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Hershey Felder's new musical play will dramatize Lincoln's death

November 15, 2011 |  1:53 pm

Hershey Felder in Maestro the Art of Leonard Bernstein
Hershey Felder, the actor-pianist-composer who has carved a niche for himself creating and performing one-man shows about Chopin, Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, is taking on a musical dramatization of April 14, 1865, the night Abraham Lincoln was shot during a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.

“Lincoln –- An American Story for Actor and Symphony Orchestra” will have its premiere March 28 to April 7 at the Pasadena Playhouse. The story is told from the viewpoint of Charles Leale, the young Army surgeon who attended the fateful performance of “Our American Cousin” partly to gawk at the president he revered and wound up pronouncing him dead the following morning.

Speaking from Chicago, where he's performing "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein," Felder said Tuesday that he has composed enough music, including variations on melodies from Stephen Foster, to run the entire 90 minutes with an onstage 45-piece orchestra. He'll also incorporate performances of songs by Foster and original songs he's written in the style of 19th century burlesque.

Until now, the music-and-drama hybrids that Felder has collaborated on with director Joel Zwick have not used other musicians.

The Lincoln show starts in 1909 at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City. Until then, Leale had kept silent about the night when he rushed to the president moments after he was shot, then kept vigil over him through the night in a rooming house across the street. But friends said it was historically important for him to give his account, and on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Leale delivered an address, “Lincoln’s Last Hours,” during a gathering at the restaurant.

From there, Felder said, the show leaps back as far as 1864, portraying Leale as the core character, but with set pieces that include dramatizations of Lincoln speeches and an appearance by Walt Whitman, the poet who ministered to wounded soldiers at hospitals during the Civil War.

In 2009, Felder and the Colburn School's Colburn Orchestra performed an early version of the show in Los Angeles, billed as "Nine Hours on Tenth." He said earlier this year he recorded the completed Lincoln piece with Chicago's Ars Viva orchestra, and it was broadcast on the Chicago radio station WFMT.

Felder said he first became aware of Leale's story in the late 1990s, when he was at the Library of Congress doing research for "George Gershwin Alone." Later, while setting Vachel Lindsay's poem  "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" to music, the episode sprang back to mind.

"I was very touched by this story of an everyman, who suddenly found himself in the middle of history, changing it, and being affected by it," Felder said.

"Lincoln -- An American Story" will be the third chapter of a playhouse run being announced Tuesday, in which Felder also will perform “Monsieur Chopin” (Feb. 28-March 7), “Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” (March 10-18) and “Hershey Felder’s Great American Songbook Sing-Along” (March 12 and 19). 

Tickets can be bought separately for each play, or in packages of two or three shows.

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-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Hershey Felder performing "Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein" at the Geffen Playhouse in 2010. Credit: Michael Lamont

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