weeks in New York followed by two weeks here [in California]. But I’m not sure it’s the best use of my time in terms of what other people need, what the theater needs, what I have to contribute to help other theaters and so on and so forth. I’ve always been a worker and I have no pretense about it. I don’t expect anything to come to me for free. I do my work and if something good comes of it and helps the theaters, God bless.

(header photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents, other photos by Mark Garvin)

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Hershey Felder as George Gershwin Alone runs February 7-11, 2024. Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Sing-Along, will have a one-night-only performance on Monday, February 12, 2024. In this special participatory event, Felder will share stories and lead the audience through 100 years of American music, featuring a selection of songs by beloved composers including George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and many more. Both events will be presented at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. For tickets and additional information, visit TheatreWorks.org or call (877)-662-8978.




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