By Pat Launer
You know he’s a talented composer, pianist, actor and playwright, but did you know he was also Hershey the Happy Homemaker? — even if he’s not in his own home!
The Paris/New York/sometimes San Diego-based Hershey Felder was in a short-term rental in Point Loma, a lovely house with a stunning view. In preparation for our interview, Felder had cut up fruit and put out a spread of goodies on the dining room table.
“You should come to a Jewish house and not get fed?” he quips.
This is not atypical for Felder. When he’s in production, he often cooks for the whole creative and technical team.
“Last year,” he says proudly, “I would cook for 50-60 people every week, the entire company. I’d do all the shopping, and every Sunday would be a different theme, from Russian — pierogi and borscht — to Italian to Mexican, to a big eight-course Moroccan blowout. I do this all the time, and some of the other guys participate, too. We treat it like a family, but without the dysfunction!”
On this beautiful fall day, he’s relaxed, voluble, open and warm, anxious to show off photos and reference material for his latest work.
Surprised by his free-flowing, shoulder-length hair, I realize that I’ve never seen him without a wig in his multiple personas as composers in the trilogy-that-became-a-tetralogy that he’s performed periodically at the Old Globe over the past six years, playing piano and telling the stories of Chopin, Gershwin, Beethoven and Bernstein.
Now, he’s having his Lincoln moment. Actually, the whole country is having a Lincoln moment, what with the Oscar buzz about the film, “Lincoln” (another Jewish creation, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg).
Felder was honored to have met historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose acclaimed book, “Team of Rivals,” was the jumping-off point for Kushner’s screenplay.
“She came to my house for dinner a few years ago,” Felder reports. “She was very dear.”
But he has a very different angle on the story of our esteemed 16th president. And his idea turned out to be bashert (fated, meant to be).
Felder and Leale: a match made in heaven (or, in the Library of Congress)
For years, he’d been working on developing this piece. And then, he got a call that blew his mind.
“I’m in Chicago, [performing] at the Royal George Theatre, three blocks from the Chicago History Museum. I’m quite well known there, and it was known that I’d written a play about Lincoln, recorded with members of the Chicago Symphony. So an archivist at the Museum calls me, telling me there’s something new I have to see.”
During his lengthy research for this piece, Felder had a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Chicago museum, where he viewed a box containing hair from Lincoln’s head, still showing a bit of blood. And a blood-stained sheet. And the bed from the Peterson House, where the Great Emancipator was taken, and where he died.
“The massiveness of standing there,” says Felder, still awe-struck, “and seeing all that cannot be described.”
The archivist who phoned him, Helena Iles Papaioannou, was a researcher with the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project. Just last May, in the Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress, she made an astonishing discovery, something that had been hidden for 147 years.
Among the papers of the surgeon general, she unearthed a 21-page document, dated April 15, 1865, that a doctor wrote on the morning of Lincoln’s death. The hand-written report, medical and somewhat anecdotal, was created by Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, a 23-year-old Army surgeon who was sitting only about 40 feet from the president’s box, watching “Our American Cousin” on that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre and was the first to reach the president after the gunshot.
“She’d hit gold,” says Felder, with astonishment. “Her find made the international press. For me personally, in the midst of working on this piece about Dr. Leale, it was just this side of crazy.”
So Felder added contents from that medical document to the information he had already gleaned from Dr. Leale’s more formalized account, called “Lincoln’s Last Hours.”
That report was presented in 1909, when Dr. Leale was 63, at a gathering of Army friends at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City, on the occasion of Lincoln’s 100th birthday. At one point, Dr. Leale told a story that took place during the funeral procession:
“An officer of high rank … exclaimed: ‘Dr. Leale, I would rather have done what you did to prolong the life of the president than to have accomplished my duties during the entire war.’ I shrank back at what he said and for the first time realized the importance of it all.”
Felder’s newly revised creation, set in New York City in 1932, takes the form of “a memory piece, a man traveling back 67 years, dealing with how he landed at the center of history, and how this one act changed his life.”
Looking back on a fateful night
The good doctor is 90 at the outset of the play, then he morphs into his younger self and finishes at 90 again at the end.
“He was uncelebrated,” Felder says. “He disappeared, faded into the background. He didn’t want attention. He went back to his native New York, feeling like he’d failed because he didn’t save the president.
“But his story was remarkable, especially what he did to keep Lincoln alive for nine additional hours so his family could say goodbye. He’d never seen anyone survive for more than an hour with that kind of wound.”
The president was shot at 10:30 p.m., but Dr. Leale, along with other attending physicians, helped keep Lincoln alive until he breathed his last breath at 7:20 a.m.
“It’s such a touching story, because he’s a hero with no attention-seeking behavior. In the end, at 90, he surmises that there’s ‘no greater thing as an individual than self-sacrificing love. And as a country, nothing’s more important than that we rise together. When you need to count on people,’ he says, ‘Americans are there.’
“In this show,” Felder explains, marking a distinction with his Composer work, “I’m not at the piano. I actually get to move around and be a character. I’m free to do things I couldn’t do in the other shows. From an emotional standpoint, I can be more vulnerable.”
In addition to writing the spoken text (and directing, after his long-time collaborator, stage, film and TV director Joel Zwick, initiated the piece last year), Felder has, of course, composed and arranged the score, based on traditional American folk songs and poetry by Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Foster and others.
Musically, he explains, “there’s a lot of underscoring. It was originally scored for a 50-piece orchestra, but I’ve taken it down to 12, which allows it to be more intimate.”
A premiere in North Park
Most significantly for us, Felder has chosen San Diego for his world premiere. For one thing, he feels at home here. (His wife, Kim Campbell, a native of British Columbia, enjoys the area, too, and accompanies him whenever possible. She’s a Mover and Shaker in her own right, a lawyer/diplomat/professor/writer who served as Canada’s 19th, youngest, and only female prime minister).
Then, there’s the fact that all the contributing artists Felder hand-picked for the show, which he’s producing independently, are San Diego residents.
While he’s done most of his other work in town at the Old Globe, for this piece, he selected the 700-seat Birch North Park Theatre, restored in 2005 to its original gilded 1928 glory.
“The Globe is really home,” says Felder, who was born in Montreal (and raised trilingualy, in English, French and Yiddish). “The Globe has been very supportive of all my ventures, including this one. I think I’ve done more shows there than anyone. They think of me as one of theirs. But this piece is less conducive to their space. When I saw the North Park Theatre, I immediately had the feel of Ford’s Theatre, which has the red color and the filigree associated with period houses.”
He should know. He performed at Ford’s two years in a row (creating “George Gershwin Alone” in 2003 and 2004). He was also invited to the White House several times (“private tours and all,” he says with a smile).
Felder will be able to recreate elements of Ford’s Theatre in the North Park Theatre, which also offers the flexibility of an extended run if the work proves a success. (“There’s a ‘soft close’ date set for Feb. 3, but there are opportunities for extension, though Felder is scheduled to take the show to Chicago in March, the start of a cross-country tour.)
“I’ve played every major city in the country and have found the nicest, most capable and creative people are here in San Diego, most of them connected to the Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse. Almost my entire artistic staff lives in San Diego, the most talented staff you could imagine. I brought my San Diego team to Chicago, Boston and L.A. this year.
“I know the community very well. Good, nice people who support the arts. It’s really an artistic community.”
Felder workshopped the new piece at the Pasadena Playhouse last spring, under the title of “Lincoln: An American Story.” He subsequently changed the title to “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra.”
The composers and beyond…
He still gets many requests for the ‘Composer Sonata,’ the series he’s performed thousands of times, around the world, for the past 15 years. Each piece, he notes, appeals to different tastes.
“The Chopin is closest to my heart,” he admits. “It’s the most magical for me. Still, the one the critics and the public love unequivocally is the Bernstein” [which premiered in L.A. in 2009 and ran at the Globe in 2011]. Bernstein is the hardest to play, because I don’t really like him.”
Not one to rest on his laurels — or rest at all! — he’s working on two other musicals, one set in 19th century Paris, and the other in 1310, concerning the origins of Kabbalah in Avila, Spain.
“I get to do a little gender-bending in that one,” he says with a chuckle and a mysterious sense of intrigue.
And he’s moving forward with “The Pianist of Willesdon Lane,” a solo show he wrote about a female keyboard virtuoso, Lisa Jura, performed by her daughter, the gifted Mona Golabek. This is one show in which Felder doesn’t perform. But the Los Angeles Times called it “an arresting, deeply affecting triumph,” and it’s scheduled to go to on tour this year.
Though he’s turned his attention to other projects, Felder is not quite done with composers.
“I think there’s one more in me,” he concedes. “About Wagner. And Liszt, who was Wagner’s father-in-law. It will require a bit of time-travel, starting in late 19th century Europe, and touching on how Hitler and the Anschluss emerged from that period. If I do it, I’ll play both composers,” that is, the Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811-1886), considered to be the most technically advanced pianist of his age (a gentleman Felder closely resembles, at least in an 1870 photograph); and the German Richard Wagner (1813-1883), polemicist, conductor and composer/librettist of richly complex operas, who married Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, 24 years his junior.
“Now, after the four others, people know what I do,” he says, “so I can push the limits of the form and be more of an artist-entertainer. With each piece, I’ve pushed a little bit further. Even in the ugly,” he says, referring to Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism, “I can find a little comedy.”
There may not be too much comic relief in the story of Dr. Leale and Lincoln, but Felder knows it will resonate deeply with audiences.
“I think it’s a broader story than my other works. It’s not about composing or one pianist. It’s a historical event that everyone thinks they know, but they don’t know this aspect of it. There’s something here that everyone can relate to.”
• Hershey Felder’s “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra” opens Jan. 4 at the North Park Theatre. Tickets are at (619) 239-8836 or www.birchnorthparktheatre.net.