Hershey Felder is something rare in the theatrical world: an brand unto himself. His company, Hershey Felder Presents, tours a rotating set of solo works, each written and performed by Felder, that delve into the lives and music of legendary composers. After 26 years of touring worldwide, Felder has built up a dedicated following that has made him sought after by regional theaters across the country.
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin has played Hartford Stage, the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and ArtsEmerson in Boston. Maestro Bernstein has played Berkeley Rep, Cleveland Play House and New York’s 59E59. And George Gershwin Alone has run at San Diego’s Old Globe, Zach Theatre in Austin, and on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
Now Felder returns to 59E59 Theaters for the fourth time with Monsieur Chopin, running through December 24. Set in the renowned Polish pianist-composer’s Parisian salon, the show re-creates a real lesson that took place in March 1848, just days after the February 1848 revolution. Shaken by a run-in with French novelist George Sand, with whom Chopin shared a complicated relationship, the pianist takes out his fears and frustrations on the student — us, the audience — in between playing many of his most famous compositions, performed live by Felder.
Chopin’s mental health struggles are addressed in the piece and become more evident over the course of the evening. Some scholars believe Chopin may have lived with bi-polar disorder. “In that day, it was called ‘melancholia,’” says Felder. “It weaves its way throughout the entire piece.”
Monsieur Chopin also features two sections of audience interaction in which Felder-as-Chopin opens the floor to questions. Felder started incorporating audience response into some pieces following the Broadway run of George Gershwin Alone in 2001, when he found that audiences would sing along to certain songs.
“I thought, ‘Either I can get really mad about this, or I can figure out a way to involve people,’” says Felder. He now performs regular Great American Songbook Sing-Alongs. In fact, 59E59 will host one immediately after the run of Monsieur Chopin, December 26-31.
At a time when many theaters are struggling to lure back theatergoers, Felder’s shows remain a consistently solid bet. Giovanna Sardelli, artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, where Felder has performed several pieces, credits that continued appeal to two forces.
“One is obviously his phenomenal talent as a pianist — he is a glorious musician,” says Sardelli. “But it’s also the way he weaves story, song, and character together. It is the best form of education where you don’t even realize you are learning so much about an artist, a time in history and the ‘why’ of the music.”
Sardelli recalls that when TheatreWorks launched a critical fundraising campaign to rescue the theater’s upcoming season, Felder reached out immediately. “We got on a Zoom call and the first thing he said was, ‘What can I do?’” says Sardelli. “I teared up, because it was so phenomenally generous.”
Felder performed a sold out one-night fundraiser performance at TheatreWorks in October. The final weeks of TheatreWorks’ production Mrs. Christie also sold out following the concert, a knock-on effect that Sardelli partly credits to the attention brought by Felder.
After performing multiple live-streamed versions of his shows during lockdown, Felder has also kept up a steady stream of film offerings even as he has also returned to touring live, sustaining at-home options after most theater artists moved back entirely to in-person work. Season passes offer access to film works about Mozart, Verdi, Debussy, Puccini, and more.
“Audiences want both,” says Felder, noting that he can tell different kinds of stories on film, such as a musical visit to the Venetian Jewish Ghetto. “Habits have shifted, and listening to the audience is important. I’m going with what they want.”
During the shutdown, Felder’s streaming work not only kept his regular crew working, but also raised millions for struggling theaters. During the run of Chopin, he will host a one-night fundraiser performance of George Gershwin Alone at the Town Hall on December 4, with all proceeds benefiting the Entertainment Community Fund.
For his part, Felder attributes his continued success to a relationship built up with his audience over 26 years of performing. “Now it’s kind of like visiting with an old friend,” he says. “That gives people a little bit of comfort — it’s familiar, and sometimes familiar is good. They know what they’re going to get, even though the story is different, and the approach is different. There’s something to be said for a little bit of nostalgia.”