It’s believed that famous American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin — who penned classics like “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” — could only play in the key of F-sharp, often using a custom piano with a transposing lever.
Actor-pianist Hershey Felder, who embodies Berlin in an upcoming show at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, says that this helped him create more than 1,500 ear-pleasing songs.
“It’s very clear that his ear did all the guiding, unlike other composers who sort of leave the melody and let the interpreter or musical arranger interpret it as they see fit,” he says.
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs Dec. 19 through Dec. 30. Felder, who wrote the script and performs as Berlin, leads the audience through Berlin’s life and career, playing beloved songs and unknown tunes in a night that combines storytelling and song.
Felder has portrayed classical composers like Franz Liszt, Beethoven and Chopin. But he was inspired to write a show about Irving Berlin after being introduced to his daughters, who liked the concept of a one-man storytelling experience.
From there, Felder realized Berlin’s story — of being a Jewish immigrant and bringing himself and his family out of poverty through music — was one worth telling.
“I realized just what a committed American he was in the very real sense of the word, that this was a story worth investigating despite the fact that it was not quite my wheelhouse of things that I do,” he says.
According to Felder, the show is not about nailing Berlin’s mannerisms. Rather, it focuses on the background of the songs he wrote, utilizing “theatrical impressionism.”
“I give the impression of what it’s like to have been with this man, hearing him tell his story but not to play out the story in full-blown drama in front of you,” he says.
If you’re expecting to see a dramatized version of Berlin’s Wikipedia page, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed.
“[The show] is really sort of the humanity of a person that is using elements of his story to tell a much larger one,” Felder says. “And the much larger one of course is an American story that you get to feel.”