Hershey Felder is known for his one-man shows in which he becomes great composers, including Beethoven, Gershwin, Chopin, and Bernstein; he has performed works from this series some 4,000 times. But he has also created an opera based on Noah's Ark and a concerto about Israeli music, as well as other works. His new show, "An American Story," is about the last hours of Abraham Lincoln's life. For this show, Felder plays Charles Augustus Leale, the military doctor who tried to save Lincoln. The text is based on Leale's own account of the case, rediscovered in 2012 among Lincoln's papers. For the production, Felder created a new orchestral score based on the musical themes of Stephen Foster, Lincoln's favorite songwriter. "An American Story," which Felder calls "the most theatrical of all the pieces I have done so far," will open on Sunday, March 10 at the Royal George Theater in Chicago.
Below are excerpts from an interview with Felder about the show. The full interview is available at www.juf.org.
JUF News: Why tell this story now?
Hershey Felder: It's a great story to tell. He (Leale) was someone really noble. He really rose to the occasion yet went largely unknown. I was so touched by this whole idea and by what he did, how he committed himself to the country. I feel that way about America… It's sometimes important to go back to a story where there are no sides. There is only right and wrong, and how this man dealt with it.
Why this story, after so many composers' lives?
[I have performed as] Jews- Bernstein, Gershwin, very American, very Jewish. Strangely enough, this story continues along the themes of Americana, in a very different way.
The subject, strangely, is entertaining, even though… it's like The Titanic-you know what's going to happen, but you don't know how. As much as people know about the story, people really don't know about the story!
You were born in Canada and moved here.
I really have a tender feeling for this country. It's a place that has given me everything I could possibly want. And this my way of giving back. This is certainly a way for me to really say 'thank you' to, perhaps, the greatest country in the world. To identify what makes it as great as it is… There's a lot to be said for coming to a country like this and being part of its magic.
What is your Jewish background?
My parents are Holocaust survivors [from] Poland and Hungary. [Working with Spielberg's Shoah Foundation], I went to Auschwitz. I covered the 50th anniversary of the liberation and interviewed the Mengele twins.
I grew up in a religious home and went to yeshiva as a child. We were Orthodox. I did go to shul. Even now, I'm very Jewish. I'm influenced by the whole ethic. And it's the way I live, in terms of my morals, my sensibilities, my rhythm in telling a joke. Jewish music was part of the upbringing-shul music, Israeli music… Naomi Shemer for sure.
Do you have a connection to Israel?
I have a huge number of family in Israel. I was there first when I was three years old! I still have my favorite falafel shop. I always felt very connected to Israel. I did perform there, when I was younger.
What's your connection with Chicago?
My artistic home has always been Chicago. I came a number of years ago to perform George Gershwin Alone and ended up there for two years. I've gone back every year since to perform.
What drives you, creatively?
I get to take American values, my ideals and values about music and storytelling, and put them all together. It's a very exciting thing to be able to do… I played piano as a child. I was always an actor. Everyone said "You can never put the two together," and I said, "Oh? Why not?" and it turned into a cottage industry.
Why are so many of the great songwriters Jewish?
Jews are the storytellers. What do we have, but our stories? A lot of this comes from the oral tradition. That's history, that's character. It's how, as a people, we are.
Like his contemporaries, would Gershwin have ever written a Christmas song?
He would have said, "My friend, Irving Berlin…"