Hershey Felder, One of a Kind, Now Starring in One Man Musical on Chopin

Felder has played everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Ludwig von Beethoven and is now starring in his latest one-man musical as Chopin in a limited engagement at 59E 59 Theaters through Dec. 24.

| 12 Dec 2023 | 04:09

Frederic Chopin is in the midst of an engagement at 59E 59 Theatres. Okay, you’re right. The famous Polish composer died at the age of 39, in 1849. But Hershey Felder, who has enjoyed a highly successful, and unique, career of impersonating famous musical artists, is now offering “Monsieur Chopin.” This opened in November as a six-week run, which is on the long side for that Off Broadway venue’s offerings. But Felder’s shows have left audiences standing and cheering for many years.

Let’s start at the beginning. Feder was born 55 years ago in Montreal, Quebec, to a French and Yiddish-speaking family. HIs mother, Eva Surek, who was from Budapest, Hungary, died from cancer when Felder was only 13, leaving him to be raised by his father, Jacob, who was originally from Ustrzyki, Poland.

Felder came to America, where one of his first jobs was working for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, now the USC Shoah Foundation. He interviewed Holocaust survivors in order to preserve their oral histories on film. It had a profound effect on him. In 1995, the Shoah Foundation sent him to Poland to attend the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

There he met Helmuth Spryzcer who, as a boy in the concentration camp, was made to whistle Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” to the Nazi prison guards. Felder was inspired to create “Sing! A Musical Journey,” which told the tale of Berlin-born Spryczer–who managed to stay alive in that camp as a young boy by ingratiating himself to the guards–and another Holocaust survivor, Czechoslovakian refugee Dasha Lewin. Felder used “Rhapsody in Blue” as a hautning flourish at the conclusion.

Later, Felder met—and married—Kim Campbell, the only female prime minister in Canadian history. [When she lost her bid for reelection in 1993, she is said have remarked, “I’m glad I didn’t sell my car.”] They now live primarily in Italy.

As a classical pianist, Felder started doing one-man shows about famous composers: George Gershwin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Ludwig von Beethoven, Irving Berlin (that was his last at 59 E.) and Claude DeBussy. His Leonard Bernstein one, (also previously in NYC) was called—pay attention, Bradley Cooper—“Maestro.”

Felder has a large and loyal audience. I saw him perform in Laguna Beach, CA, and the line of (mostly) women was down the street. I last saw him on a flight to Palm Springs where he is a popular performer and, in fact, did the last live show there before COVID hit. His favorite New York venue is 59E 59, a complex that is owned and operated by the not-for-profit Elysabeth Kleinhans Theatrical Foundation, which was established by Kleinhans, who was its founding artistic director. The current building was donated to the Foundation in 2002 and consists of three theaters, designed by architect Leo Modrcin.

“Monsieur Chopin,” in typical Felder style, features him as the composer, surrounded by a lovely set, as he tells us Chopin’s life story: always accompanied by the melodies that even non-classical fans will recognize. When the show ends, he spends about twenty minutes taking questions from the audience.

Felder is witty and respectful and leaves very few unsatisfied. Shows like this do not happen without a lot of preparation. “I generally do my own research,” he says, “but I have my ‘go-to’ people like Dr. Jeffrey Kallberg, Chair of music at UPENN and world-acknowledged Chopin historian. As far as putting something like this together, it is an ongoing experience and grows with each iteration—so...yes, it can take years.” I asked if he ever has considered doing a more, shall we say, contemporary artist. “The closest I’ve come was with Leonard Bernstein,” he says, “as there is so much footage and I know people who knew him well, including his children. But he was no longer alive. While Sondheim was alive, I had several suggestions of playing him, but I thought that was a bad idea, though I did do a film about him. The truth is, there are many interesting and exciting contemporary composers, but while they are around, better to experience them in person.”

“What initially drew me to Hershey was his uncanny ability to connect with 100 people or1,000 people in an audience,” says director Trevor Fay, “and each one leaves feeling like they have a personal relationship with him. I’ve worked in hundreds of venues with thousands of artists in my career and I have never seen anyone more connected on stage. His audiences know what they are in for, especially here in the city.”

Felder calls New Yorkers “smart, familiar, ready for the theatre—part of a habit. And generous. Audiences are generous in general.” His fans vary...and sometimes surprise. (They include NBA legend Bill Walton) “Well known folks have attended my shows for years,” he notes. “The most moving thing I ever got was in 2004 from Sandra Day O’Connor. She wrote to me after seeing the Gershwin show at Ford’s Theatre. She said that she never writes a fan letter, but she just had to. And not typed either. In her own hand. It was moving. Very precious.”

Film director (“An Officer and A Gentleman,” “Ray”) Taylor Hackford, and his actress-wife, Helen Mirren, met and worked with Felder in a theater in Los Angeles. “Hershey is like an old-time impresario, an Actor-Writer-Theatrical Producer,” Hackford told me. “Totally self-driven, he’s been able to create righteous portraits of great songwriters and composers on stage, allowing him to fulfill his artistic/musical ambition while bringing joy to audiences all over the world. He’s a magician.”

The magic continues at 59 E 59 through December 24.