Re-Creating the Iconic Composer George Gershwin on Stage
by Matt Robinson / JNS.org
As the composer of such international smashes as “West Side Story” and “Candide,” and the musical director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein has a legacy that lingers large in the annals of arts and academia.
As an award-winning musician and playwright who married to the former prime minister of Canada, A. Kim Campbell, Hershey Felder has carved out his own legacy in music and theatre.
Now, Felder is enhancing Bernstein’s story with his enchanting embodiment of it. In his latest performance, “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein,” the man who has brought the legendary likes of George Gershwin, Beethoven and Chopin back to life on stage is now turning his talented hands and historically accurate mind to the tale of Bernstein.
As much as Felder’s shows may help keep the memories and legacies of his lofty subjects alive, he admits that they also do a great deal for his own career. “The reality is that no one knew who I was some 20 years ago,” Felder says, “but people do care about Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven [and Bernstein]…and I care a great deal about these artists.” According to Felder, sharing their lives and music with others is “part of being an artist.”
“The growth of the style was really organic,” Felder explains when asked how the format of his worldwide shows came to be. “It started with an idea about communicating the music and stories and grew into what it is.”
As he had established himself as a pianist with a 1988 London performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at age 19, Felder knew Gershwin’s work, but not much about the man himself. In performing and exploring Gershwin and his music, Felder discovered how “beloved” his music is and thought that Gershwin would make a good candidate for theatrical presentation. “I thought that would be a good place to start,” he says, “with something very popular.”
Felder recently premiered his latest work—”Lincoln: An American Story”—in California, and directed Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. After bringing Bernstein back to Boston and New York, Felder will go right into a run of his popular performances of “George Gershwin Alone.”
“My repertoire for at least 15 years has been driven by the needs of the presentations,” Felder explains when asked how he decides what to do when, “and the performance schedule has been based on the audience and theatres’ requirements.”
Though he is now able to go from show to show with little more than a wig change, Felder says that each new incarnation involves a good amount of research and preparation.
“I spend a great deal of time learning everything I can,” he says, noting that he often has to spend just as much time doing biographical work as he does musical rehearsal and travel. “I know that I can never capture entire lives in a 90-minute presentation, but what I can do is give the essence of what the individual was about, and to do that, one has to know pretty much everything there is to know.”
Felder says he is pleased to act as a gateway to the lives and music of noteworthy artists.
“The Bernstein piece has proven to be interesting because I am playing someone from the not too distant past,” he says. “In fact, I am playing someone from our collective conscious memory.” As a result, he notes, making Bernstein “real” was “both the goal and the challenge.”
Many who played with or for Bernstein are still alive and still remember him, especially those in Boston and New York, and Felder says that adds meaning to his shows.
“Many who knew him and played under his baton feel that what I am presenting is the essence of the real man,” Felder says. “Hopefully…audiences get a sense of what that great life may just have been like.”