Q&A: Hershey Felder gives Irving Berlin one-man-play treatment at Geffen

Actor Hershey Felder
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Hershey Felder may be the most efficient performing artist on the planet.

One man, one grand piano, one composer’s body of work at a time, and you get six plays — seven if you count “Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” which uses Civil War-era songs for the story of Charles Leale, the young army doctor who was at Ford’s Theatre when the president was shot and saw him through his dying night.

Starting with “George Gershwin Alone,” which opened in 2000 with a long run in L.A., Felder has gone on to write and perform one-man plays on Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Liszt and, the latest, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” which is having its premiere through Jan. 4 at the Geffen Playhouse. The Geffen has staged all of Felder’s shows except “Rockstar!” the 2013 play about Liszt.

He has branched out as writer-director on two other shows in the same format: memoir plays with piano music, performed by Chris Lemmon and Mona Golabek about their respective parents, movie star Jack Lemmon and Lisa Jura, a budding concert pianist whose career was disrupted by the Holocaust.


Irving Berlin was barely a pianist, able to play in just one key, F-sharp — as you have him confess early in the show. For authenticity’s sake, did you consider giving the audience a taste of his clunky playing?

Not for one second. The audience wouldn’t tolerate it, and it wouldn’t be worthy of anybody to do that, to schlep through and try to poke out a couple of notes or whatever. The thrill of the show is being able to do what’s in his imagination, what he heard in his head. He was a genius, a miraculous sort of talent, and so sophisticated.

The young George Gershwin wanted to be Berlin’s musical secretary, which involved writing down and playing back his ideas, and Berlin rejected him because he thought he’d be better off developing his own talent. But you left that out of the show — a chance for two characters you’ve mastered to meet.

No, no. No way. That becomes a self-referential joke. It’s self-indulgent. No matter what anybody thinks, it ain’t about me. Why these characters work is that it doesn’t feel like Hershey Felder doing another show, but they actually feel like the individual.

Is a great deal of the dialogue, including laugh lines, things that Irving Berlin actually said or wrote?

We craft them, but they’re integrated in a way that makes them real. He didn’t tell jokes, but he was extremely funny. All this stuff is drawn from him, nothing is made of whole cloth. We had real access to the family, to sit in the living room and hear them say, “This is where it happened, this is where Grandpa was.” They didn’t force me to write anything, but what they did maintain was that nothing could be in there that’s false. There was one conversation [taken out] that I had drawn from a biography with which they have great issue. They didn’t force me or anything. They said, “It’s not true, it never happened” but didn’t [try to] guide the writing whatsoever.


Why is it that a lot of the greatest modern Christmas songs are by Jews? “White Christmas” by Berlin and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” by Mel Torme, for example?

It’s not that Jews write the best things, it’s that Jews are storytellers. It’s one of the things that we do. If they say, “Tell us a good story about Christmas,” it’s [puts on a Yiddish accent], “OK, chestnuts on an open fire.”

You attempted a three-actor play about Chopin at the American Repertory Theater near Boston in 2003 and never departed from the solo format again.

This was a real experiment, and what I got from the audience was complicated for me to deal with. It was, “We want more Hershey in the role and we don’t want you to share the stage.” So these solo shows were born out of what people are interested in buying. They were very clear in surveys and emails that what was lacking was, “We want to hear you talk as the composer and talk to us.” It was quite clear what they wanted, and who am I to argue?

The way of the entertainment world nowadays is multiple electronic platforms, but your only real platform has been the stage. Are you exploring doing shows for television or simulcast to movie theaters or enlarging your Internet presence?

They don’t want the Facebook experience with Hershey Felder, they want to come and sing in the theater [several shows involve singalong moments], they want the human experience. There are so many artists who do so much great work [online], so I don’t pooh-pooh it. But if you’re plugged into your computer all day, there’s something to be said for a human experience, and that’s what I offer. I’m being pitched all the time [to do plays on television]. We have filmed all the shows but have never released them. Maybe when I get old, when I can’t be on stage, but it has to be done right.


You premiered your Liszt show last year at the Laguna Playhouse but haven’t gone back to it. Is it a keeper?

It’s definitely a keeper, it’s just very, very, dark. Liszt was Wagner’s father-in-law and his sole promoter when nobody wanted anything to do with him. Hitler and Goebbels used Wagner’s [virulently anti-Semitic] theses as a basis for the Final Solution. He was a monster, and the question for Liszt is would he have done any different had he known what Wagner was ultimately going to be responsible for? The gang from the Geffen came and said they absolutely wanted to do the Liszt show. I said, “We are not going to give them this dark, dark, dark, dark, dark show before we give them something fun. Let’s do something fun, and then we’ll go from there.”