September 23, 2019

Jazz With Jewish Roots

“George Gershwin Alone,” the only one-man show ever permitted by the heirs of the composer for the commercial stage, began in the shadow of the Holocaust.

The year was 1995. Actor-pianist-composer Hershey Felder, fluent in French, Hebrew, Yiddish and English, had been invited to Poland to conduct interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Late one wintry night, he was summoned to the Cafe Haus in the old Jewish section of Cracow, where Helmuth Spryczer, who as a youth had been pressed into service as gofer to the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, described how he used to amuse the Auschwitz guards by whistling Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The piece saved his life, Spryczer said, though as he whistled he heard in the notes the clackity-clack of the cattle-cars and the screams of the dying. As Felder played the piece on the cafe’s honky-tonk piano, well past midnight, he heard the screams, too.

Three years later, his monologue “SING! A Musical Journey” told the story of the survivor and the “Rhapsody” and earned mostly good reviews at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. The Los Angeles Times, in a laudatory notice, said that viewers would “never hear the ‘Rhapsody’ the same way again.” Gershwin’s heirs were not pleased. Apparently they were concerned that the play associated their forebear with the Holocaust.

Soon thereafter, Felder received a letter from an official at Warner/Chappell Music ordering him to cease performing the “Rhapsody” during his play. He had not secured the proper rights, the official said. Felder, now 31, was perplexed. A musical prodigy who had made his concert debut at age 11, he had performed the “Rhapsody” no fewer than 500 times; he would never disparage the piece or its composer. The “Rhapsody” was, in a way, his signature piece, the one a childhood friend had suggested he learn to make a name for himself. Felder knew he needed to convince the Gershwins that his play lauded the “Rhapsody” for saving a life.

Discreetly, he acquired the telephone number of Gershwin’s nephew, Leopold Godowsky III, through cabaret artist Michael Feinstein. Shaking, he picked up the telephone.

Over the next year, the Montreal native, who hails from a prominent Canadian rabbinical family, befriended the Gershwin heirs in Los Angeles and New York. The pianist even hosted the bris of the composer’s great-grandnephew at the Canadian consular residence in Hancock Park, where he lives with consul general Kim Campbell, the former Canadian prime minister, who is in her early 50’s and, Felder says, his “partner in life and in art.”

Three generations of Gershwins filed past the massive wooden portal of the brick mansion, adorned with the mezuzah that had been a gift to Felder and Campbell from actor Chaim Topol. In the vast living room decorated with gilded mirrors and frescoed portals, they raptly listened as Felder serenaded the baby with a performance of the “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Around the same time, a screenwriter friend suggested to Felder that he scrap the idea for “SING!” as his Broadway debut. A Holocaust-themed play, after all, wasn’t the way to make a big splash in New York. Why not write a one-man show about George Gershwin, she suggested. Felder’s physical resemblance to the late Jewish-American composer was striking, after all.

The pianist’s response was prompt. “The Gershwins will never let me do it,” he said.Nevertheless, he began to write the play, without formal permission; he waited nervously after performing the work-in-progress for the Gershwins at Steinway Hall in New York in June 1999. Two weeks later, word came from Adam Gershwin, the composer’s great-nephew: Felder was in.

The ecstatic performer, who has appeared in Montreal’s famed Yiddish theater, promptly stepped up efforts to research his piece. To complete the play, he interviewed Gershwin’s surviving friends and biographers on both coasts and dictated all the composer’s correspondence into a tape recorder at the Library of Congress.

Eighty-nine-year-old actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, Gershwin’s old friend, sang “The Man I Love” as Felder accompanied her at the piano, just as the composer had done decades earlier. Between songs, she told Felder that at a Passover seder, Gershwin and his pianist pal, Oscar Levant, once sung the entire haggadah to jazz melodies.

“George Gershwin Alone,” now at the Tiffany Theatre, reveals a Gershwin who was not just an American composer, but an American-Jewish composer. Born Jacob Gershovitz, he was “the son of immigrants looking to find his own voice, a new voice, one that could belong to him,” Felder says. That new voice was jazz.

Yet the Jewish influence is also apparent in Gershwin’s work. Listeners have suggested that his song “‘S Wonderful” borrows from Abraham Goldfaden’s Yiddish musical “Noah’s Ark” and that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” owes a bit to the melody of the haftarah blessings. Gershwin’s father, Morris (né Moishe) called “Rhapsody in Blue” the “Rhapsody for Jews”; Henry Ford, the industrialist and anti-Semite, referred to the piece as part of a Jewish plot to contaminate America with “bestial” African music.

One of the more amusing segments of “George Gershwin Alone” describes how Gershwin’s Russian-born mother, Rose, attended a dress rehearsal of his opera “Porgy and Bess,” only to scream from the back of the theater the moment the lights dimmed. “George, George, who made the dresses?” she lamented. “These are poor people, but they’re dressed fancy, like they’re coming from a Bar Mitzvah!”

Rose then marched the entire cast down to the Lower East Side, where she found a shmatta salesman and ordered the actors to don some of his old, wrinkled clothing. She stepped back, and took a look. “From this, I approve,” she said.

Whether or not Gershwin’s heirs will approve enough of the production to allow Felder to take the show on to Chicago and New York remains to be seen, but the performer is optimistic. “When you treat something seriously, people respect you,” says Felder, who concludes the play with a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

“The standing ovation is not for me,” adds the Steinway concert artist. “It’s for George Gershwin, and that is how I want it.”

“George Gershwin Alone” runs through June 25 at the Tiffany, 8532 Sunset Blvd., L.A., (310) 289-2999.