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Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: CHOPIN IN PARIS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Makes a Much-Anticipated Return to the Bay Area

The virtuoso pianist and actor portrays the seminal composer in a new production running August 19th to September 11th in Mountain View

Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: CHOPIN IN PARIS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Makes a Much-Anticipated Return to the Bay Area
Hershey Felder returns to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris.

Finally! After two years of pandemic-related delays, internationally acclaimed pianist and performer Hershey Felder will soon be back where he belongs, playing live for audiences at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley where he is a perennial favorite. His past appearances there, including regional premieres of Our Great Tchaikovsky and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, and the world premieres of Hershey Felder as Claude Debussy in A PARIS LOVE STORY and Hershey Felder: Beethoven, played to sold-out houses and broke box office records. From August 19th to September 11th, Felder will perform an entirely new production of his musical play Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris. Felder will portray the seminal Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin, illuminating an exclusive piano lesson with the musical master wherein the audience becomes an integral part of the work as Chopin's students.

Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris was written by Felder and directed by the eminent Joel Zwick, a longtime collaborator of Felder's. Zwick has enjoyed a remarkably prolific career in the performing arts. Among his massive list of professional credits are directing My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time; directing and choreographing Dance with Me on Broadway for which he received a Tony nomination; and directing a mind-boggling 650+ episodes of TV series, everything from classic shows like Laverne & Shirley to more recent fare such as Girl Meets World.

Felder has been extremely productive over the past two years while COVID made touring unfeasible. Holed up in his home in Florence, Italy (poor guy), he not only honed his already razor-sharp skills at the keyboard, he also found a new performance venue on the internet. Felder performed a series of livestreamed world premiere works with audiences tuning in around the world. Some 18 of his programs are currently available at hersheyfelder.net, everything from shows exploring the lives and music of composers like Tchaikovsky and Irving Berlin to boundary-breaking musical films on Dante and the Venetian Jewish ghetto, with a couple of cooking shows thrown in for good measure.

I caught up with the peripatetic Felder last week from his residence in Venice, Italy (again, must be rough to be him!) as he was finishing filming there for his new Chopin and Liszt project before heading off to Poland to shoot additional footage. He understandably sounded a bit exhausted at what was the end of another long day for him, but his customary good humor and ability to pull cultural factoids out of thin air were firmly intact. We talked about what it was like to go back on the road, how Chopin had figured into his growth as a young musician, and plans for a Sondheim program this December. Throughout, he employed his unique polyglot syntax and seemingly endless knowledge of all things performing arts. He's the kind of guy who you ask a simple question and somehow his answer leads from legendary theater director/producer Hal Prince to the film Throw Momma from the Train of all things, with several other seeming non-sequiturs in between. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You recently completed a run of Chopin in Paris at the Wallis in Beverly Hills. Was that your first time back in front of a live audience since COVID?

In terms of a run, yes. I'd done several performances in Italy over the two years, you know when we had breaks from mask-wearing and so on, so it wasn't entirely my first time back. But in terms of America, yes, it was my first time back since COVID, absolutely.

How did it feel to be back performing a real run of a show for a live audience in the U.S.?

For me it's a lot like riding a bicycle because I did it for 27 years, so it's very familiar, it's not something that I have to figure out "How do I do this?" You just kind of fall back into it. In terms of the audience and the play itself, that wasn't different, that is what it is - other than the audience wearing masks, but I think we've all gotten accustomed to it. So I just went and did my job, and that's what I do.

However, now I don't go anywhere or do anything but this show, because you need to make sure you don't get sick. I had gotten sick three or four weeks before. I got that BA.5 thing, and let me tell you it's no joke. I'm still exhausted from it, even though I did the run. It hangs around, so it's serious stuff, it's hard work. And I was very lucky because we did sell out, but it's because I do a very specific thing and I've had an audience for years. But I understand from a lot of my colleagues that things are not quite what they were.

In terms of the festivity of doing the show, opening night is not really an opening night because you can't have big gatherings, you don't have a bar in the lobby where people go and congregate, there's no greeting patrons after. So, yeah, it's different, that's for sure. I don't go out, I don't party, I don't [normally] do that anyway, but you know it's just that one has to be careful.

Is that frustrating? You strike me as a real people person.

No, I am actually quite shy. I am a people person onstage, but I'm not really a social butterfly. I mean, I do my job, and I'm generous as much as I can be with the audience. But privately, I'm not. I'm very shy and actually very, very quiet.

I've heard a lot of performers are that way.

Yeah, you give so much to the audience that you can't very well keep on giving, otherwise you have nothing left to give.

Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: CHOPIN IN PARIS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Makes a Much-Anticipated Return to the Bay Area
Hershey Felder as Fryderyk Chopin in
Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris

Does Chopin in Paris bear any relation to Monsieur Chopin, which you created a number of years ago and performed elsewhere?

Yes. The narrative is similar, but the structuring of the play is different. You always want to look for new and more fun ways to do a story, and I found a different angle involving interaction with the audience and it works very well. I mean, you'd never think it, but it's a great deal of fun, and there's a lot of laughter. Chopin was a cutup, and in his youth one of the ways he dealt with whatever fears he had was to be very witty with his salon listeners. So there's a lot of that, and a lot of it is off the cuff which makes it really fun.

Chopin in Paris was directed by Joel Zwick, with whom you have a longstanding artistic relationship. How did the two of you originally connect?

Through a guy by the name of Stu Silver who I was writing a musical play with. I'd met Stu through actor Rex Hays in New York through a workshop I was doing for Hal Prince, of all people. Rex asked me to meet Stu Silver because he said we were very similar. Stu had written Throw Momma from the Train and he was quite famous for having written Soap with Billy Crystal. And so I went to meet him in California, we worked together and he said Joel Zwick was a very dear friend of his and that I needed to meet him. And it turned out that Joel and I were third cousins. So it's a long story, but that's how it happened.

One of the things I always enjoy about your biographical works is how you find a specific emotional connection to each person you portray. What was the key to finding the character of Chopin?

Mental illness is a big thing in this piece. I don't want to pretend that I have a grasp of it, but I try to understand what it means. With Chopin it's probably what the case was, so looking at it from that human point of view and how he suffered was important.

Do you remember what the first Chopin piece you ever learned to play was?

Ah ... my goodness, that's a question! [long pause]

Because I assume Chopin's music would have played a significant role in your education as a pianist.

Oh, no question, absolutely. I'm just trying to think which the first one was... I know which one I wanted to learn how to play, and I tried, but I was what, seven years old? It was the Butterfly Study in G Flat, Op. 25 No. 9, but everybody knows it as the "Butterfly Study." It's the first one that I heard and so I wanted to address it on the instrument. My teacher said, "Oh, it's too hard" and I said, "I'm gonna learn it." So I just forced myself to try to learn it, bar by bar, and I worked at it for god knows how long. And then of course, I took on easier pieces of his and eventually worked my way back up to that.

Do you have a current favorite Chopin piece that you keep finding new things in?

Everything, you find that in everything [he wrote]! His music is just so beautiful.

Interview: Hershey Felder of HERSHEY FELDER: CHOPIN IN PARIS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Makes a Much-Anticipated Return to the Bay Area
Hershey Felder as seminal composer Fryderyk Chopin in Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris

You've always had so many different pots on the fire, and now that's literally the case with these cooking shows you've done. How did they come about?

Well, my audiences and friends know that I always like cooking for them, so it was like "Why don't you do a show that relates to the food that the artists would have prepared in their time?"

Looking ahead to the various new programs you'll be offering online in the fall, I'm especially excited about the Sondheim show in December. Have you worked out how you plan to approach to his music, how you're going to make it into a show?

That's a piece we will create with National Young Artists, and it'll be fun. It'll be an analysis of the songs themselves, using various artists to discuss the songs. A thoughtful thing, rather than a - how do you call it? - a "show" show.

Being a Sondheim fanatic myself, I'm just really curious to see what you'll come up with.

I don't know - we'll find out! [laughs]

Since COVID gave you an opportunity to finally spend a lot of time at home in Italy, have you discovered anything new about the wonders of Florence or Venice?

You know, everything is a miracle in these places. It's so exciting to be here. It's so artistic, it's just really beautiful and I discover something new every day. It's never dull!

(all photos courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris runs from August 19 to September 11, 2022 live at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA. For tickets and more information, visit TheatreWorks.org or call (877)-662-8978.

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