Following a successful tryout production in Los Angeles, Hershey Felder’s AN AMERICAN STORY, which tells the story of Abraham Lincoln’s last day, will have its world premiere at San Diego’s beautiful Birch North Park Theatre
by lisa lipsey –
There’s a great story here, so picture yourself in this moment: It’s Good Friday, 1865 and you are a 23-year old Union Solider, a new graduate of the Army Medic Training Program and officially a surgeon. You are sitting in the Ford Theatre, about halfway through the play Our American Cousin. A famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, jumps down from a balcony to stage, wielding a weapon. Is this a part of the show? There is much confusion and above the fray you hear Mary Todd Lincoln call for medical help from the Presidential Box. You have a job to do; you are the first responder and your name is Dr. Charles Augustus Leale.
So, what happened in those crucial hours to follow? What runs through your mind as you hold President Lincoln’s hand, watching as he dies? How do you move forward in your own life? Dr. Leale did not speak out on this tragedy until the 100th Anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday. This is the premise for musician/composer/actor/playwright/storyteller Hershey Felder’s new play An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra.
Get ready for an incredible night; Felder is transforming the intimate North Park Birch Theatre into Ford’s Theatre on the night Lincoln was assassinated. He’s bringing to life the Civil War era with music, letters and speeches. Felder will become that young Army Medic much in the same way he embodies all his characters from his past shows so well: Monsieur Chopin, Maestro: Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven, As I Knew Him and the San Diego Old Globe favorite George Gershwin Alone. These are shows that captivate, engage and involve the audience. A Hershey Felder show isn’t just great story telling, it’s a jump into a time machine.
What inspired you to create this show?
As I look back, what inspires me to create any show is how the everyman distinguishes himself, the events that happen and how people rise to the occasion. The determination to do what is beautiful, what will make the world a better place. I was so fascinated. Suddenly this 23-year old doctor, an absolute nobody hears Mary Todd Lincoln calling for a surgeon.
How do you continue after that experience, what do you do with your life? I had to write this man’s story; it’s the story of a great President and a great tragedy, with beautiful music composed during the time period. This is of course a Hershey-style telling. I have an idea and all the sudden it has a life of its own. I started off, then I found out I was writing a massive piece.
Please tell me about the research you did in process of writing/composing this show.
In all my plays, the life of the person, their story has benefitted me. In researching them I get to go to the best places in the world and all over America, try the best foods, read and see incredible things. It is fascinating to find all the details, bits and pieces, clues and moments, the things that make us all human. Know the life, the story, all the puzzle pieces…if not, you’re screwed.
For this piece I spent a lot of time in the Library of Congress and read Dr. Leale’s speech and other documents. This man knew the President would die; Lincoln couldn’t speak or see, but Leale knew he could hear. He held his hand so that Lincoln would not die alone and frightened. It’s astonishing, the emotional context and the humanity. My other research was working at Ford’s Theatre and visiting the Petersen House, to understand all the things that happened that night. Listening to music of the time, such as the music of Stephen Foster. Taking Foster’s lead, I have created and orchestrated my own composition, which I hope to share and add to the Great American songbook.
Then there’s the idea of putting on a costume. What did the Union Army officers wear? We worked with folks who do Civil War reenactment for the costume design. This is not the kind of thing where we are trying to recreate or imitate by putting on a fake beard and saying now I am him. The show is about getting into the head and emotions; understanding the greater context that lead to that moment.
“I had to write this man’s story; it’s the story of a great President and a great tragedy, with beautiful music composed during the time period.”
Tell me about the orchestra and the score.
Originally, I wrote this show to have a massive 50-piece orchestra. Then I thought, what could I do to make it feasible for theatrical productions… I am so pleased that I have 11 virtuoso players, all San Diego artists. That is something that is not largely done. Generally directors and designers bring in artists from all over the world. We are starting here and using local professional symphony musicians, it is really, really beautiful.
You started on piano very young, was that common in your family?
In my family no one plays, they all love music, but they don’t play. Nobody seems to know where I got it from or why I wanted it. I went to university quite young, I went to study music at 13. I knew this is what I wanted to do—introduce characters and share stories with people. That is what I wanted so that’s what I did—it was magical.
Who are some of your muses?
[Laughing] Interviewers like you who ask good questions. Really it is stories that inspire over and over again if that makes any sense. Theatre is about—well, for me—theatre is about storytelling. It is one of the most important things in the world and this is such a good one, a great one. It is sad, terrible, an enormous loss and Dr. Leale was put in the middle of it all, thrust in the spotlight. Then he quietly takes that experience and moves forward. He left the Petersen House, he didn’t save the President—it was a huge loss—but somehow he made sense of life.
He was responsible for the first Children’s Hospital in New York; he funded the building of piers and parks. He believed that children carried forward the hope of the nation and wanted to leave something good for the world. Imagine, he was 90 years old when he died. He lived through the Civil War, the First World War, and the Great Depression. I hope audiences leave feeling connected to this man; feel the warmth of his spirit.
“He left the Petersen House, he didn’t save the President—it was a huge loss—but somehow he made sense of life.”
How do you get yourself into character?
Preparation. It’s the work I do before; not five minutes before, not the costume, but months and months and months before—the hard work, the research.
What’s your favorite hobby when you aren’t working?
Decorating homes, I swear to God! When I was in New York I was painting a marble fireplace. Wherever I am, I am creating. You can’t just work 20 days straight; you should go look at a painting. Allow your mind the time and freedom to think, do the creative work that needs to be done.
What’s next for you?
There is a new play coming out that I am directing this year about John Wilkes Booth written by Jesse Jensen, a brilliant actor. And at the West End I’ll be doing a hysterical musical, I Found My Horn. I’ll be in Boston and Chicago. I am so thankful that it never ends. It is a great joy to be doing all of this and to come back to San Diego. Beautiful! Thrilling!
Hershey Felder’s An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra runs Friday, January 4 through Sunday, February 3 at the Birch North Park Theatre. For tickets and more information contact 619.239.8836 or visit them online at birchnorthparktheatre.net.