For the past 20 years, Hershey Felder has worked hard to carve a theatrical niche for himself.
Felder has racked up over 4,500 performances with his self-created solo works, in which he has explored the lives of such musical greats as Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein. His unique productions showcase his talents as both actor and pianist, as he brings his subjects’ stories and their music to life onstage; his work has been seen from Manhattan’s Broadway to London’s West End, and pretty much everywhere in between, and he was named in Time magazine’s 2016 list of Top 10 Plays and Musicals.
This month, Felder returns to the stage of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” a new show about the great Russian composer whose works included the ballets “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake,” and the beloved holiday staple, “The Nutcraker.”
As always, he’s dedicated to celebrating the legacy of a musical genius, but this time there’s a little more on his agenda.
Tchaikovsky, you see, was gay.
This is hardly earth-shaking news; it’s a well-known biographical fact about this 19th century musical titan – or at least, it’s well known outside of his motherland. The Russian government has repeatedly disputed its beloved native son’s homosexuality, despite what has been described as “mountains of evidence” gleaned from not only the accounts of his numerous contemporaries but even his own writings.
As recently as 2013, Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky claimed that there was no evidence Tchaikovsky was gay, after a government-funded biopic of the composer underwent multiple script revisions aimed at removing any inference of homosexuality – reputedly in order to avoid a violation of the country’s draconian “gay propaganda” law. The film project was eventually de-funded over the controversy and apparently scrapped.
Around the same time, Hershey Felder received a letter from the Russian government inviting him to come and perform as Tchaikovsky – and although he embraced the subject matter, the invitation has, to date, gone unanswered.
Explaining why he took up the challenge of this piece – besides the fact that Tchaikovsky was responsible for some of his favorite music – Felder says this:
“It wound up posing the question of whether or not I could do it and tell the whole story. Tchaikovsky back in his day faced terrible fear, due to the anti-homosexual laws. This makes it political, as well, which is something my previous pieces didn’t usually venture into because they were more about the musicians and their time. Of course there are political aspects to all musicians, but with this one it was blatant and something you couldn’t ignore. And of course I decided to do this story before all this current craziness with Russia came to pass, and now that it has it makes it even more interesting, strangely”
As for whether or not he intends to eventually take the Russian government up on their offer to come and perform his show there, he says it poses a serious problem.
“I cannot tell this story in Russia at this point because any public display of homosexual behavior – and that doesn’t even mean kissing or touching or hugging, but any story, any public advertisement of a homosexual lifestyle – is banned. So how do I tell this story there? If there’s no truth there’s no art, and if Russia is going to try and erase the fact that Tchaikovsky was homosexual, even if it’s just a political statement, it’s outrageous. That is the essence of the play.”
Here in the U.S., at least, the show has garnered a largely positive response from those who have seen it thus far – it received glowing reviews and box office success both at its premiere in San Diego and its subsequent run in Laguna Beach. However, there have been a few dissenters.
“From the thousands of people that have seen it, I’ve gotten three pieces of hate mail – which is a very low number. One of them asked, ‘Why does it have to be political? I just came to enjoy the music!’ You have people who can’t deal with things. It’s his story, and it’s only his story. It has no political bent to it, it’s just the way the world has gone – it’s turned political. To think we’d be dealing with this in 2017, it’s crazy.”
Does that mean there’s a message for our own time in the story of this troubled composer’s life?
“I don’t do messages, nor do I take political stances. What I am doing here is telling Tchaikovsky’s true story in his time, which relates to his story in our time – and ultimately it becomes about propaganda and telling the truth, which is the most important thing of all. And while in our own country we are seeing more anti-gay rhetoric starting to happen, which is very scary, on a more global level what we are also seeing is a complete annihilation of truth – and that’s REALLY scary. We’re living in a ‘post-fact’ world where people create whatever ‘facts’ they want, and those become the ‘facts.’ It’s one thing to have opinions, it’s one thing to have policies, but it’s another thing to obliterate the facts – and that’s what this story is really about. Rewriting history is really terrifying.”
With “Our Great Tchaikovsky,” Hershey Felder plans to stand up not just for a musical genius, but for the truth itself.
Hershey Felder’s ‘The Great American Songbook Sing-Along’
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Bram Goldsmith Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Monday, July 31
7:30 p.m., $25-$55