One man, a piano, and a familiar legacy — these are the typical raw materials for Hershey Felder, a musician and entertainer who has fashioned a cottage industry out of translating the lives of great composers into punchy, accessible one-man shows.
His latest, about the life and times of Irving Berlin, makes its East Coast premiere with a run presented by ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, beginning on Wednesday.
“This is somebody that comes to this country and really wanted to make something of it and of himself, and did so, and in so doing became inextricably linked with the history of the country,” Felder says of Berlin, speaking by phone from New York.
It’s Felder’s 10th show as writer and performer, most following a similar model to present a gallery of historic characters. Subjects have included Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, and Franz Liszt; “Abe Lincoln’s Piano” ventured beyond the world of composers to deal with the death of a president.
Felder’s growing star power is reflected in the title of the new show, “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin.” It made its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles last fall.
Yet it almost never happened.
Felder, 46, says Berlin is the one composer among his subjects with whom he wasn’t very familiar before beginning work on the show. Colleagues prompted him to tackle the topic, he says, and he reluctantly met with Berlin’s three daughters after politely declining a few times first.
“I almost didn’t do it because I didn’t think there would be anything in it for me. I didn’t know what story there was to tell. But that was out of ignorance more than anything,” he explains.
After meeting with Berlin’s family, Felder says, the arc of a story began to form in his head.
Berlin’s life reflects a view of America’s melting pot in which assimilation is a great virtue. He was a Russian immigrant who wrote “God Bless America,” a Jew who wrote “White Christmas.” His songs, which also include “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” were hits for artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to Bing Crosby to Ray Charles.
Yet one part of Berlin’s biography that has hooked Felder is the composer’s long retirement. His last Broadway show opened in 1962, when he was 74, but he lived to be 101, dying in 1989. He lived to see his brand of uncomplicated patriotism go out of style, even as some of his songs took on a near-mythic quality in the Great American Songbook. (One story about “God Bless America” is that it inspired Woody Guthrie to write “This Land Is Your Land” as a protest.)
“Here was a person who contributed so much, and by the end of his life, the world had passed him by. What happens if you have 26 years of wanting to contribute and write and nobody is paying you any attention, having been at the top? That resonates with people. The notion of when you get put in the old age home and nobody wants anything to do with you, and they visit once a week and feed you your soup — that kind of thing,” Felder says.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” includes 26 of Berlin’s songs, performed by Felder alone at the piano. Directly addressing the audience, he portrays his subject from age 13 to shortly before his death. The piece is informed by Felder’s meetings with Berlin’s daughters and their families, which included story swapping and a look at family photographs. He says there’s material in the show that hasn’t before been made public.
Felder has long been a familiar presence locally. He had a working relationship with the American Repertory Theater while living in Cambridge — “George Gershwin Alone,” the first in his cycle of one-man shows, was a hit there in 2002, and he tried out a three-person show about Chopin there the next year — and more recently, he has made repeat appearances presented by ArtsEmerson.
David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s artistic director, says Felder brings in a committed audience, including many theatergoers who aren’t regulars.
“Every once in a while [our programming] intersects with something that is of broad appeal and has a commercial attraction,” Dower says. “You don’t see them all year in our season, and we’re happy to find those intersections where we reach different groups of people.”
Felder, who has also directed and produced shows written by others, says his next solo show will be about Tchaikovsky. He’s learned to tell pretty quickly whether a new piece works in front of audiences, he says. Though friends and fans may sometimes suggest ideas for new shows, the winning formula he’s hit upon requires more than just a subject he happens to be interested in.
“I had this fantasy of doing [a show about] Debussy,” he says, “but I can’t quite find the story that I think would be theatrical. So that’s the end of that.”
Hershey Felder As Irving Berlin
Presented by ArtsEmerson
At: Cutler Majestic Theatre, July 8-Aug. 2. Tickets: $35-$86.
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the end of the performances at ArtsEmerson. They end July 20.