By Yuko Kurahashi
Hershey Felder’s Maestro (directed by Joel Zwick), one in a series of solo shows on famous composers, was staged at the San Diego Repertory Theatres’ Lyceum Stage from July 6-17, 2016. Capturing key moments in Leonard Bernstein’s life, Felder offers a truly memorable piece that humanizes the world-famous American conductor and composer. It gives voices to people who influenced Bernstein directly or indirectly, including his parents, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Demitri Mitropoulos, Serge Koussevitzky, and his wife of 27 years Felicia Cohn Montealegre.
Highlighting key events in Bernstein’s life, Hershey focuses on Bernstein’s Jewish heritage, his encounters and relationships with world-renowned composers and conductors, his marriage to Felicia and homosexuality, his ambitions and successes as a composer, and failures as a composer. He ties these all together to his love of music and life.
The modified thrust stage (somewhere between a thrust and proscenium) of the Lyceum Stage, designed by François-Pierre Couture, suggests a television studio with a grand piano, two chairs, industrial lamps, and an early TV camera. Behind them is a creased backdrop cloth screen used for projection.
The preshow is a video-recording from Bernstein’s television show, “Young People’s Concerts” with the New York Philharmonic orchestra projected on the backdrop. Though the volume is kept low, the audience can hear Bernstein talking about music and explaining how a conductor works with a composition and the orchestra to present what the composer has written.
Felder begins with how Bernstein observed his father, Samuel Bernstein, a Ukrainian-born wholesaler in Lawrence, Massachusetts (in the show, it is referred as Boston) who is disappointed because Bernstein chose music as his vocation rather than becoming a rabbi or choosing a profession that will earn him a living. Felder warmly and humorously portrays Bernstein’s father who, in the end, admits that his son will be able to pay his bills and has become “Leonard Bernstein.”
From his childhood Felder moves on to tell Bernstein’s encounters with eminent musicians and his rise to the first rank of conductors. At this point Felder begins to address Bernstein’s homosexuality and yet a desire for a family and stability which leads to his marriage to Felicia.
Felder describes Felicia as a woman who for years provides an anchor in his life during the crucial period which included creating the music for West Side Story as well as being the conductor for the New York Philharmonic. However, this period ends with the journalistic attack by Tom Wolfe in a satirical essay that criticized “Radical chic or guilt-ridden whites” such as Felicia and Bernstein for hosting a fund raiser for the Black Panther Party. Felder says they never recovered from this attack.
Then, as described by Felder as Bernstein, he became concerned about not being true to himself both in his profession and personal life. As Felder explains, Bernstein was suffering from his sense of inadequacy because he could not create the type of music that would establish him as a composer of the first rank. This leads him to become open about his homosexuality, causing Felicia and his children great pain. In the end, Bernstein returned to Felicia and his family but he continued to be tormented by guilt for hurting Felicia who died from cancer less than a year after Bernstein’s “return.” Felder recounts this period of Bernstein’s life in a way that the audience feels his pains, sorrows, and regrets, playing such scores as “Somewhere” (from West Side Story) and “Liebestod”(“Love Death” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde).
Lighting & Projection Designer Christopher Ash utilized images of Bernstein’s parents, his mentors, Felicia, New York, sheet music, and Hebrew script projected on the back drop to convey elements of the story. Sound Designer/Line Producer Erik Carstensen projects Felder’s narration and songs, while keeping the sound of the piano natural.
The attraction of Felder’s works lie not only in his talents as a pianist and singer but most importantly a storyteller. He provides a moving and beautiful story that helps the audience to see connections between Bernstein and those who influenced him. Bernstein was a great storyteller through his composition and his conducting and so is Felder.
Felder’s other works examining the lives of famous composers and musicians include George Gershwin Alone, which played on Broadway and in the West End as well as a number of regional U.S. and Canadian theatre venues and around the world; Monsieur Chopin; Beethoven, As I knew Him; Hershey Felder as Franz Liszt in Musik; and Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.
Felder also adapted and directed Mona Golabek’s The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which portrays her mother’s life as a pianist during the years she spent in London as a child under the rescue effort, Kindertransport, which brought thousands of Jewish refugee children to Great Britain from territories under Nazi Germany control between 1938 and 1940.
Immediately after Maestro ended at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, he will perform Hershey Felder as Irvin Berlin (directed by Trevor Hay) at the Pasadena Playhouse from July 21 through August 7, 2016. His new work Our Great Tchaikovsky (directed by Trevor Hay) will be staged at the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage from January 12 through February 2017.
Susan L. Taylor says
I find Felder’s most recent plays about composers less interesting than his earlier works. These days his ego takes over the drama and for me, gets in the way of his stories. Too bad because I really liked his earlier stuff.