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Hershey Felder examines the legendary songwriter's life and work in his new solo show
Pianist, performer and playwright Hershey Felder has made a career out of chronicling the lives and music of composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Ludwig van Beethoven on stage. But he expands his musical range to the Great American Songbook in his latest solo bio show at 59E59 Theaters, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.
Although Felder previously tackled Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, who wrote popular tunes in addition to classical compositions, he admits that "I never thought Berlin was classical enough for my taste. Blame it on my snobbishness. While I knew the basics of Berlin's life and music, what I remembered most was reading his obituary in 1989, when he died at 101, and how he was portrayed as this cranky old recluse. I simply wasn't interested."
Felder began to change his mind after meeting Berlin's daughters, Mary Ellin Barrett and Linda Louise Emmett, who shared fascinating anecdotes about their father. That inspired him to delve into Berlin's extensive catalogue of more than 1,500 songs, including hits for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Hollywood and the Broadway musicals Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. "I discovered that Berlin's music was very natural, much like Mozart's, and everything was really crafted in his own voice," Felder says. "His ear told him what was right and wrong. I was also fascinated to find out he refused to take music lessons or do much of anything based on other people's opinions. That is so unusual."
Felder's newfound appreciation for Berlin standards such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "White Christmas" and "Always" (just some of the 19 full songs he performs in the show) was only part of the reason he decided to bring the songwriter's story to the stage. As a fellow son of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to North America (albeit in different eras), Felder felt a kinship with Berlin, and was taken with his fervent commitment to his adopted homeland.
"The first thing that really surprised me about Berlin was how passionate he was about being an American, even after being treated so badly as an immigrant," says Felder. "When I learned that he donated all royalties of 'God Bless America' to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, that was the real 'wow' moment for me. I was so impressed by how genuine he was as a person. He wasn't about gaming the system by this gesture, or by devoting so much effort to raising money during both World Wars. His daughters confirmed for me how much he wanted to thank America for giving him a new life."
Researching Berlin also gave Felder a new perspective on that long-ago obituary that had rubbed him the wrong way, which is why he decided to set the show on Christmas Eve 1988 as the 100-year-old songwriter reminisces about times gone by. "The whole point of the show for me -- and I hope for the audience -- is coming to this understanding that the bitter man that Berlin became at the end came from something real inside him," he says. "Imagine what it is like to be so famous for 60 years, and then not be able to figure out how to do the next thing once you're no longer appreciated. What do you do when time passes you by and you get so disillusioned that you want to die? I realized just how difficult his life must have been for those last 25 years."
Top image: Hershey Felder in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin. Photos © Hershey Felder Presents.