With the political unrest and tragic shootings in our country, Hershey Felder’s tribute to Irving Berlin, couldn’t come at a better time. It makes a statement—Berlin was an immigrant—and Felder tells Berlin’s his rags-to-riches story–from his journey from poverty to his stardom as an inimitable American composer. The show runs through March 19th at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century and in the Great American Songbook. Felder’s performance unfolds as reminiscence by Berlin’s younger self for and to his 101-year-old self. Set in a Berlin’s townhouse, carolers can be heard singing White Christmas outside. Greeting the audience as those warblers, Felder-as-Berlin recounts the story of his life, tragedies and triumphs alike, which in turns cues up the songs.
Directed by Trevor Hay, Felder performs the composer’s most popular and enduring songs, from his early 1911 Alexander’s Ragtime Band to Always, Blue Skies, to Puttin’ on the Ritz (which Fred Astaire danced to in a 1938.) Felder does an impression of the great Ethel Merman belting out There’s No Business Like Show Business as well as Bing Crosby singing White Christmas. There are also film clips of Al Jolson mugging his way through Blues Skies, and the debonair dancer Fred Astaire hoofing it to Cheek to Cheek.
Born Israel Isidore Baline in 1888, Berlin’s family fled Russia in 1893 to escape religious persecution and immigrated to America when he was five years old.
They settled on the Lower East Side of New York City, where his father was a canter. By the time he was eight years old, Berlin was hawking newspapers on the street. It was there he heard the music coming out of the salons and restaurants. He started singing songs while selling papers and people would toss coins to him.
Berlin dropped out of school in his early teens. He left home and joined the city’s ragtag army of other young immigrants, living in one of the lodging houses that sheltered thousands of other homeless boys in the Lower East Side. After his father died in 1901, Berlin began earning money as a street singer. Although he couldn’t read music, he taught himself to play the piano while working as a singing waiter. It was the beginning of his illustrious career. From there he would go on to become one of America’s greatest patriots and composers.
Berlin lived until he was 101 years old, and during his lifetime, he wrote over 1,500 songs. He wrote marches, lyrical ballads, rags, patriotic paeans, fox trots, waltzes, novelty Southern numbers and love songs. He wrote scores for 13 Broadway musicals, contributed to seven revues, wrote songs for 12 classic Hollywood movie musicals and created many of the most well-known popular songs of the twentieth century.
An intuitive businessman, Irving Berlin co-founded ASCAP, founded his own music publishing company, and built the Music Box Theatre to house his “Music Box Revues.” For his paean to his beloved country, “God Bless America,” he established a fund which receives all revenues from the song and distributes it to the Boy and Girl Scouts.
Legend has it that Berlin wrote a song a day, and it was almost always written and played entirely in the key of F-sharp, allowing him to stay on the black keys as much as possible.
In a 1962 interview, Berlin said, “The black keys are right there, under your fingers. The key of C is for people who study music.”
“My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American,” Berlin said, “not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, over-trained, and supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.”
Felder, a pianist, actor, playwright, composer, producer, and director, has a slew of one-man shows to his credit. He created (as playwright, actor, and pianist) the role of American composer George Gershwin for the stage play, George Gershwin Alone, which he followed with the creation of the roles of Fryderyk Chopin, the Polish composer-pianist; Ludwig van Beethoven and Gerhard von Breuning in Beethoven; Leonard Bernstein in Maestro Bernstein; Franz Liszt in Musik; Irving Berlin in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin; and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Our Great Tchaikovsky. “The Composer Sonata” comprises these works.
In other words, Felder knows and loves what he is doing, and he does it with class. American Theatre magazine referred to Felder as a “one-man cottage industry” for whom quality is paramount in that he feels a responsibility to his audience.”
Will Felder perform any of Berlin’s lesser known tunes? Although it would be a rare treat for Berlin fans, chances are he’ll skip over “Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars” (1915).
Berlin loved his adopted country; he was a devoted patriot whose music serenaded soldiers and civilians with courage, hope, and humor during the Great Depression and two World Wars. Americans of a certain age still tear up when they hear his iconic song, “God Bless America.” “I wrote for love. I wrote for my country. I wrote for you.” So says “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.”
Berlin’s music has lit the lives of three distinct generations and provided inspiration for our best loved singers–from Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire to Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman and Aretha Franklin . . . we could go on.
Perhaps Jerome Kern (no slouch himself) said it best, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music–he is American music.”
And we can say, for the hour and 45 minutes he’s on stage, Felder doesn’t play Irving Berlin. He is Irving Berlin.
Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin runs Tuesday through Sunday through March 18 in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Bagley Wright Theatre; The production runs an hour and 45 minutes without intermission; tickets start at $17; discounted tickets for groups of 10+ may be purchased by calling 206.443.2224; For ticket reservations, call the Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office at 206.443.2222 or toll-free at 877.900.9285, or go online at seattlerep.org
About Hershey Felder
Hershey Felder was born on July 9, 1968, to Jacob Felder (born in Ustrzyki, Poland, 1929) and Eva Surek Felder (born in Budapest, Hungary, 1946). A first-generation North American, much of Felder’s upbringing included Eastern European traditions, in particular traditions associated with the Jewish faith into which he was born.
Felder is a pianist, actor, playwright, composer, producer, and director. He created (as playwright, actor, and pianist) the role of American composer George Gershwin for the theatrical stage in the play George Gershwin Alone, which was followed by the creation of the roles of Fryderyk Chopin, the Polish composer-pianist; Ludwig van Beethoven and Gerhard von Breuning in Beethoven; Leonard Bernstein in Maestro Bernstein; Franz Liszt in Musik; Irving Berlin in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin; and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in Our Great Tchaikovsky. “The Composer Sonata” comprises these works.
Felder also directed concert pianist Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Felder’s adaptation of The Children of Willesden Lane, written by Golabek and Lee Cohen.
Felder’s Noah’s Ark, an Opera has been performed with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. His Aliyah Concerto on Israeli Themes for piano and orchestra has been performed in the United States and Canada. The Suite Les Anges de Paris for violin and piano, Etudes Thématiques, as well as Song Settings (the poetry of Vachel Lindsay) have been performed on and recorded by the WFMT Radio Network in Chicago. In September 2010, An American Story was recorded with the Ars Viva Symphony Orchestra, composed of members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra, and conducted by Alan Heatherington.
Regional and international appearances of Composers Sonata (1999–2017) include Old Globe Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Geffen Playhouse, Laguna Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, Cleveland Play House, American Repertory Theatre, Hartford Stage, Ravinia Festival, Chicago’s Royal George Theatre, Prince Music Theatre (Philadelphia), San Diego Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse, Theatreworks (Mountain View CA), The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, Uijeongbu Theatre Festival (South Korea) and many others.
Felder is a former Scholar in Residence at Harvard University’s School Of Music (2002–2004) and a former member of the board of directors of the Chicago College of Performing Arts, where he created and sponsored a classical music competition entitled “The Real Thing.”
He has presented master classes in Music and Theatre Arts at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, the University of Pennsylvania, the Boston Conservatory, and the Old Globe Theatre (San Diego).
Felder is the president of Eighty-Eight Entertainment, a music-based production company, producing new performance works worldwide.
Check out the rest of Seattle Rep’s season here.