THIS NEW play with music affords the audience an intimate look in on the life and music of "America's composer", George Gershwin (1898-1937). It is a one-man show and includes Gershwin's best-known songs, from "The Man I Love" and "Someone to Watch Over Me", through the hits of An American in Paris and his folk opera Porgy and Bess, to a complete performance of Rhapsody in Blue.
"It is dangerous to call it just entertainment," says Hershey Felder, a scholar in residence at Harvard University's Department of Music, who has created the role of George Gershwin with dialogue "rooted in truth". "I wanted to go about this so that it has historical value - to justify doing something like this. I mean, it's not a lecture, but I wanted to make sure that the audience could learn something as well as enjoy the fun stuff.
"My research revealed a man who wanted to be taken seriously, in the manner in which we take Beethoven and Mozart seriously. His quest was to create a great work of art and he thought he died before doing that, but it turns out he didn't."
Felder is better known in the US, where his performance of George Gershwin Alone, directed by Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), has played throughout America over the past four years. It now makes its UK stage debut, as the first part in the "Composer Trilogy", which when completed will include plays on Chopin and Beethoven. Felder is also developing a musical about the Nixon-era White House.
Though he has given 1,200 performances across America, Felder has no idea how his musical play will translate to a British audience. "But what struck me as being extremely moving, as I read more about him, is how scathing and vicious some original reviews were about his opera, Porgy and Bess," Felder says. "It was beyond reason - especially as it is now accepted as one of the greatest contemporary operas in the world. One scene in the piece, I explore how Gershwin must have felt that night he stayed up waiting for the reviews. I can only imagine the pain he must have felt," says Felder of the composer, who was badly demoralised, and died shortly afterwards of a brain tumour (which had been diagnosed as "hysteria") when he was 38 years old. "But at the end of the piece the audience realises that the one man in the room who doesn't know what happened to the music - which has touched so many people's lives across the world - is George Gershwin himself," says Felder.
What we contribute in our lives - and how it is used thereafter - is the core of the piece for Felder. "I asked myself: if I had an hour and a half with this man, what would I want to know? If I was him and had one last chance, what would I tell my audience? I found it in a Porgy and Bess lyric, in "I Loves You Porgy", the aria that Bess sings. "If you can keep me/ I want to stay here with you for ever,/ And I'd be glad."
'George Gershwin Alone', Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (020-7494 5075) from 17 February
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