Hershey Felder: Theatreworks MVP

Virtuoso, coming to Mountain View this month, breaks box-office records with one-man musical biographies

Music lovers may wish to go immediately to TheatreWorks and order tickets for "Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story, Featuring the music of Claude Debussy."

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley announced recently that Felder's latest show has already established a new all-time box office record for the 49-year-old theater company. That breaks Felder's own record at TheatreWorks, for last year's "Our Great Tchaikovsky."

The Debussy show, which is getting its world premiere in Mountain View, is on track to break the TheatreWorks record for final sales, a mark also held by Felder, for "Hershey Felder Beethoven," in 2017.

The fact is, Felder's shows make more money for TheatreWorks than any other. He works this magic not just for TheatreWorks but also for other theater companies around the nation. It is a responsibility he takes seriously.

He spoke with the Weekly by phone in early March from San Diego, where he was about to start rehearsing the Debussy show before going on stage at San Diego Rep in the Beethoven show.

Before San Diego, he spent almost three months in New York for "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin." Before that there were shows across the nation.

There are so far eight Felder shows about great composers, and each one has been acclaimed for its charm, entertainment and elucidation. Others include "George Gershwin Alone," "Monsieur Chopin," "Maestro Bernstein" and "Musik" (Franz Liszt).

There have also been plenty of other shows, including "The Pianist of Willesden Lane," an opera, "Noah's Ark" and more.

He's on stage, somewhere, pretty much all the time. When will he get a break?

"When I'm dead," he said with a laugh.

Felder, over the phone, is charming and smart; a great conversationalist. In person, he is more so, which is part of what makes his shows successful. An accomplished actor, he often speaks with slight accents -- Yiddish for Irving Berlin, German for Beethoven's friends, Russian or French for the Tchaikovsky show. When just speaking for himself, the Canadian sometimes has a modest trace of accent.

"That's the Yiddish coming through," he said. "English and French were my first languages, but one of my child languages heard at home was Yiddish. I speak it fluently. And Hebrew. And a good chunk of German; and Italian."

He shows up either as himself or as some famous composer and with wit and bonhomie makes the audience friends with his subject in some way. All the more so with the sing-alongs that he conducts at least once during his stays in Mountain View, when 600 people show up to croon tunes from the Great American Songbook with him.

Why do so much?

"The company has to run," Felder said. "People think we do this for our health, but theaters rely on it."

Other than his fee, there's not a lot of production investment needed. He designs and brings his own sets for his composer series and is the only performer. There are other costs, of course, including for venue rental and marketing, but it's still a lot less than most productions.

"It's our highest-grossing show of the season," TheatreWorks Executive Director Phil Santora said . The show grossed "close to a million dollars last year.

"Audiences love him. The number of people who want to see his work is impressive. It is such a great audience that connects and resonates with Hershey."

His shows "enable theaters to pursue the things they want to do," Felder said. "If I go there, the theaters benefit from me coming.

"My job is worth it. It's an important thing."

He does take the occasional break (two weeks out of every year) to visit his homes in Paris or Italy.

His wife, Kim Campbell, the first (and so far only) female former prime minister of Canada, also has a busy life, traveling around the world in many leadership and educational roles. She will join Felder for part of his visit in Mountain View.

Felder is already working on another in his great composers series, "Anna and Sergei," about Rachmaninoff. That show will premiere at the Laguna Playhouse in April 2020.

The tickets for the Debussy show, opening April 6, are selling "at a pace unlike we've seen before," Santora said.

Debussy, active in the later 1800s and early 1900s, composed "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," "La mer," "Nocturnes" and many other works. His music was considered a rebellion against earlier symphonic music. He often was inspired by poetry, and in effect created a new symphonic vocabulary.

His life was filled with intellectual disputes and activism, and scandalous romantic entanglements.

The show will have a few orchestral tracks, but the majority will be performed by Felder on piano.

"You'll hear in the show why" he wanted to cover Debussy, Felder said. "I don't want to give that away. It's partly about his unbelievable music and how it affected me as a child. It's a story I felt deserved telling."

Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at johnorr@regardingarts.com.

What: "Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story, Featuring the music of Claude Debussy" (Also: "Hershey Felder's Great American Songbook Sing-Along" at 7:30 p.m. on April 22).

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

When: Through May 5 (performance times vary).

Cost: $40-$120.

Info: TheatreWorks or 650-463-1960.

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