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Chicago by John Olson

Hershey Felder leaves George Gershwin "alone" to spend time with Chopin

Hersey Felder as Chopin
Hershey Felder as Chopin
On a Friday afternoon in late July, Hershey Felder is facing the final weekend of the nearly yearlong Chicago run of his one-man show, George Gershwin Alone. For this show, which he wrote, he has been performing as actor, singer and concert pianist; in one venue or another, one country or another; for the past six years. Though on this afternoon he has four performances remaining as Gershwin, he's already begun the transformation into his next role, that of the early 19th-century composer Frédéric Chopin, by letting his hair grown to a length suitable for the time ("it's getting harder and harder to pull it back to look like Gershwin," he confides). The emotional transformation has begun as well, as is evident from the reading of the new show, called Monsieur Chopin, for which Felder has invited me to sit in. The show will begin previews at the Royal George Theater, Gershwin's Chicago home, on August 30th. A long life on the road is expected for it as well. After the reading, we retreated to a Halsted Street restaurant just up the block from the Royal George. He's quick to assure me that it was not initially a given that Monsieur Chopin would be a one-man show like Gershwin.

"I did a preliminary workshop where I used three people" (to play the characters of Chopin, his female lover novelist George Sand, and Chopin's friend, the painter Eugène Delacroix). "It was quite clear that fundamentally the concept was wrong. And I did it with Tony Crivello. We did it for a couple of weeks in Boston a few years ago and it was very clear that we were working with a huge problem which is that Chopin in that situation can't talk because he's angry at everybody all the time. He can't say anything, so he's constantly running to the piano. And the fact is that the audience wants to know what he has to say. And they want to hear him play. So, this is not for lack of trying, or for wanting to do another one-man show. You try all kinds of things and eventually you realize you have to give the audience what they're prepared to come and see. And then you figure out artistically what to do."

Though the reading I'd just seen lacked the benefit of lighting or the extensive use of projections and film Felder tells me will be an integral part of the show, the differences in subject matter between Gershwin and Chopin were clear. While Gershwin was rather guarded and private, and had disappointments both professional and personal, he seems to have enjoyed a generally happy and successful, albeit tragically short life (he died at age 38). Chopin, who died at age 39, suffered from what was then called melancholy but is now known as bipolar disease, Hershey explains, and lived much of his life in extreme emotional isolation from others.

"In the case of Gershwin, it was a way to communicate a man who wanted the world and died before he had a chance. In the case of Chopin, it's a very different kettle of fish; this is a man who had the world, and he didn't have himself. It's sad to think he's so gifted and so magical, such a wizard and yet could be so ill at ease in a conversation, in a relationship. Sand first fell in love with him because he was this magical, prince-like wizard and then she had to get out of the relationship because he basically drove her mad. A person knows what it's like to be with somebody who doesn't see the world, not necessarily the way you do, but doesn't see the world in some form of reality. Ghosts and conflict and haunting, which is what his problem was. So there's a story to tell here, and yet he produces some of the most beautiful music ever written. Absolute, absolute beauty! How is this possible? Where does this come from? Did emotional things drive him? So that's part of the study of this character and I think people relate to it in some way or other."

The show reveals how Chopin, either due to circumstances or to his melancholia and anxiety, was unable to sustain the close relationships he so greatly desired. He has difficulty communicating through language and instead seems to turn to composition as his means of sharing his feelings. "This is a far more inner, romantic ... He also has a much more huge range of emotions than Gershwin. There's a lot to do for the actor. There's something to do. With Gershwin, you push the 'go button' and that's all. Gershwin hides his emotions. Gershwin is telling a story and saying at the end of the story 'I want you to love me and remember me.' He said, 'we wanted to be famous.' Why were two guys from Brooklyn or Manhattan writing about Swanee? Chopin didn't want to be famous. He didn't care."

I ask how an artist like Chopin made his living then, if not through the fame of public performance. "He was a piano teacher," Hershey explains. "In his whole life he gave only 30 concerts. He didn't like it. Hated it. Hated playing concerts, hated being with people in public."

"Is it a bit more enjoyable for you given your training as a concert pianist to do Chopin than it was Gershwin?" He answers, "Well, there are several things. In Chopin, it's all about the music and nothing else. In Gershwin, it's about the performer. In Chopin, I get to just sit at the piano. And while there are emotional things going on, I get to sit at the piano and focus."

I tell Hershey that it seems in Monsieur Chopin, there are more minutes given to the music than to the monologue, compared to the Gershwin show. He replies, "It feels that way because of the way it's set up. I think one feels the continuation of the story through the playing. I'll be very interested to see what my Gershwin public thinks of this. They're coming. They're already buying tickets in a major way. It'll be interesting to see how they react because it's so different. I've been doing bits and pieces from it during the encores (of George Gershwin Alone), ten-minute sections, and the whole attitude of the audience shifts. They're laughing, I love how much they laugh, because there are lots of funny lines in it. Not funny the way Gershwin is funny, but Chopin did such strange things, some times I'll pull out the handkerchief and they start laughing."

We wonder how the audience developed through a year's run of George Gershwin Alone will cross over into it. Hershey theorizes, "I think today a lot of people want to be 'allowed in' to the music world. In the old days, you didn't have records. Someone in the house played piano. That was how you made music. People made music. Everybody played. It was really a remarkable time. A couple hundred years ago for sure, everybody studied music, had music books. Think about what a time that must have been."

Though the Gershwin songbook Felder has been performing for six years is hardly new, it's more familiar to the audiences than much of the Chopin that will be performed in the new show, the phrases borrowed by Barry Manilow for "Could It Be Magic?" notwithstanding. Will audiences unschooled in the classics relate as well to Chopin? Hershey answers, "It's more fun if you know what's going on, that much I can guarantee you. You have a visceral, emotional and physical reaction to the whole thing. What's sort of exciting about this is that it makes that what would ordinarily seem inaccessible accessible. There's nothing weird or you can't understand it, it's not so artsy-fartsy that you can't understand what's going on and the regular public will understand it on an emotional level."

Is he prepared to play Chopin as long as he played Gershwin? Felder admits to some concern about the emotional demands of the piece. "Chopin is sadder. The music is much more beautiful but it rips me apart every day. There are two types of actors. There are actors that manufacture emotions and actors that just allow emotion. With Gershwin I have to manufacture it because he's a non-emotional man playing a non-emotional piece. With Chopin I get to be the other actor and just to allow it to happen. The secret of Chopin is allowing it complete freedom and if you allow it complete freedom it explodes. Somehow it just comes and you get to the end and tears are just rolling down my face, and I'm going 'this poor man.'"

He describes a moment late in the piece after Sand has left Chopin, but returns briefly for one last time. "The moment that just breaks my heart is when he meets her downstairs and he asks 'do you still love me?' and he walks toward her and he waits for her answer ... and I'm thinking ... that moment must have been ... (Hershey seems uncharacteristically lost for words) ... because it happened. Two weeks ago I was in Paris and I stood on the place where it happened and you think ... I'm so, so, so, so sad. All he wanted is for her to say she did (love him) and she couldn't even give him that. He probably was so difficult that had she given that, she would have broken."

I ask Hershey if it was harder researching Chopin than Gershwin, since at least a few of Gershwin's contemporaries are still alive. "Much easier," he replies. "You see, when you grow up in the classical world, it's not alien. When you're exposed to your first Chopin piece at whatever age you want to devour everything about this man, and I did, as a kid. (In developing Monsieur Chopin) I had associations with every Chopin society; and with Jeffrey Kallberg, who's chairman of the department of music at U. Penn. He is the number one specialist on Chopin in America, so he acted as a consultant and we became friends. If I wanted to take a scene in this way, he made sure it was believable, if I wanted to take a scene that way, that kind of thing. Things like I would say this or that or the other thing, he would say, 'it actually happened exactly like this.' It was about having a pedant. It was important to have a pedant. And he's totally not a pedant, but he knows how to be one at the end of the day. Notwithstanding my knowledge, because as a classical musician I do have stored knowledge of that kind of stuff, but it was integral that it be done for real. None of these stories are made up. All of what you see has reference."

After six years of playing George Gershwin, does he have any nostalgia at all about saying goodbye to him? I learn that he won't be leaving Gershwin alone entirely just yet. "I've been asked to take him to large venues all across the country and in Europe, so I'll have those engagements on weekends, or this that and the other thing." Felder's performance as Gershwin will live on in recordings as well, I'm told. "On July 1, WFMT (a classical radio station in Chicago) entered into a relationship with me and broadcast the entire Gershwin Alone live across the country." The live broadcast will be released on CD. "They had never had a recording album so I am in effect the very first record on the WFMT Network's recording label. The new album is coming out in a couple of weeks, so that will be fun too. It will be fun because when we recorded it at a live performance, the entire house was jam packed with people who stood up to sing (in the post-show sing-along) and then came back and we sang for the whole country. We had a lot of fun ... we sang and sang and sang. To have a full house of 400 singing, it was amazing. It's been a wild year, here."

Monsieur Chopin begins previews at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, Chicago, on Tuesday, August 30th. The performance schedule is as follows: Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m., Thursdays at 8:00 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.

Ticket prices range in price from $35.00 to $39.50 and are available at the Royal George Theatre Box Office, or (312) 988-9000, by calling Ticketmaster at (312) 902-1500, at all Ticketmaster ticket centers (including all Carson Pirie Scott stores, Tower Records, Hot Tix, select Coconuts and fye stores) or online at ticketmaster.com. Groups of 20 or more can receive a discount by calling (312) 977-1710.

Information on ordering the George Gershwin Alone CD can be found at www.georgegershwinalone.com.

Photo: John Zich

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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