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'An American Story' Tells The Tale Of Lincoln's Final Hours

Hershey Felder, actor, playwright and composer, wrote and stars in "An American Story for Actor and Orchestra."
Courtesy photo
Hershey Felder, actor, playwright and composer, wrote and stars in "An American Story for Actor and Orchestra."
'An American Story' Tells The Tale Of Lincoln's Final Hours
GUESTHershey Felder, actor, playwright and composer.

CAVANAUGH: Abraham Lincoln is seen by many historians as America's greatest president. And he is also a cultural icon, especially with year with Steven Spielberg's epic movie, Lincoln, likely to gain a lot of nominations. Actor, composer, musician Hershey Felder presents a world premiere product of his music called Lincoln, an American story for actor and orchestra. Let's start with the music. (Audio Recording Played) CAVANAUGH: And it's a pleasure to welcome Hershey Felder here to Midday Edition. FELDER: Thank you for having me. What a great pleasure to be here. CAVANAUGH: Was that song a favorite of Lincoln's? FELDER: Actually it was, from the research that I did. In fact, he often said that Old Kentucky Home was one of his favorite songs. I found that fascinating because one thing says president Lincoln as very urue indict, but to think that he was somehow connected to that kind of emotional music or simple story telling, it's fascinating to me. It brings together so many elements of our history and not to mention our cultural history CAVANAUGH: A pop song of his time, right? FELDER: I would think so, yeah. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Why do you think there is this attention now? People are falling in love with Lincoln. FELDER: Well, I think there's such a thing as fashion. Of he's fashionable nowadays. And we're all looking for that leader. I think as time goes, we discover who our leaders are 100 years after they're dead. And that's when we appreciate them, or in this case, quite a bit more than that. But I think the idea really is he represents ideals that are touching people nowadays. And so it's also a fascinating story. Here you have a man who quite literally changed the world and certainly changed the world as we know it and left us in the middle of doing all of that, and the greatest tragedy of it all was that he was not there to see us through the healing. And I think there's a great fascination with that story. What would have happened had he survived? What would have been different? And I think the fantasy is a great deal something that we hook into as a people. And I think something that people in general hook into, the notion of what would have been. CAVANAUGH: Give us a brief synopsis of your play. You take a slightly different take on the story than one would imagine. You come at it a little sideways rather than straightforward. FELDER: Well, Lincoln, an American story, was the version I did originally and realized that it really is more an American story than Lincoln. So I removed that from the title. And it is called an American story now. And it is based on a document that I found of Charles Augustus Leale who was the doctor who attended to Lincoln in the last nine hours. He was a union officer who was fascinated with physiognomy. And he couldn't understand what the president's real motives were. There was a lot of confusion for people in the day. Today it's quite clear, abolition, free slaves. But in his day, his point was really to keep the union together. That was absolutely clear. He made it clear in several speeches and in quite a bit of writing. If he was able to maintain the union by abolishing slavery, he would. If he was able to maintain it by keeping slavery, he would. Whatever he needed to do, he wanted to maintain the union. A wonderful, notable quotable is a house divided cannot stand. But at the end of the day, the important thing was that this doctor found himself studying Lincoln's face, going to the theatre because he was fascinated. And that was an opportunity to see the president up close. And there he was, and suddenly a shot rings out, and he's sitting near the box, and he runs in. Nobody knows him, nobody cares about him. He's 23 years old, he graduated six ROTTO before from medical school. CAVANAUGH: It's the famous is there a doctor in the house, right? FELDER: That's actually it. Is there a doctor in the house, the house being the theatre, the auditorium. And he pushes his way in, and Mary Todd puts him in charge. He says this boy is in charge. She trusted him because he was young, because he had a certain kind of face, who knows? But to find himself in the middle of history because his fascination with the president's face. And he only told the story once in his life at dell Monaco's in New York, the restaurant. His companions of the military order of the loyal legions of the United States insisted that he need to tell the story for history. And he wanted to put it out of his mind because he believed that he was not going to walk around living with this proverbial tiara on his head, "I didn't save the president, but I got close enough to try." He decided he doesn't want to talk about it. This place takes place at the end of his life using that document. And the interesting thing about that document is I started writing this a couple of years ago, and I was fascinated with the story of a man who would hold the president's hand because he believed the president could still hear no matter his injuries. And he didn't want to let him die alone. If he had somebody holding his hand, he wouldn't be so afraid. I thought, well, there's a musical! I was really touched by that as an idea, and turned to into this kind of story. And at the end of the day, this document was originally something that he wrote was much later, and in June of this year after I had written this original version, a woman, a great researcher from Washington DC discovered the original document that was written just a few days after the president died. And that became international news. CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, San Diego audiences know you from your plays at The Old Globe, many of them Gershwin alone. Chopin, etc. And you typically write plays and then you play the title character. You write a play about Gershwin, and you're Gershwin. Now you've written a play, you've chosen to tell Lincoln's story, but you don't portray Lincoln. You portray doctor Charles Augustus Leale, this 23-year-old surgeon who was at Lincoln's bedside when he was dying. What did you decide to do it that way? FELDER: Well, it's a very interesting way in. And I think taking on Lincoln, the character, is sort of playing a character in stone. I don't think I'm the right actor to play that kind of thing. I don't know that I'm interested in telling the story that way. I'm telling the everyman story. And Lincoln does come to life through Leale because he had such close contact with him, that Lincoln's words bring the idea of Lincoln to life, which have been all -- my ideas about all my play, to create characters that evoke. Yes, I take on the character of Berstein or Chopin in the first person, but in Beethoven I take on another character and bring him to life. So it is about how to tell a story, how to best tell a story, and there are some people -- the funny joke is, well, did Lincoln play the piano? I said -- well, he actually did, and I've seen his piano from the White House, it's in Chicago in fact, in the history music. But at the end of the day, the idea is too evoke a story and a person by bringing magic, by the Evocation, rather than trying to imitate. And that's what makes theatre magic for me, by being able to put those elements together. And that's what's been fun with this. CAVANAUGH: You also wrote the score to this. Tell us a little bit about the music that we'll hear in an American story. FELDER: Well, one of the interesting things to me is always the history of a country through music, the history of a people through music. And here it is the history of America through music, such as minstrel shows and Steven foster and a man who had never even been to the south yet was writing -- CAVANAUGH: Steven foster. FELDER: Yes, fascinating. And the idea of taking thematics that really touch a whole country or touch a thinking or an emotional chord, and then using those themes to we've been a story. And it's symphonic in nature. For this presentation, I reduced the orchestra from the big full symphony to 11 members, which was a great challenge. But it's great to find great musicians in San Diego. And the concert violinist, Healy Henderson, who's wonderful, put together a great bunch so I get the kind of sound and symphonic approach they was looking for, and taking the music of Steven foster, but really using it as a basis, leitmotifs to go through all the music, rather than doing a number and get applause. CAVANAUGH: A lot of musicals these days are written through, they're basically music the whole way through. But in your show, the music does expand on the story. I mean, it does move the story. FELDER: And not only does it move the story, but it is related historically to what's actually happening. So when we talk about Kentucky Home being Lincoln's favorite song, where it appears in the play it appear for a reason. And that's always been the challenge in all my pieces. All of a sudden you're pulling out a valse of Chopin, and how to have them be generated in the context of the piece with a reason. And that's always a challenge. But you start off with these challenges and you spend your life fighting them and figuring out ways to make them work, and somehow I'm somewhat managing a bit. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Now the Birch Theatre in Northpark is going to resemble a bit Ford's theatre. FELDER: I played Ford's theatre for two years running in 2003, 2004. And I was fascinated, I was playing Gershwin, and I was talking about at that time Henry Ford had accused African Americans -- well, Jews of taking African American music and making them the national filth. And that to me was a fascinating idea, standing on the stage of Ford's theatre staring at the box where Lincoln sat that night with the actual portrait of George Washington that was there. That's one of the very few actual actor facts from that night was chipped in the corner because Booth's boot caught on the painting, and there's apparently some of Lincoln's blood on it. CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's amazing. FELDER: But standing there on that stage for two years running and have audiences and people from the White House and Congress and the Senate sitting there singing Gershwin, it was quite a touching, moving experience to really understand what people go through, what people will do because of what they believe in, what they believe is right. And I wanted to bring a little bit of that experience. And the birch Northpark -- you know the Global is home, I love that, I love the people there. The support I've gotten for this production has been miraculous. It's wonderful to feel like you have a home and a family. And doing this here because -- Harold Prince said you need to cast theatres as much as you do actors. So I cast the Birch because it resembles a great deal. CAVANAUGH: An American story opens January finish and runs through February 3rd in the Birch theatre in Northpark. Thank you very much. FELDER: You've been very dear, thank you.

From movies to books, the life of Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate. Now a new one-man play explores Lincoln’s last day from the perspective of the doctor who tended to him in his final hours.

Written by actor/playwright/composer Hershey Felder, "An American Story for Actor and Orchestra" is inspired by Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, the young Union Army medic who was the first to reach Lincoln in his box at the Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated. Leale stayed at the President's side and cared for him until his last breath.

Felder, a pianist who is known for his one-man shows about musical luminaries such as Chopin, Beethoven and Gershwin, came across Leale's speech, "Lincoln's Last Hours," while researching another subject at the Library of Congress. Leale gave the speech years later on what would have been Lincoln's 100th birthday.


As Felder shared with the Pasadena Sun in 2012, Leale's speech "touched me deeply and it always interested me, why he kept it quiet. I think I understand. It must have been so hard for him to have witnessed that, and to know that he had the responsibility for the country’s sake to keep the President alive as long as possible so that a safe transference of power could happen.”

Felder plays the role of Leale at age 90, who serves as the play's narrator, recounting the story of that fateful night at Ford's 67 years earlier. He based his play on Leale's speech and the words of Lincoln, and his score on the songs of Stephen Foster ("My Old Kentucky Home" was Lincoln's favorite song and is performed by Felder and a live orchestra).

Hershey Felder's "An American Story for Actor and Orchestra" runs now through February 3 at the Birch North Park Theatre in North Park.

Hershey Felder, An American Story for Actor and Orchestra