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Felder plays ‘Abe Lincoln’s Piano’ for its history

Hershey Felder plays a number of characters — President Lincoln not among them —  in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano.”

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Hershey Felder plays a number of characters — President Lincoln not among them — in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano.”

Thus far, Hershey Felder has created one-man shows about George Gershwin, Frédéric Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leonard Bernstein — all great pianists. So the title of his latest effort, “Abe Lincoln’s Piano,” might raise some eyebrows. Who knew Abe even had a piano, let alone that he could play it?

As it turns out, Lincoln probably didn’t play the piano, but he did own one while in the White House, and that’s just one of many things about our 16th president that you can learn from Felder’s show, an ArtsEmerson presentation that opens Tuesday at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

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Felder first performed in the Boston area in 2002, when the American Repertory Theater presented him at the Loeb Drama Center in “George Gershwin Alone.” Robert Orchard, formerly executive director at the ART and now executive director for the arts at Emerson College, says that Felder is “always a delight to work with.”

“He goes back to the early part of the last century, when actors were entrepreneurs and created their own structure around their work, not only to enable production but also touring. I believe his great gift as a performer — and indeed as a creator, he does it all — is his capacity to bring the audience into an intimate conversation about some historical figure. He has a way of engaging and embracing the audience.”

Felder also performed his Chopin play “Romantique” (later turned into the solo show “Monsieur Chopin”) at the Loeb. For ArtsEmerson, he’s done “Maestro: Leonard Bernstein” and a revival of “George Gershwin Alone,” both in 2012.

He found Abe Lincoln’s piano, he explains, in the attic of the Chicago History Museum, alongside the table on which Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. Willie, the Lincolns’ third son, took lessons on it. (Willie died in 1862 at 11, of an illness probably related to typhoid fever.) The instrument was also played by some of Lincoln’s White House guests, among them the composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. What’s more, Lincoln did love music, and he had a particular fondness for the songs of Stephen Foster. So in “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” Felder will be performing “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Folks at Home,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” as well as George Frederick Root’s “The Battle Cry of Freedom.”

In its initial incarnation, however, “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” had no piano. Felder’s inspiration had been an address given in 1909 — the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth — by Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, the young Army surgeon who on the evening of April 14, 1865, came out of the Ford’s Theatre audience to attend to Lincoln after he had been shot by John Wilkes Booth.

“I came across this,” Felder says, “and I thought it would make for a good musical experience, and I created a composition and recorded it with members of the Chicago Symphony. That piece got some attention from members of the Library of Congress, who contacted me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but we just found the original document that the doctor composed in 1865, hours after the president died.’ It had been sitting in the basement of the Library of Congress. And then, after one of the performances in Chicago, the great-grandson of the doctor showed up with artifacts of the evening that his great-grandfather had left for him. So I found myself in the middle of this historic maelstrom of really wonderful stuff and a wonderful story that many people don’t know.”

One part of that story connects Dr. Leale with Lincoln’s piano. “The piano is all part of the key into the story,” Felder says. “The doctor stuff and the piano were side by side in the attic.” So he wound up taking the orchestra out of the piece and putting the piano in. The connection between doctor and piano, he says, has to do with something “that made news all over the country in 1865,” but he doesn’t want to spoil the surprise for the audience. “Let’s just say that magic happens.”

Felder will appear as Dr. Leale, but that’s just the beginning, since the characters in this one-man show also include an officer of the Army of the Potomac, a young boy who dies in the Civil War, Mary Todd Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, Booth and all his brothers, the doctors who surrounded the president on his death bed, even Mark Antony from “Julius Caesar.”

“I mean, there are a lot of characters who come in and out of this thing,” Felder acknowledges. “It’s a real bunch of people. Oh, and I’m also Gottschalk, who plays for the president.”

About the only person he doesn’t portray is Lincoln — but he will be reciting the Gettysburg Address, to music he composed himself. “It’s never really been set to music, and so many people promised. [Aaron] Copland promised, and Gershwin promised, and Bernstein promised, and nobody did. So while I don’t consider myself one of them, I thought, well, somebody should. I wanted to give it a cushion of sound underneath so that the words could illuminate once again, because they’re absolutely unbelievable. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of writing that exists in modern time. It moves me every single night.”

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.
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