Most of us are familiar with Gershwin, the man who composed Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, the opera Porgy and Bess, and countless pop standards in collaboration with his lyricist brother, Ira, before dying from a brain tumor in 1937 at age 38. But who the heck is Hershey Felder?
"I had seen him perform as a concert pianist, and it was electrifying," says director Joel Zwick, who is best known for helming such TV sitcoms as Laverne and Shirley and The Jamie Foxx Show--and who, as it happens, is the Canadian-born Felder's fourth cousin. "I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that Hershey can also act and sing. It's a triple threat that you very rarely see onstage; we still haven't found an understudy for him."
The 33-year-old Felder performs about 40 chamber and solo recitals each year, but that's only the beginning of his pursuits. He is an activist and leader in the Jewish community; he is one of four people chosen to conduct interviews of Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation; and he is the youngest board member of the "1939 Club," a prominent Holocaust organization. Felder, who looks like a cross between Gershwin and Bronson Pinchot, has also spent some time in the background as the husband of former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell--a role he calls "my First Lady kind of life."
He wrote George Gershwin Alone after spending several years trawling through just about every piece of paper the composer ever touched. Now, for each 90-minute performance, he transforms himself into his subject, weaving anecdotes (many taken from Gershwin's own writings) together with performances of such classics as "Swanee," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "Embraceable You," "Someone to Watch Over Me," and the show's barn-burner finale, Rhapsody in Blue.
"You know how we made this piece interesting? We told the truth," Felder says. "No smoke and mirrors. A man simply stands up and tells a story." That minimalist approach helped endear Felder to the Gershwin family, which had never before given permission for George Gershwin to be portrayed onstage. "The family was very tough on us and made sure that we didn't impose things that didn't need to be there," says Felder. "That was a great lesson, because we never added anything merely for effect. It had to be true and work dramatically, or it wasn't in."
The tragedy of Gershwin's untimely death was compounded by his disappointment at the diffident critical reception of Porgy and Bess, and Felder finds the dramatic center of his play in the disparity between Gershwin's anxiety over his legacy and the audience's knowledge of his historical vindication. "No matter how big the theater where I'm performing the show," he says, "George is the only person in the room who has no idea that, 64 years after his death, Rhapsody in Blue will be a national anthem."