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HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN at the Geffen Playhouse

HersheyFelderBerlin

Photo courtesy Geffen Playhouse

Bob Verini  -   Stage Raw

Jerome Kern, no mean tunesmith, had a famous retort when asked about Irving Berlin’s place in American music. He has none, the Show Boat composer replied; “he is American music.” In a similar vein, one might say that Hershey Felder has no place among performers of musical biographical monologues. Read more...

David C. Nichols – LA Times

“I wrote for love. I wrote for my country. I wrote for you.”

Now running through December 21.

Comments

  1. While many artists choose not to read critical commentary on their work, I read everything published because I feel responsible to the ticket paying public. Excellent critics (professional, and not) can be very helpful is making certain that what I think is “up there” is actually “up there.” Even in a dismissive criticism, there may be hints of things that can be addressed. Not everything is to everyone’s taste, but for me, the only critic that gets entirely dismissed is one who insults the audience. The rest are fair game.I respond to this criticism because the piece is new, and it is important to correct errors, and comment, as materials get absorbed by the internet.

    It is in this light that I must comment on Mr. Verini’s review of this new Irving Berlin piece that I am now performing in the Geffen Stage in its world premiere. While I have never been a fan of what feels to me as Mr. Verini’s somewhat rude style of commentary – more ad hominem attacks than a discussion about ideas, once I clear the attitude problem out of the way, I’ve always taken what he is actually saying seriously. This time around, it’s about correcting major factual errors. I do believe that Bob means well, but neither lazy, nor ill-informed is acceptable, nor is misrepresentation. We must demand these basics of our critics, otherwise the whole exercise is meaningless.

    While Mr. Verini begins with a pointless personal insult, we’ll bypass that and get to the details. The set-up for the piece on stage, which Mr. Verini denotes as clever, is in fact based on an event that took place – where carolers outside Berlin’s home in NY were invited up. The home was not in upper Manhattan, as Mr. Verini says, but 17 Beekman Place, midtown, East Side. The event was indeed documented by one late John Wallowitch. But it was also recounted by noted historian Robert Kimball, also present, also still very much alive, living two blocks away from me in NY, someone who had a twenty year telephone relationship with Irving Berlin, who is also the author of Berlin’s complete Lyric collection, collected and written about with Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay’s middle daughter, Linda Emmet, also still very much alive. I’ve recently seen and talked with the former, and spent a great deal of time with the latter.

    Before anything else, Mr. Verini recounts that the character is “initially slumped into a wheelchair downstage left, stepping out of it to shake off the years and tell us his story.” This never happens. In no version ever of this production, whether it be prior workshop presentations or any time whatsoever have I, as the character of Irving Berlin, began this work “slumped in a wheelchair.” Only after one hour and fifty minutes does the character sit in the wheelchair for the first and only time for a two minute denouement. But if Mr. Verini thought he saw the character in the wheelchair, either he wasn’t paying attention, or I created a bit of theatrical magic. Given Mr. Verini’s report, I venture the former.

    While I agree that “getting out of a chair (which doesn’t happen) doesn’t amount to a characterization and listing events as if from a Wikipedia article (which doesn’t happen either) doesn’t make for a story,” what does make for a story is the recounting of what actually happened. Performing some twenty songs in real time, many with multiple verses as they relate to that story, is the raison d’etre to begin with. Given that Irving Berlin’s songs are stories in and of themselves – be it Russian Lullaby, My Wife’s Gone To the Country , Suppertime, God Bless America, White Christmas – and these and many more are performed complete, how could this possibly amount to listing of events? I will say, that over the years, Mr. Verini has revealed himself as someone not particularly attuned to music and how it functions in the context of an artistic work. Things don’t seem to happen in music for Mr. Verini. That’s all right, not everyone is sensitive to the glories of musical expression, but suggesting that events have been listed off, is simply not true.

    Mr. Verini then goes on to discuss that I make no effort to transform my mellifluous baritone into Berlin’s high reedy tenor. I “think” there is a compliment in there somewhere – maybe. But Mr. Verini does not know that I make no effort. How could he possibly know that? But this is in fact a clever question – and something I ask of myself and toy with. There are artists who paste on attributes, and that helps them get to the core of the character – Olivier spoke of doing this kind of work – be it a larger nose, shoes too tight, an uncomfortable costume – things that would help him become “someone else.” I’ve tried those kinds of things to see if they work. Sometimes they do – but doing such a thing with this individual in particular, would be cutesy to begin and turn into a shtick within minutes, and then become untenable for audience and artist alike as the evening continued on. The idea is to “evoke” not to “imitate.” Imitation is easy. The goal is to get something to be evocative – so that the idea – the relief, as it were, the lingering sensation and wonder, becomes much more powerful than the act itself. A very famous musical biographer of many a great artist was in attendance opening night, his quote to me was – “you allowed Berlin to come through you. That was the act of genius. I thought I was listening to him. For me he was there. You aren’t interested in cheap imitation.” And while the middle statement is a gracious opinion, the beginning and ending statement is the what I intend.

    Mr. Verini then goes on to comment about not going for the rhythms and urgency of a 19th century Russian immigrant. Indeed the character does, but only for “time served.” The piece is set in a mansion on NYs east side, with the ghost of Berlin somewhere in his late sixties at the height of his career. Having been married to American Royalty for more than thirty years by this point, with an international life, and a very elegant style, all three of Irving Berlin’s daughters, and two of his grandchildren who knew him well confirmed for me, that he didn’t speak or ever act like a lower east side immigrant. In fact, this was a large point of discussion among us. I was pushing for a lower east side immigrant pushy style, which is of course much easier to play, because it’s shticky. Thankfully there are recordings, – even a youtube clip or two. What is clear is that Irving Berlin was refined, that he spoke like a polished New Yorker, and that he was not pushy in public at all In fact, he was sweet. And he was always dressed to the nines. Hardly a low class immigrant.

    Mr. Verini then says that the style has “no relationship to the narrative about a kid knocking around the Lower East Side busting his ass to make a life for his family and finding inspiration on the hurdy-gurdys and honky tongs of the saloon monde.” This statement in its entirety is false. There is no narrative of Berlin trying to make ends meet for his family. He dropped out of school and left his home and had nothing to do with his family. (Stated clearly in the narrative). And nowhere, anywhere, in the entire history of his career did Berlin ever find inspiration if hurdy-gurdys and honky-tonks – that would be Bela Bartok. Berlin found inspiration only and always in the stories of real people and their interactions. That this is detailed many times over and over was clearly lost on Mr. Verini. But I have a feeling Mr. Verini wasn’t listening or even watching to begin with because even his recollection of the first moments are incorrect. To then say that “by all accounts Berlin was a driven hustler” is again false. By all accounts? How is that possible? It is quite clear in the narrative that Berlin was a very smart and shrewd businessman. That’s very different than being a driven hustler. By his own and his family’s accounts, Berlin was an international success by the time he was twenty-three. He was shrewd, he was careful with his business, he was wise and he certainly wasn’t a lower east side thug. By twenty-five he was married and wealthy and writing his first popular song (as opposed to specialty number.) Irving Berlin was a professional songwriter, not a saloon beau-monde runner.

    But the biggest problem comes when Mr. Verini uses Laurence Bergreen as his source for challenging information that I have received first-hand straight from family members. First of all, if one is going to quote a published author, at the very least get the spelling of that person’s name right. Second, a cursory look into those associated with Berlin for much of his life, would identify that Bergreen’s book is full or errata – assumptions, projections, and items stated as facts that are verifiably false. This has upset those that know the facts, some of whom were present for the goings on. Indeed, Bergreen presents Irving Berlin as a miserable great song writer with no piano talent (as opposed to piano education) someone who was ashamed and angry his whole life about it. Well, while it certainly came into question for him in his deepest and darkest moments – no one who really knew him said that he ever harped on it, or that he was miserable because of it. In fact, much of the time, when confronted with such nonsense, those around him said, he shrugged his shoulders, became very quiet and just didn’t say anything. He said what he had to say in songs. Of course he was worried – in fact, that’s what the whole presentation is about. Did he contribute enough? What was his real legacy? Did he contribute so much, and when Elvis came along, the world forgot about him? At the end of the day, he’s angry, he’s sad, because he thinks he’s forgotten. That’s the point. I find it interesting that Mr. Verini’s favorite of my works is the Bernstein, a brash, nasty character, who talks so much, that he sometimes appears to be greater (and maybe it’s what he thought) than any of the music that he deals with. Without Maestro Bernstein (in that play) music itself doesn’t exist. While it is a fair representation of a complicated character, it is a bit ugly. And Verini seems to like that kind of thing. Berlin just wasn’t ugly. He was a regular man. He wrote songs. He cared about his family. He worried somewhat about his capacities. He didn’t want to be forgotten when he was gone. He wrote for us. Because he was one of us – except he was a genius.

    As far as Mr. Verini’s commentary about design elements being “tasteful cliché,” it’s hard to argue. It’s an opinion. “Ellis Island Immigrants to Pearl Harbor Attacks” – well, yeah. I didn’t know that original images of Ellis Island Immigrants or the original footage from the Attack on Pearl Harbor is anything but historically correct and directly related to exactly the story being told. The direct relationship makes it interesting and evocative, it seems, to the audience. But that’s really tough to argue, but one thing for certain: the design elements are technically rendered seamlessly.

    As far as recounting Ethel Waters. By the time there is video of Ethel Waters performing Suppertime, she is much older, and the video has no relationship to what happened in 1933 at the Music Box. But ultimately, it isn’t about Felder doing Ethel Waters. It’s about Berlin’s sense of what Ethel Waters meant to him. I have in fact questioned this idea again and again, and survey different audiences, people who don’t know me – about the idea. The consensus is that one is horrified by the events that Suppertime depicts, and so the evocation is complete.

    Over the years, Mr. Verini, your commentary has largely been a series of ad-hominem attacks. Rarely do you comment on the music, the music making or what that means. As I mentioned before, I’ve always wondered if you are attuned to music. Some people just aren’t. But here, I’m afraid, that by using very questionable material as your source for projecting an Irving Berlin that you want to see – you’ve over-stepped. Besides the factual errors in your recounting, you’re just plain wrong about who the man was. Why you want him to be a much uglier character than he was is something I fail to understand. Of course there were rough edges, and they are all in there… “niggers, mics, wops, kikes… “ and that’s in the first five minutes… But the facts of the story as I tell it, tells you everything you need to know – you just have to listen. And of course, you have to love music for what it is. Presenting a character as ugly whether they were or not, may make you feel better about yourself – but it has little to do with why this great music was written, or who the genius behind the great music really was. It is always, about the music. If you listen carefully – that’s who the composer – the person, really is.

    Hershey Felder

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