By Brian Marks
Hershey Felder is the bearer of a particularly extravagant multi-hyphenate: playwright-composer-actor-pianist. (He’s also the scenic designer on his latest show, Beethoven, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.) Felder, a Canadian, grew up with the pressure to focus either on acting or classical performance. The conservatism of the musical establishment required initially devoting himself to the piano, but eventually he was able to combine his two interests into an organic work of art.
Felder’s body of work (mostly one-man plays) explores the lives and minds of the great composers, from Chopin to Tchaikovsky to Gershwin. In his latest piece, Beethoven, he delves into the life of perhaps the most formidable classical composer of all time. I spoke with him over the phone during a rehearsal break about finding his creative voice and bringing famous musical figures to life.
@THIS STAGE: The theatre has always been connected to music, but in the past century it has mostly been associated with jazz and pop. What made you want to focus so much classical music?
Felder: There are various forms of theatre. We certainly see the mix of classical music and theatre in opera, but that’s an entertainment, of course. In terms of pure performance classical music, it was this notion of storytelling to understand, to contextualize where this music actually came from. That was important to me because the more I learned about composers, the more I understood how little we know about their lives and what situations surrounded the composition of some of the works that we deem as the most iconic works in the history of Western music. It was very interesting to me to humanize where these pieces came from, and to humanize the music itself so that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, as an icon, and it’s not just a reflection of who we are today (which is still a huge part of it). It came from a person, from a place and from a time, that influenced it. What is it about that time, that context, which allows it, or forces it, or simply makes it become the icon that it is? That to me is interesting — what is it about the circumstances that actually led to greatness, and are those circumstances decipherable, or are they not? Is it just a sort of magic that exists when a certain talent comes along? What has to combine to create that kind of magic that becomes eternal, as this music has become? It reveals itself as fresh, new, different, and discoverable with each passing year, decade, century. That to me is a very interesting thing to try to understand. I think the thing that we come to in each situation is that the more human it is, the more will it transcend the century.
@THIS STAGE: Let’s talk about Beethoven — he’s such a monumental figure in the center of all this. I know you were introduced to his music as a child, but what did he come to mean to you over time as a composer?
Felder: Well, I think Beethoven holds that place of the greatest composer to have ever lived. Of course, because of his music, but more for me because of how far he pushed music, and how he pushed music into the future in very many ways — from an emotional standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint, from a technical standpoint, from the means with which he actually creates the music himself. All this is coupled with the fact that he couldn’t hear a thing from the time he was 31-years-old. So the understanding of music had to be so very deep, and to try to understand what that means is incredible.
@THIS STAGE: When you were younger and still training, how did you come to the realization that you wanted to combine theatre and musical performance in your own work? Was there one art form you leaned more toward?
Felder: I worked in both — quite separately — and I wondered if you could combine the two. Anybody who was around at the time said, ‘Oh, it’ll never work! It doesn’t work, you can’t do this, that, and the other thing.’ And it wasn’t so much that it was a challenge, but I just thought, well, let’s do it. So what if I fail? A lot of people have failed at many things before. And it turns out it took on a life of its own. I came to understand that audiences wanted this kind of storytelling. … Some people say, well, it’s a style in and of itself. Yes, that’s very much the case.
@THIS STAGE: Why continue to focus on telling stories of composers using the same style?
Felder: When you’re going to tell a story about a composer, a composer at an instrument, I’m not sure you want to be so inventive as to avoid putting an instrument on stage and telling it in every which way but the most natural one. If somebody starts a critique by saying, ‘Well, you know, the format is yet again the same, the composer at the piano’ — well, yeah, it’s been that way for several hundred years. May as well try to figure out why it sticks around. And I decided that each story can have its different attitude, but the form is something specific. It’s storytelling to an audience, using an instrument, and using other available sounds. Of course I can invent other ways to do it — and once I did. It was interesting that the audience simply didn’t want it. I created a play about Chopin, a three person play. It had three other actors in it, and it was almost twenty years ago at ART in Boston or Cambridge. … So even though, for a second, I had tried something completely different, they didn’t want it! So I figure, ‘You need to find a way to listen.’ I think if I have any wisdom, it’s knowing when to listen. And the audience told me, ‘This is what we want to hear.’ And it’s proven to be the case over all these years, because as it turns out, here we are!
@THIS STAGE: Beethoven famously had his different styles: the early, middle, and late styles. In that late period you get those wonderful string quartets, the Symphony no. 9, the piano sonatas. Do you think you have your own periods, where you work has changed over time?
Felder: Yes, every time I throw a fit I have my own period [laughs]. No, and I don’t really throw fits all that much. But I don’t think it’s wise to self-analyze like that, because I didn’t plan it. I think I plan the storytelling, and if it works, great. One of the luxuries I have in the way I run the company and the way I create these things is if it’s not good, I either go back to the drawing board or I take a different tack all together. So I have the luxury of not being beholden to an investor, or having a show that’s so big that changes can’t be made. You know, the kinds of things that the unfortunate — and very real — part of the business doesn’t allow. If you want to define periods, it’s the fact that I’ve made it certain that I don’t stagnate. I always work to get better. Sometimes I achieve, sometimes not so much. But the goal is always to keep going forward, to get better at what one does, and to work very hard at making it better, and to always be looking for new and better ways to tell something. Or to repeat the very best way that you’ve found to tell something. I think that’s an important thing to do also.
@THIS STAGE: You’ve worked multiple times with your director on Beethoven, Joel Zwick. What’s your working relationship like? What has made you keep coming back to him as a collaborator?
Felder: Well, I’ve collaborated with him, and Trevor Hay. There are several collaborations, but he was the first one. When you develop a language that works well, that tells a good story, and is crystal clear as to what it is, then I think that language makes it work and you want to go back to working together again. The idea is that Joel is a very good editor. He knows exactly what I’m doing and where it can be worked and where it can’t. It’s not that he directs me — ‘Do this, do that, do the other thing.’ It’s that I create and he’ll say, ‘Alright, this is not reading the way you think it’s reading. You need to go back and work this again. Try this, try that, try the other thing.’ So when you have that kind of relationship where someone intrinsically trusts you, and you get to be a creative auteur and they get to shape what it is you’re doing, that’s the kind of relationship you want to maintain. You want to continue working with them because it helps to develop the product that ultimately needs to be on the stage.
@THIS STAGE: Let’s end with how you portrayed Beethoven’s life. In this show you’re playing the composer, as well as a doctor who knew him.
Felder: It’s pretty much divided in two. The narrator is the doctor, but he brings Beethoven to life, and Beethoven comes to life in very many ways throughout the piece, in large and small sections. But ultimately, there’s way more Beethoven than there is anybody else. It’s just that it’s nice to have … a way into somebody else’s perspective. I think that if you put Beethoven on the stage, it would be quite interesting, but at the end of the day, my whole point is about leaving people with an invocation of thinking about it and what it may have been like, and what the perspective is. I’m not just going to say, okay, I’m going to play the character for you. I’ve done that, and that works too, so there are very many ways to tell the story. But it’s important also that the public understands the context of the whole story, and not just a snippet of it. Some theatre people want to take a moment and illuminate it, but you have to either know so much, or not care about everything else. I believe that, in terms of these composers and where this music comes from, it’s important to know the overarch of the whole thing.
Beethoven plays at the The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m.; through Aug. 12. (310) 746-4000 or www.TheWallis.org/Beethoven.
Read the review in Stage Raw.