Hershey Felder is back! Even if he’s in Italy, the miracle of modern internet streaming has given him the opportunity to share his performance with the world. Named to Time Magazine’s 2016 Top 10 Plays and Musicals, Hershey has performed his solo depictions of musical greats over 6,000 times – and consistently broken box office records. From Gershwin to Chopin to Liszt, to Berlin to Tchaikovsky, Hershey has given his special twist to the lives of musical geniuses. Over his career, he has composed, recorded, and performed internationally, a piano virtuoso with significant acting chops. He has been a scholar-in-residence at Harvard University’s Department of Music and happens to be married to Kim Campbell, the only female Prime Minister of Canada. On July 12, 2020, Hershey will stream his production on musical icon Ludwig van Beethoven.
Providing one of the few sources of revenue for many organizations due to the COVID-19 shutdown, Hershey will donate the proceeds from the event to theaters, arts, organizations, ticket outlets, and publications – including the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Beverly Hills, CA), Laguna Playhouse (Laguna Beach, CA), San Diego Repertory (San Diego, CA), Hartford Stage (Hartford, CT), Berkshire Theatre Group (Pittsfield, MA), Lyric Chamber Music Society of New York (New York, NY), Goldstar, and The Florentine (English-language newspaper, Florence, IT). Hershey has created the “Hershey Felder Presents Arts Prize Competition” in honor of Beethoven’s 250th birthday year – with a $25,000 prize for one of five artist finalists submitting “anything Beethoven” in their video presentation. Viewers will vote on the winner.
In preparation for the benefit gala, Hershey kindly agreed to interview on July 7, 2020.
You have become a number of music icons in your career. What first gave you the idea of delving into the life, love, and music of all these famous musicians? How do you go about selecting your next musical genius?
Hershey Felder: I’ve always wryly answered this first question by saying that the reason behind presenting these characters the way I do was in order to pay rent. And while a good enough piece of that is true, the overriding reason was the desire to understand these great composers and their works in the contexts of the times that these artists lived in, and consequently, the contexts for the creations of their art. In terms of selecting the next musician, sometimes it is based on audience demand, sometimes on my desire to tell a particular story, and sometimes…a real need to pay rent.
Which of the musical geniuses do you most enjoy becoming? Have you ever decided against following up on a musician’s life and contributions? Why?
HF: I never quite “become” any of these artists, but I do put together the pieces to try and create the “illusion” that – for a brief period of time – I am able to share these characters and their art with audiences, as if they were meeting the characters one on one, face to face. In terms of “enjoyment,” I very much so enjoy the artistic process, the discovery, the preparation…that is the real pleasure in creating these portraits. Of course it is heartwarming should the audience embrace the creation – but the true personal joy is in the artistic process. As far as not telling a particular musician’s story? I’ve been asked time and time again for Cole Porter, who was a genius with a great story to tell. I just don’t think I am the right person to tell it, but I do hope that someone out there is!
How do you go about planning and researching the musician you’ve decided on for your next show? Do you ever omit life facts – or embellish a bit?
HF: I don’t ever embellish in terms of the factual material because that defies the purpose. I do, obviously, dramatize the material; but I do like to stick to the facts. As far as research, I begin by doing all my own work because it is in my nature to never stop studying and learning. Six years ago, I took on a research partner, Meghan Maiya, who is a veritable genius – a sort of walking computer when it comes to research and how to find even the most obscure facts to support the work we are doing. It is a tremendous help to have someone keep the story-telling on the straight and narrow.
After all your hard work and examination of these famed individuals, how do you stand on the nature/nurture question? Were they born that way? If so, how did their environment mold them? In your opinion, is there any overriding factor which separates these musicians from the rest?
HF: Of course, the thing that separates any artist “from the rest” and even from each other, is their art. Art is a mystical thing. Why is it that one artist can approach a subject – whatever that subject may be – and render it more soulfully, honestly, and evocatively than someone else attempting the exact same feat? It’s all a mystery, and part of the fun is that there is no answer. Similarly, while some artists do respond to their immediate surroundings, others use invention and are equally as successful. Again – it’s the mystery that is the magic here!
Tell us something about “Anna and Sergei,” your new play about Rachmaninoff. Did you learn anything new as you studied yet another musical genius?
HF: I always learn something new every time I take on one of these characters. This time I got to delve into Czarist Russia; and, while I knew the basics, there was so much detail that I uncovered for myself – I was (and am) mesmerized by the whole thing. I am looking forward to getting back into the theaters when we are all safe so I can give the premiere of this very unusual play.
In many ways, it appears that you have become a citizen of the world. What’s your favorite country – and why? How about your favorite musician – and why?
HF: I don’t have a “favorite” musician or country per se. That would be exclusionary. But I do now call Florence, Italy, home. After all – it’s where I always find my dog, Leo. And when Kim and I find Leo, we know we’re home.
HERSHEY FELDER: BEETHOVEN will be streamed from Florence, Italy, on Sunday, July 12, 2020 (5 p.m. PDT, 7 p.m. CDT, 8 p.m. EDT). Tickets are $55 per household and can be purchased online. Patrons will receive a link and password which will enable them to view the live stream.
Streaming with Hershey Felder – Addendum
On Sunday, July 12 at 5 p.m. (PDT), the eagerly-awaited Hershey Felder benefit performance of BEETHOVEN took place. In a live stream, Felder took on the persona of musical genius Beethoven with skill and enthusiasm. Characteristic of the small screen –whether it be a cell phone or a computer – the streamed performance offered an intimacy sometimes lacking on a spacious stage. The audience was almost able to enter the head of the music icon and see the world from his eyes. Particularly effective were the often ghost-like projections of people important to the time period which swirled around Beethoven’s head – as well as his use of black and white and color images. Felder’s change-of-pace style kept the story alive and involving. Following the show, clips from several musicians who developed “Beethoven-like” pieces were aired so that the audience could vote for their favorite. The lucky winner would take home $25,000.
As with all new technology, the live stream also offered some potential pitfalls, including a viewing dependent on internet speed. At the beginning of the production, viewers were warned that they might find themselves locked out of the show for a period of time while their access was appropriately buffered. The audio was also a potential problem. Especially when the piano was stroked at the lower registers, some distortions might crop up. Despite these technological issues, BEETHOVEN proved to be a powerful and moving slice of Beethoven’s life. Hershey Felder again showcased his internationally-recognized talent.