Theater Notebook: 17 years after debuting Gershwin show in San Diego, Hershey Felder returns in April for farewell performance
The Italy-based playwright, actor and pianist is retiring “George Gershwin Alone,” but not before he does a goodbye tour
Back in 2006, the playwright-pianist-performer Hershey Felder made his first visit to San Diego in a sold-out, five-week run at the Old Globe Theatre of his one-man show “George Gershwin Alone,” where he not only played the role of the jazz-era composer but also sang and played many of Gershwin’s most famous compositions, including “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Seventeen years later, Felder will return to San Diego on April 8 to present two farewell performances of the Gershwin show at the Balboa Theatre. Felder — who has become one of the city’s most popular visiting theater artists — is not saying goodbye to San Diego. Instead, he’s putting his Gershwin show into retirement following the international farewell tour, which has been selling out in every city he has booked so far.
Felder, 54, said that since the show’s Los Angeles premiere in 1999, he has performed it more than 3,000 times at more than 100 theaters, including several San Diego venues. But now he’s ready to move on. He answered several questions about the tour via email last week from his home in Florence, Italy, where he spent most of the pandemic filming streaming versions of his shows for his website, hersheyfelder.net.
Q: “George Gershwin Alone” was the first of 15 solo shows about composers that you have created and performed over the years. How did “Gershwin” get its start?
A: I came to the attention of the Gershwins because of a man who left us recently, Helmuth Spryzcer. He was a Holocaust survivor — a Jewish boy from Berlin — who managed to save his life by manipulating his way into becoming the evil Mengele’s footman. This boy saved his own and other boys’ lives by finding ways to get them to work for Nazis in the camps.
I interviewed this man on behalf of the Spielberg Shoah Foundation, for which I was one of the original interviewers. The man told me that when the Americans liberated Auschwitz, the only thing he could do to communicate with them was whistle Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he knew because his parents played it over and over again in their home before the war. The story, as I told it onstage in Los Angeles, came to the Gershwins’ attention.
At that time, a friend who was a writer/producer, Lynn Roth, who wrote and produced things like “Paper Chase” for TV, asked me to pull my hair back. “You look like Gershwin!” she said. “Never mind telling a Holocaust story. Play the role of Gershwin, because you act, and you play.”
And so began an almost 30-year journey with the Gershwin heirs first saying “absolutely not!” to slowly giving in, to the piece becoming one of their biggest earners for a good long time. Over the years I met and became friendly with many in the Gershwin circle. Because of the Gershwin piece, I have met many of the most wonderful people in the world and have seen much of the artistic scene in America, Europe and even Asia.
Q: What was it like working with the Gershwin family?
A: They never wanted me to put in any half truths, creating scandal or false drama. I agree that that was not the point, even though audiences like juicy scandal. The story about the music had to suffice, and it did. Are they happy with this piece? Well it’s been 27 years since I created it, and here we are again … so I suppose it hit some kind of nerve in a decent way.
Q: “George Gershwin Alone” has always been an audience favorite. Why?
A: The success is due to one, well, maybe two things. The first is George Gershwin’s music. The second — and not necessarily in that order — is Ira, his brother’s, lyrics. That’s what it’s about. It’s what it’s always been about, and it is still the Gershwin magic all these years later.
Q: What brought you and Gershwin to San Diego in 2006?
A: I got a call from the Old Globe Theatre that a show had fallen out for that summer, 2006, the “gala” show, so to speak, and would I be available to fill in for the five-week run. It was both a good reason to say goodbye to a long haul and play for a cool beach summer. Little did I know it would be the beginning of not only 17 years of shows, but the building of a company largely drawn from artists who grew up in the San Diego theater circuit, who would join me on theatrical and ultimately cinema adventures throughout the world. Our team is still largely made up of San Diegans who came up through the San Diego arts system, and recently with our film “The Assembly.” I have been able to share the new generation of young artists who have come up through the system and are launching their talents on the world.
Q: If you could change anything about this play with music, what would it be?
A: As time went on, what I changed has been my approach to the performance of it. In the early days, it was that of a young artist wanting to be recognized. … Now it’s about an old fart having had all the experiences, able to look back with all kinds of perspective. Considering the setup of the play … we meet Gershwin’s ghost one step beyond the grave … the latter works, and works much better.
Q: Why have you made the decision to retire this show now?
A: Do ghosts who left us at the tender age of 38 hobble around the stage like old men?
Q: For fans who don’t want to let it go, you filmed a performance of Gershwin in 2020 for your website, right?
A: Indeed, I did, and it is available. It was filmed live from Florence’s famous Teatro Verdi, creaky 400-year-old floor and all.
The San Diego performances of “George Gershwin Alone” are at 3 and 8 p.m. April 8 at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave. Tickets are $35 to $60 at ticketmaster.com.
Kragen writes about theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at email@example.com.
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