the term “triple threat” is usual associated with a performer who is an actor, singer, and dancer. Hershey Felder is his own kind of “triple treat,” being an actor, playwright, and musician. He has been known to sing a bit and compose too, but so far no dancing.
Several years ago Mr. Felder embarked on an ambitious project to bring to the stage a monodrama about the life of Chopin, in which he would act the part and play the music on the piano. His director said that few would know who Monsieur Chopin was and suggested he start with something closer to home, to which Mr. Felder replied, “You mean like Gershwin,” and a seed was sown. Eventually he did both, first presenting Gershwin Alone, then Monsieur Chopin, and to round out the trio, Beethoven As I Knew Him.
Beethoven revolutionized music, but he was blind and cantankerous after all, so Felder decided to tell the story through the eyes of Beethoven’s best friend, Dr. Gerhard von Breuning. What emerges is a portrait of a frustrated composer, at odds with his family and largely misunderstood in society. The Beethoven story is the saddest of the three musical bios (though Gershwin dying in his 30s left the musical world of jazz, movies, and stage bereft of perhaps its greatest composer), and Beethoven’s music reflects his sadness and his powerful cauldron of frustration.
Felder, as usual, is up to the task at hand, acting with skill and some humor and playing the music with great sensitivity. He has stated that playing music and acting are antithetical, acting being gregarious and outward-projected, while music comes from an inner concentration and relaxation. One might argue that great acting is also internal and concentrated, but broadly speaking Felder's point is accurate.
I have always been a sucker for musical bios, even those old movies that leave out important aspects of a composer life (like Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality), but Felder doesn’t shy away from showing his subjects “warts and all.” He does what no one else is doing today: a one-person show, with music, about someone else, rather than a performer examining his or her own bellybutton. What he does is unique, and it draws the audience in, much as Bernstein or Mauceri used to do at their pop concerts. Felder does us all a favor by getting us closer to the men behind the music, and bringing to light the relationship between autobiography and musical creation.
Felder isn't through, either. He promises to do another piece where he will play a fictional character but use his own compositions. I can’t wait. You can see Beethoven As I Knew Him at the Geffen Playhouse until Sept. 28.