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Re: “A doctor recalls Lincoln's final hours in An American Story for Actor and Orchestra

Justin -

Thanks for coming to see AN AMERICAN STORY. As many can tell you, I very much enjoy communicating with both the audience and commentators on the work that I present - the dialogue can be interesting, and with thanks to the infamous "Google Alert," items that allow me become a part of the discussion, pop up with determined regularity.

Here's what interests me about your piece: it's not that you are entirely wrong about any of it, but it's perhaps that are not thinking about the "why"concerning any of it that intrigues me. Perhaps I'm wrong, but from your writing I get the feeling that you did see the Gershwin, but not the Chopin (a very early incarnation) or the Beethoven, or the Bernstein. Each is vastly different in the approach to character. With regard to Gershwin, I happen to agree with you. Gershwin is an arch character. All the research I did, including spending time with those who were left (most are now gone) who knew him well, indicated to me that he was a pretentious stuffy sort. I always believed it came from his sense of insecurity about his lack of a serious education in music coupled with a truly astonishing natural melodic and harmonic gift. I fully intended to create that kind of character on the stage. I very much loved the truth about that, as I find the human condition very interesting. It was never what "I" thought about Gershwin, for me, it was about launching into what was revealed to me as who the real Gershwin was. Kitty Hart, who had become a friend after I spent time with her discussing these things, attended a performance in NY. Her assessment after the performance verbatim: "yup. That was him." I'm not really all that fond of new "cool" down to earth interpretations. They don't reflect (for me anyway) the truth about who these folks were.

When it came to Chopin and Beethoven, I had only the written materials left behind and constructed characters that again, seemed to reflect what keen observers believed. The cold but vulnerable Chopin, who created the world's most beguiling and confusing (in a wonderful way) music - both cold and fiery all at once, schmaltzy if mishandled, ethereal if not, distant and personal all at once - a great juxtaposition in terms, much like his character. With Beethoven, a childlike and childish character, simple, yet a character hardly reflective of the music he left us. And Bernstein, well - I'm not certain that any more "full of himself" exists. That was a good part of the complication, did the talent match the "full of himself?" I think at its very core, that was the thing that bothered him. He compensated for what he feared was some kind of missing talent certainly in the arena of composition. All this to say, my interest is presenting characters as those around them who knew them saw them, and not giving you large pieces of myself. I'm quite private and only of late, after all these years, have begun speaking about these things, as I do now.

As for Charles Leale - I don't disagree with you concerning your characterization of him. He isn't the "full of himself" character that the others are. In fact, his only "accomplishment" with regard to history is that he happened to be at a particular place at a particular time. In the context of his life, and the context of what was happening in the country at the time, it all just "happened to be." But what to me is most interesting, is the context in which this admittedly average man, lived. In fact, you have quite captured my intention (that you don't like it, is perfectly fair, but it is the intention none-the-less) that an average man can find himself in an extraordinary circumstance, and handle himself nobly, as you readily admit, and then return to his average life, and do his best with what he has. There is no titillating gossip, no over-the-top outlandish behavior, he is a very "regular" person like most of us gathered in the theatre there to spend time with him. And that, Justin, is the point.

With regard to the music, let's face that head on. Did Mimi sing about her muff on her deathbed? (yes, a nod to your "coolness..."), did Violetta sing on hers? Do Mormon boys ever really do "numbers?" Yes, once again, that strange hybrid - life and the musical theatre. But through it, we get to the essence of character, or at least the author's intentions. The thing is, you captured exactly what interested me about this character, only you refuse to accept that that is worthy enough. It's a perfectly fair position to take. As far as the audience goes, I'm not certain how one constructs anything for an "older well heeled audience." The characters are based on ideas that are of interest, as truthful as the ideas can be about each of them, ideas that I would like to share - sharing being the operative word. If the range of attendees over the years is any indication, your statement about the audience is unfounded.

There are a few things that I must call attention to as they are what actually happens and contradict your argument, the first being that you suggest that the orchestra rises to some kind of Spielbergian swamping of the material at the emotional climax. First of all, why insult Steven Spielberg? The guy can make a movie and John Williams knows his way around a score. One just has to like music, and hear and see life in musical terms, and accept that as a style that in fact does work, depending on one's sensibilities. That said, once the President begins the "passing" process in this piece, not only does the orchestra not heighten its sound, but the score itself simply fades away on a very quiet minor ninth interval at which point, it stops altogether, and the entirely finale of the piece, is played out without any orchestra at all, save the last few bars, composed pianissimo and performed as such, fading away - the complete antithesis to what you incorrectly suggest. As well, in all of Leale's reports and commentary - he didn't hold the hand and speak (or in this case, quietly sing) to a "comatose" President. That was exactly the point, and a point that he made and a point that I too am careful to make. He believed that despite the injury, President Lincoln was still able to hear and understand, which is why Leale tended to him in this way. As well, the events of the characters life do not combine as the reason that this character lands up tending to President Lincoln. The events of this character's life as he thinks about them, combine to create the man - the character - that he is, and when he does land up caring for the President, he is the sum of his experiences, and so handles it all with great nobility precisely because of what happened to him and who he was. And then, rather than bask in the celebrity born of happenstance, he recedes into his commitment to medical care, and makes the choice that nowadays so few rarely do.

Ultimately, I believe that the characters that I present, in the form that I present them are rooted in some kind of truth, whether they be truths related to me by those who knew them well (as in the case of Bernstein and Gershwin) or by materials that were left to us by the characters themselves and by those who surrounded the individuals. My goal in fact has been to tell a story, using tools specific to the theatre, but taking myself out of the characterizations and given your assessment, I am successful in doing exactly that. I can't help but wonder though - with such a strong reaction to what you assume is my own character, what is it about yourself that leads you down that path rather than my own intended one. Perhaps your review tells us a great deal about you, and less about what is being reflected on the stage. Character - such an interesting thing.

Best wishes,

6 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by hershey on 03/13/2013 at 12:12 PM

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