Musician Hershey Felder plays Irving Berlin
Onstage, he has been George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, and now, Hershey Felder is ready to tackle the most prolific American songwriter of them all — Irving Berlin.
The multitalented Felder — pianist, actor, playwright, composer and producer — will introduce the world premiere of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” on Nov. 11 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
During a lifespan of 101 years, and an active career spanning the first six decades of the 20th century, Berlin wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 movies.
“Berlin’s songs, among them ‘Easter Parade,’ ‘This Is The Army, Mr. Jones,’ ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and ‘God Bless America,’ are so much part of the American popular culture that many people don’t know who wrote them,” Felder said in a phone interview.
The idea of building a show around Berlin’s life and songs has been on Felder’s mind for many years, and he recalled discussing the project with Gil Cates, founder and producing director of the Geffen Playhouse, a few weeks before Cates’ death in late 2011.
Felder is perhaps uniquely qualified to impersonate Berlin on stage. Both sons of immigrants, Berlin’s parents fled the pogroms of Russia for New York, while Felder’s father, a Holocaust survivor, settled in Canada.
So pervasive was Berlin’s impact on American music that Gershwin called him “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived,” while Jerome Kern observed, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.”
Despite such accolades, Berlin was no stranger to anti-Semitism. His marriage to socialite Ellin Mackay, which was bitterly opposed by her father, earned Berlin a bushelful of hate mail.
Even his composition of “God Bless America” was met by objections from some outraged “patriots,” who asked how an immigrant Jew had the nerve to create what became essentially America’s second national anthem.
During the last decades of his life, “America’s songwriter” found himself out of tune with the new musical tastes of his countrymen.
“Berlin went through every change in musical fashion, but he just wouldn’t do rock ’n’ roll,” Felder observed.
At the same time, many of Berlin’s countrymen began questioning the simple, straightforward patriotism that Berlin and his songs personified.
Yet Berlin’s legacy as a songwriter, specifically a Jewish songwriter, persists.
“If you listen to the music in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ harmonically and structurally, you can detect Berlin’s influence,” Felder said.