“A shtetl with washing machines” is how Hershey Felder affectionately describes the Montreal of the 1970s he grew up in. “It was a strong, close-knit Jewish community.”
Felder, the director of “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” loved the warm blanket of protection he felt as a young boy. A first-generation Canadian, his parents came from Hungary and Poland. “I was a typical Montreal Jewish boy – a mama’s boy, but with responsibilities,” he says with a grin. “Among those responsibilities was to serve your community, to take care of those around you.”
He attended the Hebrew Academy Day School, which he likened to a modern Orthodox yeshiva. Some classes mixed boys and girls, others were separate. “I am fluent in English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish,” he says, not trying to impress, but rather showing gratitude for the education he received.
Felder “demanded” piano lessons around the age of 6 – and received them. And thus his musical career began. He is now internationally recognized and revered as a pianist, actor, playwright, composer, director and producer.
After attending McGill University in Montreal, Felder spent some time at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation helping to interview and catalogue the oral histories of Holocaust survivors. Shortly thereafter he began crafting the first of several one-man shows that he would end up touring around the globe. The first was “George Gershwin Alone,” which he performed to stellar reviews on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, in the West End of London at the Duchess Theatre and in regional theaters throughout North America and Europe.
“I love both music and storytelling,” Felder explains. “Creating the Gershwin piece gave me the freedom and joy of combining these two elements and sharing them in a creative fashion with the audience.”
Returning to the States in 1996, Felder met and fell in love with Kim Campbell, who had previously served as Canada’s only female prime minister. They married the following year. For a time they were at Harvard, she as a professor of practice at the Kennedy School for Government, while he was a scholar-in-residence in the Music School and performing “George Gershwin Alone” at the university’s American Repertory Theatre. The show went on to be the highest-grossing of any booked-in production in the theater’s history.
Borrowing on the great success of his Gershwin show, Felder then created and performed similar types of shows on the great classic composers Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt, as well as honoring another American composer with his “Maestro Bernstein” show.
In addition to his theatrical performances, Felder’s compositions and recordings include “Aliyah, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra;” “Fairytale,” a musical; “Les Anges de Paris, Suite for Violin and Piano;” “Song Settings;” “Saltimbanques for Piano and Orchestra;” “Etudes Thematiques for Piano;” and “An American Story for Actor and Orchestra.”
As a director, Felder premiered Mona Golabek in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane” at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012. The two reunite in Portland for the show April 2-May 1 at Portland Center Stage.
He now has a production company busy working on several projects. “I love the collaborative process,” he says. “Even in the one-person shows, I’m only the front man. I couldn’t do it without everyone else.”
This interview originally appeared in our sister publication, Arizona Jewish Life.