He entered from the back of the theatre, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Then Hershey Felder turned to the audience at 59E59 Theaters and for the next hour and 45 minutes straight brought Leonard Bernstein’s life and talent to life in his one-man biographical play with music Maestro, which opened yesterday and runs through Oct. 16.
Felder brought such passion to his performance that it was easy to think we were actually being addressed by the great conductor and composer himself. The show, directed by Joel Zwick with a book by Felder, brings together brilliant storytelling and piano performances of the music of Bernstein and others.
From Francois-Pierre Couture’s set consisting of little more than a grand piano, Felder takes on— often comically — the roles of Bernstein’s Russian immigrant father and the artists who inspired him, and he tells stories about his family’s background, his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and his numerous homosexual relationships. Classical compositions and singing, especially songs from Bernstein’s Broadway shows like West Side Story and On the Town, accent the storytelling.
We learn that Bernstein met his fate when he was about 10 and his aunt gave her upright piano to his family. As soon as he put his fingers to the ivories he was enchanted.
“I went over to touch a note, and a second and a third, and somehow, by some miracle, I managed to find a chord, and I feel in love.”
He was able to play by ear songs he heard at school, much to the dismay of his father who thought he should use his hands to make money so they wouldn't have to “live like poor immigrants, chasing away from bill collectors.”
Leonard pursued his music anyway, taking $1 piano lessons from a neighbor with money he earned “with these little jobs I had for myself.” After a year, though. she told him she had taught him all she could and recommended he study at the New England Conservatory. But his father refused to pay the $3 per lesson, saying such a bright boy should grow up to be a rabbi, not a klezmer. Leonard earned the money this time by teaching piano to neighborhood children. His father later would discover how well this paid off.
After years of study and gaining recognition, a 25-year-old Bernstein, hungover from late night partying, received a 9 a.m. call that would change his life. Now an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he was to be a last-minute substitute for guest conducer Bruno Walter that afternoon at 3 — for a live national broadcast.
“Such a thing hadn’t happened before in anyone’s memory at the New York Philharmonic if it ever happened at all,” he says. “I was backstage, just before the performance, pacing like a madman, can you imagine? Twenty-five years old — the pressure — the whole nation and not even one rehearsal.”
A recording of the Schumann Manfred Overture plays and Felder conducts. I felt I was in a concert hall, one of the many times I was transported during this show.
“After Schumann’s Manfred Overture came Strauss’ ‘Don Quixote’ and I blew the roof off of Carnegie Hall. The next morning, the story calling me a ‘genius’, a natural, the first-ever born, bred, educated, all-American conductor, appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was picked up all over the world. . . a 25-year-old skinny Jewish kid from Lawrence, Massachusetts, conducting one of the greatest ensembles in the world.”
Over the years international success followed, although not in his personal life. In the end, though, Felder’s Bernstein rages that his legacy is to be known as a great conductor and not a composer. He lists his achievements, which include creating a symphony orchestra for the State of Israel and conducting the entire of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the fall of the Berlin Wall in a globally televised broadcast, plus hundreds and hundreds of concerts all over the world, dozens upon dozens of recordings, and composition after composition.
“But you know what? No one gives a God-damn about conductors. The only ones they care about are composers. All of them have serious pieces, at least one serious work that every single one of you know, that each of you can sing the theme of . . . ‘ta-da-da-da.” He challenges the audience to a group sing of something from an opera or sonata of his or his Mass. The lack of response makes his point. He ends as he began, singing “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
Whatever regrets Bernstein may have had, I would hope if he saw Felder’s portrayal of him he would understand he was a great gift to the world. As is Felder in this production. I want to see more of his solo shows, which include George Gershwin Alone, Monsieur Chopin and Beethoven.
After his curtain call Felder returned to the stage and, in honor of yesterday’s 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, paid tribute to another great American composer, Irving Berlin, leading the audience in singing “God Bless America.” It was a beautiful end to a beautiful afternoon.