Hershey Felder has spent most of the past year in lockdown in Italy, where he happened to be living when the pandemic struck.
But rather than sit around wishing he was doing shows, the pianist/actor/playwright (and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley favorite) has become a major theatrical force, producing several of his biographical musicals — "George Gershwin Alone," "Claude Debussy: A Paris Love Story," "Irving Berlin," "Beethoven," and "Hershey Felder: Tchaikovsky, Live from Florence" — for livestreaming from his Italian home.
But with his next role, as author Sholem Aleichem in "Before Fiddler — Live From Florence," Felder enters new territory. "Before Fiddler" is not one of his older works, modified for streaming. It is an all-new show, written for the screen.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the result as much as anybody," Felder said during a recent Zoom interview, "because it's a premiere — this one is being constructed first for the screen. Film has to be less of a performance, and more of a capture.
"It is literally what comes out, comes out."
The show is a happy confluence of coincidences.
"You always have ideas for shows," Felder said, speaking of himself. "I thought, 'Maybe one day, I'll do a show about Sholem Aleichem.' Then, here in Florence, I was introduced to Klezmerata Fiorentina, who are all first-chairs in (the orchestra of the) Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. I heard Klezmerata Fiorentina play, and I thought, 'You know, this might just work.'
"Sometimes a show happens just because the elements just happen to be there."
Klezmer music essentially echoes through the history of Judaism, especially in the joyous tunes heard at weddings. It developed as a named genre in central and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, and has enjoyed popularity in the United States. Klezmer loudly proclaims both happiness and sadness, music that imitates, according to the show's press release, "talking, laughing, weeping and singing."
Klezmer can be almost anything, and wildly innovative, involving extreme musicianship and boisterous performances. It often features multiple melody lines, and can make use of almost any kind of noisemaker as a musical instrument. Its influences can be heard in many types of modern music, including in such swinging big-band-era performers as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
It is fun music, generally speaking. Felder’s show can be expected to be extremely fun.
For one thing, he plays several parts in the show, including as two different women. He’s never played a woman before.
"I fit perfectly into a dress — you can't imagine," he said via Zoom. "I am playing a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. It's very, very funny."
And he is not alone in the show, unlike most of his composer stage shows — "Before Fiddler" has a cast of 30 performers, including Klezmerata Fiorentina.
Sometimes referred to as the "Jewish Mark Twain," Aleichem, as a press release announcing the production notes, is a central figure in Yiddish literature. "Tevye's Daughters," a collection of tales about Tevye the milkman, was published in 1894, and eventually became the basis for the beloved musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Felder's show is based on Aleichem's novel "Stempenyu: A Jewish Novel," which was published in 1888.
"Stempenyu" is the story of an itinerant klezmer musician, a talented violinist, who seduces a woman in every town he visits. Although married, he falls in love with a married woman in one of the towns, and emotional complications ensue.
Felder said he is performing "Before Fiddler" in Aleichem's voice, and that it "is very romantic, the story of his life, and something he wrote.
"Originally, I set it somewhere in Kiev, but realized I could use Florence as locations in Kiev, and also in Italy. … Tomorrow, we will go to his (Aleichem's) house in Nervi, on the Italian Riviera. We'll be able to set it where it actually took place."
Italy was also featured in Felder's Tchaikovsky show, because that great composer also lived in Italy for a while — not all that far, really, from Felder's home.
Felder's live shows have proved hugely popular, and have helped many theaters maintain their production budgets. The livestream versions offer a more intimate look at his performances.
"Before Fiddler" is being produced by Felder's company, Hershey Felder Presents, but he is again partnering with TheatreWorks to promote the show, and donating a portion of the proceeds back to TheatreWorks.
"Most of what I make from these shows goes away, is donated away," Felder said. "I am giving away most of it; the rest goes into production.
"I think they (his online audiences) are buying it for the entertainment value. If I can help others, why shouldn't I?" he said. Despite the challenges faced by artists during the pandemic, "I am able to pay my staff. I wanted to make sure I could continue paying them."
The performance launches live on Sunday, Feb. 7, at 5 p.m. PST. Tickets for the livestream are $55 per household, and include a week of on-demand access after the Feb. 7 performance. More information is available at eventbrite.com and hersheyfelder.net.
Contributing writer John Orr can be emailed at [email protected]