Stepping into the shoes of Irving Berlin on a Mountain View stage last year, complete with Christmas tree to emulate the composer’s Manhattan living room, Hershey Felder segued into “God Bless America.” Audience members slowly rose, some with moistened eyes, as they joined in on the chorus.
Eschewing rockets, bombs and bombast, Berlin’s hymn to his adopted land speaks directly to the immigrant experience and that of America’s Jews, from Old World oppression to inclusion, success and, inevitably, assimilation.
That is the story the actor-pianist-singer-writer captures in his one-man theater piece “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.” The highest-grossing show last winter for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, it opens April 4 at Berkeley Rep, where Felder previously brought to life George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Frederick Chopin, also as one-man performances.
In June, his Beethoven show opens at TheatreWorks, where his Tchaikovsky show will follow next January. Felder also performs “Franz Liszt in Musik” and “Lincoln: An American Story,” as well as an add-on to his other shows, “The Great American Songbook Sing-Along.”
The Montreal-born Felder, 48, who has been performing worldwide for some 20 years, jokes that he lives “in an airplane,” although he actually shares homes in New York and Paris with wife Kim Campbell, a former prime minister of Canada. He currently has eight one-man shows in repertory that continue to break box-office records. In each, he inhabits his character, in appearance, voice and body language.
As an actor, how does he make the transition from, say, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky to Berlin within a matter of weeks or sometimes days?
“Transitions are made by deeply understanding and meticulously understanding the traits of each character,” he said during a phone interview between performances in Southern California. “Then I look at the color of the suit and costume and know, ‘Ah, him tonight.’
“It’s all a matter of preparation, really. If one knows what one is doing, then there isn’t much place to mush about the characters.”
Felder makes it sound easy, but as a classically trained pianist, he didn’t initially think Berlin’s music would fit into his repertoire. “I didn’t think I had anything to bring to the table,” he said.
While Gershwin and Bernstein — the other American composers he has played — were piano virtuosos who created both classical and popular compositions, Berlin’s métier was strictly pop: An untrained musician, Berlin played piano by ear in the key of F-sharp. Over a 101-year lifetime, he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, arguably more all-time hits than any other American composer: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “I Love a Piano,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” His music is featured in nearly 50 Broadway shows and 28 films. Concerts, yes — the composer’s 1988 star-studded centennial was celebrated in Carnegie Hall — but not concertos.
Nonetheless, “he was a very talented composer even though he didn’t exactly study music and didn’t really know how to write notes,” Felder said. “He had what every composer needs and should have, and that is a great ear. He was able to hear things in the air and dictate them.”
Moreover, Berlin’s lyric writing is “sheer poetry,” Felder said. “He had an uncanny ability of tapping into very simple and visceral human emotions and being able to turn them into poetry using the most economical and beautiful of means in the English language. There’s never a word you don’t understand. … But I wouldn’t undermine his melodic writing and his harmonic intuition.”
Beyond that, Berlin’s life story, of a Jewish immigrant who made good, spoke to Felder. “I understood how important it was to tell the story,” he said, “and how remarkable a story it was.”
Escaping the pogroms of Belarus in 1893 at the age of 5, the former Israel Beilin grew up one of eight children on New York’s Lower East Side. When he was 13 years old, his father, who had been a cantor in the Old Country, died and the future composer was forced to go to work, singing on street corners and eventually landing a job as a singing waiter in a Chinatown café. While his earliest songs deal with the immigrant experience — “Marie from Sunny Italy” and “Yiddle on Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime” — Berlin is certainly best known for such decidedly un-ethnic songs as “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.”
Felder is frequently asked about the similarities between himself and the three Jewish American composers he has played.
“The answer, of course, is that there is one great dissimilarity, and that is that I am not a genius,” he said, although audiences might disagree. “But if we are talking similarities, it’s that I, too, come from an [Eastern European] immigrant family and am first generation,” like Gershwin and Bernstein.
“The plight and surrounding circumstances is something I understand, as well as being an immigrant myself to this country from Canada,” he quipped. “There are certain stories I identify with. I understand Berlin’s story, I understand Gershwin’s story from an experiential point of view, but I wouldn’t say that I am partial to them because they’re Jewish.”
On the other hand, “I understand the immigrant’s story because I come from that family. People in my family spoke with accents.”
However, while the three Jewish songwriters grew up during a time of assimilation, Felder, born in 1968, did not. As a youth in Montreal, where he attended Hebrew Academy Day School and later McGill University, Felder learned Yiddish, Hebrew, French, English and some Hungarian from his mother’s side. That may account for his skill in emulating the accents and timbre of various voices, including the nasal Brooklynese of Bernstein mentor Aaron Copland and the brassy Ethel Merman belting out Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
I understand the immigrant’s story because I come from that family.
Unlike Berlin, who apparently abandoned the Jewish vernacular in his music after the 1909 “Yiddle on Your Fiddle,” Felder has long been drawn to Jewish themes. He is currently working on “Chosen By God,” a musical based on Joshua Hammer’s novel about a secular Jew trying to come to terms with his Satmar Hasidic brother, “which doesn’t quite happen.” In 2013, Berkeley Rep featured his adaptation of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” in which writer-concert pianist Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s escape from Nazi Vienna. One of his earlier pieces, “Aliyah,” is a piano concerto based on Israel’s rise from the ashes of the Holocaust.
Turning to Berlin, “his Jewishness is there in a very interesting way — in a certain generosity to a country he had come to and felt he had to give back to,” Felder said. “It’s more of a Jewish ethic than an overtly Jewish oy vey kind of response, [focused] on what things are important. His mother always told him, ‘God bless America,’ which is where he got the line from: ‘God bless America and don’t you ever forget it.’ I think this is a very Jewish ethic, even though it’s not overtly traditionally Jewish in its language. It’s about being a mensch. Some people find him too bland. I certainly don’t. That’s a good thing.”
One example of Berlin’s menschlichkeit: All royalties for “God Bless America” continue to go to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, which may be one reason troops favor Berlin’s song over the national anthem.
“His daughters told me it was not false or pretentious the way he really wanted to thank his country,” Felder said. “He took the opportunity to give back, and he did in spades.”
Felder emphasized that he takes on the roles of great composers, Jewish and otherwise, because their stories and music speak to him, and can speak through him. With Beethoven, the composer’s deafness “is what drives the piece,” he said. “A lot of people, believe it or not, are totally shocked that he was deaf. They don’t necessarily put the fact that he’s deaf with this glorious music.”
In the Beethoven piece, Felder takes on the roles of three main characters: the composer; Gerhard von Breuning, author of an 1870 memoir about Beethoven; and von Breuning’s son. When the son sits down at the piano to play, and Beethoven can’t hear a note of his own music, the effect on audiences is staggering, he said. “It’s quite a moving idea — to suddenly realize that this man cannot hear what we’re hearing, period, end of story.”
And Felder has more stories to tell. What’s next? Any plans to do other renowned late Jewish songwriters, like fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen?
“No,” Felder said. “I’m working on my own compositions, and I’m not quite dead yet.”