Even for the energetic and versatile Hershey Felder — pianist, actor, playwright, composer and producer — the time warp of his next two world premieres may be considered a bit of a stretch.
Coming up first is “Rockstar,” opening this month at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach. Then, at the beginning of next year, Felder switches personas and countries in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
The title character of “Rockstar” is the 19th century Hungarian composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. In his time, “He changed the way music is listened to, just as Elvis Presley did in his time,” Felder observed in an interview.
“Liszt turned the piano, then used only for accompaniment, into a solo instrument, becoming the greatest virtuoso of his era and perhaps of all time,” Felder noted. “In addition, he was a hot-looking guy.”
In 2011, on the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth, The New York Times ran an article under the headline, “Still Wondering if Liszt Was Any Good.”
Clutching the newspaper in “Rockstar,” Liszt’s ghost visits the room where he died in Bayreuth, now a German museum; he is still handsome, but showing the wear and tear of the past two centuries.
Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, married Richard Wagner, and the anti-Semitism of Hitler’s favorite composer is occasionally ascribed also to his father-in-law.
“The Nazis claimed Liszt as an ‘Aryan composer’ and used the finale of his ‘Les Preludes’ as the theme music for their weekly newsreels, but he was never an anti-Semite,” Felder said.
Indeed, one scene in “Rockstar” portrays Liszt’s ghost as devastated when he learns of the descent of German anti-Semitism into the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews.
Few modern artists have been more intensively involved in Jewish history and tradition than Felder. The son of a father who survived the Holocaust and settled in Canada, Hershey made his professional stage debut at 14 on the stage of the Yiddish Theatre in Montreal.
Even earlier, at 6, he entertained residents of the Jewish old age home by playing the piano, although to mixed reviews.
“One elderly lady came up to my parents afterward, telling them, ‘You either have to give the boy some piano lessons or kill him,’ ” Felder recounted.
Hershey survived and went on to graduate from the Hebrew Academy in Toronto, a city where his uncle, Rabbi Gedalia Felder, was a respected scholar and author.
Felder has drawn on his heritage directly in his compositions (“Aliyah Concerto on Israeli Themes”), recordings (“Love Songs of the Yiddish Theatre”), concert-plays (“George Gershwin Alone,” “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein”) and as director (“The Pianist of Willesden Lane”).
While Felder will age 200 years in “Rockstar,” in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” his challenge will be to represent 20 different characters with hardly any costume changes.
The new production, following his earlier “Lincoln: An American Story,” continues Felder’s fascination with the life and death of the 16th president.
The idea for the upcoming show was triggered by Felder’s visit to the Chicago History Museum and to its attic, where the Lincoln family’s White House piano was stored.
Fascinated by the tales surrounding both the instrument and the events of the night Lincoln was assassinated, Felder interviewed the descendants of some of the people present at Ford’s Theatre on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865.
“I talked to the great-grandchildren and other relatives of the doctor who first treated the wounded Lincoln, of an actress who was on stage that evening, and of the woman who cradled the president’s bloody head, and so forth,” Felder said.
Most of the show’s musical numbers will be by Stephen Foster, from “My Old Kentucky Home” to “Oh! Susanna,” as well as other vaudeville and minstrel tunes of the era.
As the show progresses, Felder said, “I’ll play many roles, among them Mary Todd Lincoln, a young soldier, an actress and the first blackface minstrel, whose stage name, Jim Crow, became part of this country’s racial history.”
Trevor Hay, a longtime Felder collaborator, will direct both “Rockstar” and “Abe Lincoln’s Piano.”
“Rockstar” will be performed Sept. 17-29 at the Laguna Playhouse. “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” will be on stage at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theatre, Jan. 3-13, 2014.
For tickets or more information on either play, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.