Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Our Great Tchaikovsky
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Hershey Felder
Photo by Petey T.
Ever since an announced four-week run of his George Gershwin Alone turned into a 15-month stay at the Royal George Theatre that ended with a three-month run of the world premiere of his Monsieur Chopin, Hershey Felder has eagerly shared his series of composer biographies with welcoming Chicago audiences. Now numbering seven, all but one (a Franz Liszt bio) of Felder's one-man composer profiles have played the Windy City (as have his various other productions featuring other performers and his original one-man musical An American Story). Felder's relationship with Chicago audiences is enviable but also carries the burden of balancing expectations with offering something new.

Looking back over the six composer shows Felder has performed in Chicago, we see not so much a formula but a list of ingredients that can be added to the mix in varying amounts, depending on the subject. Above all, there's the music—the reason why we should care about the subject in the first place. Always included is a piano, but with sometimes vocals and sometimes recorded orchestras. Add to that the monologues, mostly in the subject's voice, revealing that artist's creative process, the business of getting the music to audiences, some historical context, and an evocation of the subject's emotional life. Finally, we have the production design elements: a simple but elegant set; complementary lighting design to indicate time, place and mood; and projections of the historical figures discussed in the piece.

With Our Great Tchaikovsky, Felder deviates from the menu at the start through a framing device that explains how he came to write the piece. Speaking as himself, Felder tells how a Russian theatrical producer aware of Felder's biographical canon invited him to create a show about "our great composer, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky." Felder explains he began work on the project, but upon discovering the significance of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality to the Russian composer's work and life, realized he could not perform in Russia an honest depiction of his subject's life, given that country's recently enacted laws forbidding public discussion of same-sex attraction.

Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation is presented tastefully and chastely, with the first evidence of it shown to be attraction to a classmate in boarding school. The composer continues to be attracted to younger males—partly out of desire and partly out of kinship—throughout his life. He marries a woman but leaves her (without divorcing) after two and a half months of marriage. She later blackmails him, threatening to reveal his secret if he would not provide support. Fearful of exposure and imprisonment in Siberia, he complied. Threats of exposure are also shown to have led to the end of his 13-year-long patronage by the wealthy Nadezhda von Meck, who was told by her family members they would expose Tchaikovsky if she continued to support him. Fear of outing followed Tchaikovsky his entire adult life, and Felder's script suggests that his heartbreak and inability to fully love those for whom he had affection was expressed through his compositions, most notably his Sixth Symphony (Pathétique), which he dedicated to his nephew, the then 21-year-old Vladimir "Bob" Davydov, whom he had long admired and believed to be gay. Felder notes in the close of his framing device, how the symphony fades off—evoking the description many have made of it as a "musical suicide note."

Felder is explicit in his condemnation of the repression of gays in the Russia of both Tsarist times and today, but he makes an even more expansive point—that the individual must fight against pressures to conform to the expectations and demands others. He shows how Tchaikovsky's parents initially opposed his interest in the piano ("not a boy's activity") and opposed his pursuit of music as a career (sending him to a school for training as civil servant), and also how the established composers and critics of the time belittled his music (for being insufficiently Russian). At important points in his life, Tchaikovsky had the courage to stand up to these pressures and be true to his heart—by pursuing a career in music rather than the civil service, by retreating from a loveless marriage, and by refusing to rewrite his music to meet the expectations of the establishment. But none of those defiances were illegal. The one area of his life—the way he could love others—society would not allow him to express.

Tchaikovsky's fear of exposure and reluctance to commit his emotions to paper makes him a more enigmatic figure than the other composers Felder has portrayed. While all the key biographical details are in Felder's script, one wonders what more was going on in Tchaikovsky's mind and heart. And when Felder returns to his own persona midway through the show to explain what Tchaikovsky couldn't have known—that Nadezhda von Meck ceased her patronage and friendship with him to protect him from exposure—we're told, but not shown, that the composer was heartbroken over that. It's not Felder's practice to speculate or imagine what his subjects were feeling, though. He sticks to the documentary evidence and we're limited by what documents have been found.

Our Great Tchaikovsky dials up the amount of music versus some of Felder's other pieces, and it allows him to lead with his strongest suit—the piano. An accomplished pianist, Felder spends much time at the Steinway in this show, giving audiences emotional and technically impressive segments of such favorites as Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, 1812 Overture, as well as his piano and symphonic works. Looking back over Felder's canon, one could argue Tchaikovsky's music—as influenced by European styles as well as Russian traditions—occupies the sweetest spot between the 20th century composers he has profiled (Gershwin, Berlin, Bernstein) and the 19th century classicists (Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt). Tchaikovsky's melodies are familiar and accessible like those of the former group, but timeless and rich like those of the latter.

Tracking Felder's career over these fourteen years, Chicagoans can see growth and change in Felder the artist as well. Performing against a simple but lovely set of his own design—a Chekhovian setting of period furniture amidst a woods of birch trees—Felder shows a greater sense of conviction here than in his earlier work. He seems not so eager to please, less willing to go for an easy chuckle. With this show, as with his Bernstein and Berlin shows, we see a deeper empathy with his subjects.

Of all the billions who have ever lived on Earth, only a relative handful have created lasting works of art of the sort of music created by Felder's composers. What combination of talent, luck, wisdom and cunning led to the creation of their art? Were these artists superhuman? Our Great Tchaikovsky, like Felder's other "composer" plays, shows us their humanity while allowing us to enjoy their godlike creations.

Our Great Tchaikovsky, through May 13, 2018, at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago IL. For further information and tickets, visit or call 312-335-2650.