Brief Encounter With ... Rainer Hersch
Borge was a legendary pianist, virtuoso comedian and once voted “the funniest man in the world” by The New York Times. During the 1960s he became the highest paid entertainer on the planet, loved by audiences worldwide.
In the London premiere of this one-man show, his extraordinary life is retold and his act re-imagined for the 21st century by Hersch, who is billed as Borge's "natural successor".
Why did you want to perform a tribute to Victor Borge?
When I first started doing comedy about classical music in 1996, I got a heap of reviews which mentioned his name. I was either better than Victor Borge or worse than Victor Borge but it always cropped up there somewhere. Meantime, I hadn't actually heard of the guy. I started to do some research and watch his stuff on video and loved it. For me, it was a Stanley and Livingstone moment - like hacking through a jungle only to find a neatly manicured path somebody else had made 50 years before. When Victor Borge died in 2000, the BBC asked me to make a programme about him. I flew to Denmark where he grew up and interviewed a lot of people who knew him. That's where I got interested in his story, which reminded me a little of my own father's history (though my Dad wasn't in showbiz or anything). I decided I wanted to put all that together into a show. That became 'Rainer Hersch's Victor Borge'.
What's the format of the show?
On stage is a grand piano and a stool. That's it. I play both Victor Borge and myself (as narrator). It really is 50/50 between us - thus the name of the show. Basically, we come together to be funny and to tell his fascinating story. Much of the 'Victor Borge' contribution comes from his comedy which is semi-autobiographical: "I must tell you about my father. He was the one we had very much trouble with because he once swallowed a pill that makes you look fifteen years younger. And that almost killed him because he was only twelve at the time". Of course, being a show about Borge, there is a lot of piano playing and musical gags in there too. I narrate with my own stand-up style so, I hope, it adds up to two funny comics for the price of one, so to speak. Many of the reviews have said something like that, which is very flattering. It all works very well, I am pleased to say and the audience loves it.
What's your favourite Borge routine?
He used to play a piece with another pianist. They sat on one stool - Borge on the right and the other guy on the left. Unfortunately, the way the music is written, Borge's notes are all on the left and the other guy's all on the right. This means a tangle of fingers and arms as they fight to play the music. The end up running round the stool to get out of the way while the other plays. All through this the music continues seamlessly. It is very funny and I could watch him do it over and over - especially all the details Borge throws in which are all beautifully timed. A guest pianist and I are doing a version of that routine in my show.
You've performed no end of venues in your career. How does the Jermyn Street rate?
Jermyn Street Theatre is the best venue in its price range :) I am really pleased to be doing a four-week in London. It is the first time I have ever done that and JST is a great place to do it with a wonderfully warm atmosphere, great audiences and a very supportive team behind it. What more can a performer ask? It is small (seats 70) but that is going to be great - a real feeling of connecting with the audience.
How did you get started in musical comedy?
Now that is a big question. Basically my interest in classical music and comedy grew up at the same time and quite independent from one another. I always loved playing the piano, which I do to a high standard (ahem... grade eight distinction when I was 17). I started really writing and performing comedy at Lancaster University, where I did Economics (!) Once I left Lancaster, I worked in classic music for a few years before starting to moonlight on the London comedy circuit - straight stand-up: no piano, no music, just me and a microphone. I gave up my last music job, Touring Manager of the London Festival Orchestra in 1992. In 1996 I decided to stop rundling on about the girlfriend who had just theoretically left me and write about something which really did interest me, Classical Music. That was 'All Classical Music Explained'. I realised this was my thing and I haven't stopped writing and joking about it since.
What's your career highlight to date?
I have had the luck and pleasure to have many memorable moments in my career. The one that jumps to mind as I sit writing this is conducting a concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Festival Hall in March 2009. Some of the great names in classical music agreed to come and be my comedy bitches for the night including Alfred Brendel, Nicola Benedetti, Dame Evelyn Glennie and Paul Lewis. The BBC filmed and broadcast the show. I suppose it's going to be pretty hard to top that but I really am the sort of person who never looks back. I can't bear to watch myself for one thing - I can only see the mistakes and things I could have done better. Perhaps I will feel differently in my dotage - I keep a lot of memorabilia (old programmes and such) thinking it might be useful in some kind of reminiscence group when I get to the nursing home. But for now the real highlight is always the thing I am currently working on.
You're billed as Borge's "natural successor" - is that rather daunting?
Yes and no. It is at least a description with which people who don't know me can get a idea of what they're in for. And lots of people have this kind of label. Borge had it himself for years - reviewers always compared him to other comedians that went before. This show is ultimately about my relationship to Borge and in it, I try to address the natural successor question (my answer, by the way, is that there was only one Borge and he died in 2000 - no-one can follow him or have anything like the career he had). I love comedy and I love music and whether it is solo, with orchestra, or 'Rainer Hersch's Victor Borge' - I just try to do it my way and make each performance absolutely as good as I can get it. After that you just hope for the best.
Rainer Hersch’s Victor Borge continues at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31 March.