Self-Starter

"Opening night. The house is sold out.… The show goes remarkably well, and I am happy. People get it. Above all, I feel that I have worked to make it work, and the work on the stage feels wonderful. I am physically and technically free…and I am happy."

—Hershey Felder, March 28, 2000

The zeal exuding from this quote from Hershey Felder's George Gershwin Alone production diary belies the seemingly nonchalant attitude that comes across when Felder chats in person—a pitch-perfect Broadway actor who also happens to be a Steinway concert artist. Perhaps it's because after more than 3,000 performances, the show has become almost an appendage to Felder. It's not an albatross, this one-man show about perhaps America's greatest composer. But still, it's easy to get the feeling that the artist and actor has become Gershwin the way Yul Brynner became the King of Siam.

Felder and George Gershwin Alone have finally returned to where the show began. The performance, which hits Gershwin's personal and professional highlights and climaxes with Felder's rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue," is now 40 minutes longer than when it premiered in March 2000 at West Hollywood's Tiffany Theatre. Both the creator and his subject are more famous now, according to Felder, who says Gershwin CD sales have increased in the dozen cities where he has performed. Also, Felder now is the age Gershwin was when he died, though Felder hopes that for him this is the first act in a lengthy career.

The success of Felder's show is allowing him the ability to produce the rest of his "composer trilogy." He already premiered Monsieur Chopin (2005 in Chicago), and next season he will debut Beethoven, as I Knew Him at San Diego's Old Globe, where he will, for the first time, perform all three shows at the same venue (June 2008).

Felder's drive to stick with Gershwin stems, in part, from the challenges he weathered to get the show from concept to stage. Despite success as a pianist and actor, Felder craved total creative control. Able to play piano flawlessly while speaking, he knew it would be possible to perform works by great composers but also dissect the music and explain its mechanics in easy-to-understand terms.

His first thought was 19th-century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, but the complexity of the compositions combined with the fact that Chopin was not well-known to the average American put Felder off that idea. A trip to Auschwitz, Poland, to assist with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation project by interviewing Holocaust survivors led Felder to Gershwin.

In Poland, Felder met a Jewish man who as a boy was forced to run errands for the torturous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele and made to whistle for the German soldiers. In his production diary for George Gershwin Alone, Felder wrote that the man he met called Gershwin "a prophet, because he wrote the 'Rhapsody' in 1924, and he wrote the sounds of dying people and trains…. The 'Rhapsody' to me was always a 'fresh and contemporary piece of metropolitan New York.' But this man could hear screaming, and suddenly it became clear to me that while this man was whistling the 'Rhapsody' for the German guards, people were being gassed."

That story inspired Felder's Sing! A Musical Journey, about two Holocaust survivors, which concluded with "Rhapsody in Blue." But later, after a discussion with his movie producer friend Lynn Roth, Felder decided to concentrate instead on Gershwin and his music, because Roth believed it would give him a better chance at getting to Broadway. But even with Sing!, Felder was already meeting the biggest blockade between him and Gershwin. The rights to the music are controlled tightly by the estates of Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira.

A promising meeting with Leopold Godowsky III, Gershwin's nephew, led to more meetings with other family members, all of whom came to believe that Felder intended to treat the composer's music and life with respect. "It helped that they understood I wasn't interested in dirtying his name," Felder explains. "I wanted to understand what motivated him as a composer. They got it, and they approved."

Felder spoke with everyone he could who knew Gershwin. He read all available correspondence held at the Library of Congress. He scoured Gershwin's handwritten notes on original sheet music and listened to original recordings so he could better understand the intentions of the composer, who died of a brain tumor at 38. "I figured out that the more fully I presented him as a real person, the more audiences would feel connected," Felder says. It was nearly two years from his first meeting with the Gershwin family to the show's premiere. Still, after more than a dozen rewrites, Felder calls that premiere at the Tiffany and its subsequent run in Palm Beach, Fla., "very rough versions."

But his efforts paid off in New York at the intimate—by Broadway standards—Helen Hayes Theatre. The three months at the Hayes were arduous, not helped by a less-than-stellar review by Bruce Weber, of The New York Times, who wrote that Felder "more than ably accompanies himself on the piano" but added that he is "neither writer enough nor actor enough to give his subject living charm as well as lavish upon him posthumous worship."

Despite favorable reviews dominating the responses, Felder admits he has in the past obsessed over the negative ones. The New York run was followed by critically and financially successful appearances in Boston, London, and Chicago. "I was expected to be in Chicago for four weeks, and we were extended to 70. I almost died, I was so worn out," he says.

The show's key, Felder says, is as much getting the audience to buy into him as Gershwin telling his life story as it is Felder's piano skills. "You can't leave your audience, not for a second," he says. "You can't be a self-indulgent actor. The audience will recognize that and begin to stray. Every night I remember that the audience is a character. I am talking to them and not at them. It's a conversation. It means I can never be on autopilot. I need to be as aware every night, which is why it can be exhausting."

An addition to the show that allows Felder a nightly change of pace is his encore. Leaving the character behind, the actor grabs the entire catalog of songs by the Gershwins, calls out to the audience for favorite songs, then leads them on a sing-along. "The first time I tried it, people came up to me and said it, along with the 'Rhapsody,' were their favorite parts," he says. "They get to be part of the show, as if they were at one of the many parties where Gershwin would sit at the piano and play his music."

Felder had no plans to return to Los Angeles, but in 2005 he received a call from longtime friend Gil Cates, artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse. "I knew it would be fun to share it with those who were there at the beginning," Felder says. "That was a couple of years ago when Gil and I spoke. Suddenly, here we are."

After all the work getting George Gershwin Alone to the stage, would Felder have kept with it if it hadn't been an immediate success? "I honestly believe that if a show is working, then it should be really popular," he explains. "During all this time I had two other productions, Romantique and Back From Broadway. They didn't quite work. I decided I didn't want to devote the time to make them work, and that even if I did, nothing would happen because there were fundamental problems built into the ideas. If you can know what the problems are, then you can know whether you're beating a dead horse and it's time to move on or that it's worth the effort. I would have moved on from Gershwin after some time if it hadn't worked, but I knew the idea was solid. It just required the effort."

As for the future, the only part Felder is sure about is reducing his near constant touring to five months a year. He will spend the rest of the time practicing and writing in his new Paris home, where he lives with his wife, Kim Campbell, the former prime minister of Canada.

As for whether Gershwin will at some point be set aside permanently, Felder laughs quietly and says, "This show won't die. Just when I think it's over, a call will come from another theatre saying, 'We have to have you,' and we'll be off again."

Apparently, performance 4,000 is entirely possible.