PIANIST and actor Hershey Felder describes the decision to take his one-man show "George Gershwin Alone" to Broadway as "something I would not repeat in this life."
For the almost three months in 2001 that it survived at the Helen Hayes Theatre, Felder's show, which had its first production at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles in 2000, hemorrhaged money. Plus those reviews. With headlines like "This Gershwin should be left alone" (Newark Star-Ledger), or this observation from Associated Press critic Michael Kuchwara: "I don't know if Gershwin could sing, but Felder can't" -- who could ask for anything less?
In retrospect, Felder, 39, says he didn't have enough experience to produce a Broadway show, much less star in one. But, he adds, "I could only know how to really portray this character once I had experienced what it was to have a play up and not have everybody think you're God's gift to mankind."
Felder also discovered something else in New York, something that is perhaps the key to turning "George Gershwin Alone," which closed Aug. 1 at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse, into a financially successful crowd-pleaser that has enjoyed some positive reviews and close to 3,000 international performances: The singalong that closes every show.
Felder employs the same technique -- sort of -- in his other one-man show, "Monsieur Chopin," which was set to open Thursday at the Geffen. For "Gershwin," Felder invites the audience to sing and chat as Felder. For "Chopin" he remains in character as the Polish composer, fielding audience questions because they can't exactly sing along to the Prelude in C minor. In the works is a third show: "Beethoven, as I Knew Him."
Felder compares the trilogy to the three movements in a sonata. "On Broadway, I discovered that people were constantly singing," Felder said during a recent conversation at the rented Beverly Hills house he shares with his wife of 11 years, Kim Campbell, a former prime minister of Canada; the couple make their permanent home in Paris. "And it was July 4, 2001 -- and it was very hot, and I could hear some voices in the audience and I said: 'You know what, it's hot outside, where are you running? Let's sing a little bit. I'll play whatever you want.' Suddenly this thing was born, and there it is."
The "thing" was in evidence after a recent "Gershwin" performance, in a discussion that was half stand-up shtick, half music lesson. "Have a seat, relax," he told the audience. He bantered with a 12-year-old trombone player who requested an encore of "I Got Rhythm" because the kid plays it in his school band. And when one attendee loudly requested "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Felder replied, with raised eyebrow and without missing a beat: "Happily -- when we do the Irving Berlin show." One audience member that night was Budd Friedman, founder of the Improv comedy club, whom Felder coaxed into singing a solo after Friedman's strong voice was heard booming over the rest. "You know, his voice isn't that great, but I love singalongs," Friedman said of Felder. "And I know very little about music, except as they say, you know what you like -- but he made it sound so sensible, so easy."
Also part of the post-show festivities was a sales pitch for "Chopin." Gershwin died at 38; Chopin, Felder told them, died at 39 -- evoking a shocked and sympathetic "aaaaw" from some audience members, many of whom on this night were old enough to be Chopin's, or Felder's, parents; both such nice boys. Felder pulled off the short-haired wig he wears as Gershwin and shook down his shoulder-length mane. "I understand in America you call such a thing a 'Fabio moment,' " he cracked in Chopin's Polish accent. Felder told the audience that the box office would be open after the performance: Why wait? Get your tickets now. Geffen Playhouse producing director Gil Cates calls "Gershwin" "probably the most successful show we've ever done here." When he first heard that "Gershwin" was being developed, Cates said, "it didn't sound like a fun idea, and I wasn't interested in it." Then, "I saw the show at the Tiffany and I thought, 'Wow, this is pretty good,' but it didn't seem quite right for us. But then he has gone out and refined this to a degree that is truly remarkable. He really is a wonderful connector to the music. I don't remember anyone like this since, in a different vein, Victor Borge."
Felder says that in all of his performances of "Gershwin" and "Chopin," he's never had an audience that was unwilling to participate -- and not only at the Geffen, where apparently some consider the singalong to be an industry audition of sorts. "When I was in Europe, or in Asia where they don't know the words, I taught them to sing it," Felder said.