As a performer who has successfully brought the likes of George Gershwin and Ludwig van Beethoven to life on stage, Hershey Felder has now turned his attention to another musical great — Irving Berlin. His Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin comes to Atlanta Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Buckhead Theatre, presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.
Although the Canadian-born musician, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 18, is trained as a concert pianist and actor, Felder’s become especially noted for recreating musical figures on stage. His first was Gershwin 20 years ago in George Gershwin Alone, which ran both on Broadway and in London’s West End.
Since that time he has also taken on Chopin, Leonard Bernstein and Franz Liszt. Each one is different and specific — and Felder’s favorite is always the one he is currently working on.
The idea of creating a project centered on Berlin was one he had been thinking of for a while. Gil Cates, the founder and producing director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles — as well as a longtime director for the Academy Awards — spurred him on. “He told me I had to do Berlin,” Felder says. “He pestered me and made me promise. A week or so later he left the theater, got into his car, had a heart attack and died. I thought, okay, maybe I should fulfill my promise.”
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin premiered in Los Angeles in November of 2014. It features more than 20 characters in all — including Al Jolson, Ethel Merman, “Flo” Ziegfeld and Berlin’s family — and Felder portrays them all.
Throughout his illustrious career, Berlin wrote more than 1,500 songs, as well as scores for 18 films (his songs were nominated eight times for Oscars) and 19 Broadway shows, with Annie Get Your Gun perhaps the most famous. “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” are just two of his signature songs. Felder feels composer Jerome Kern paraphrased Berlin’s legacy best. “He said there is no place for Irving Berlin in American music — he is American music,” Felder says. “The more I studied, the more it is true. That quote sums it up.”
Felder admits he came over to the other side “of being a snob for classical musicians” to really understanding and appreciating Berlin.
Growing up, Berlin really never had formal music lessons. It was all done by ear. “He used to say that for someone like him it wasn’t a challenge because that is what he knew how to do,” says Felder. “Like Mozart, it just came out of the air and he sang it.”
Berlin was a Russian-born Jewish immigrant who brought his life to the music he penned. “What we experience through his music is the Jewish experience of coming to America and America embracing the Jewish experience,” says Felder, who feels Berlin’s most significant influence was the American people.
The composer did, however, deal with anti-Semitism, most notably from his father-in-law, who disowned his own daughter when she married Berlin. “There was a whiff of anti-Semitism in other aspects of his life,” says Felder. “However, the most powerful impression of anti-Semitism that he experienced as a child remained with him for the rest of his life — his earliest memory, he said, was of his village being burned to the ground by the Czar’s henchmen — a pogrom in 1893 when he was 5 years old.”
For a performer who has played houses around the world, this is Felder’s first time performing in the city. Atlanta is one of 10 locations hosting Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin this year before it opens on Broadway next season.
He especially loves the diversity of his audiences, playing both to appreciative fans of the artists involved and younger patrons who are not familiar with them.
Up next for Felder as a playwright is another challenge — a show about Tchaikovsky, which he quips is “a whole other kettle of Russian fish.”