Philip Fortenberry’s hands (and body) are key to piano scenes in HBO’s ‘Candelabra’

Philip Fortenberry, associate conductor for Jersey Boys, at The Composers Showcase at the Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center, Wednesday Aug. 8, 2012.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Joan Sobel, accompanied by Philip Fortenberry on the piano, sings a piece during The Composers Showcase at the Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center, Wednesday Aug. 8, 2012.

Tina Walsh, accompanied by Philip Fortenberry on the piano, sings a piece at The Composers Showcase at the Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center, Wednesday Aug. 8, 2012.

Fortenberry (and Douglas) as Liberace - from

On the night before The Liberace Museum closed, a rod-straight figure sat and played a beautiful, mirrored Baldwin piano. The gentleman and instrument were set alone on a small stage encircled by the glass cases displaying the great showman’s gleaming jewelry and flashy stage costumes.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” was the song that closed the show. You couldn’t quite make out the silhouetted man playing there in the dark. But the delicate playing and proper posture of Philip Fortenberry were enough to evoke the spirit of Liberace.

Something about Fortenberry resurrects that great entertainer. The artistic connection is largely forged through his playing, of course. Fortenberry has been a fantastic pianist since he put on his first solo concert at age 12 in his hometown of Columbia, Miss. He studied with Myoko Lotto at the Juilliard School and earned a master’s of music degree in classical piano performance at New Jersey City University.

In Las Vegas, Fortenberry’s reputation among his fellow artists is impenetrable. Keith Thompson, music director of “Jersey Boys” and an excellent musician, was once asked about Fortenberry’s playing.

Thompson’s one-word answer: “Ridiculous.”

Fortenberry has idolized Liberace since age 4. He never saw a Liberace performance but was the in-house entertainer at The Liberace Museum for years, performing the “Liberace & Me” one-man tribute in the attraction’s cabaret theater. Fortenberry so exhaustively studied the playing of Liberace that he once played a Liberace Christmas album and said, “I felt like I was listening to myself.”

Fortenberry is once more paying tribute to Liberace, again in a way in which he is not readily identifiable except for his great playing. Fortenberry is the hands and body of Liberace in the upcoming HBO biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” airing May 26. His fingers heavy with baubles, Fortenberry is shown playing all of the complex pieces used in the film’s concert scenes.

Fortenberry’s body, too, is featured in the film. This is another piece of artistic wizardry, though technical rather than musical: The head of Michael Douglas, who portrays Liberace in the film, is digitally grafted onto Fortenberry’s frame.

The experience has been onerous and unforgettable for Fortenberry, who moved to Las Vegas nearly 10 years ago to play in the short-lived musical “We Will Rock You” at Paris Las Vegas. Aside from his work at The Liberace Museum, Fortenberry has worked steadily as associate conductor of "Jersey Boys."

And now he's a movie star, at least in part.

“This is a very high honor,” Fortenberry said. “To have studied Liberace’s repertoire, and having played a lot of the same music and have had the type of training I’ve had, it is just an honor to be chosen to do this.

“I mean, anybody in the world wants to be a hand model for a Steven Soderbergh movie.”

But the catch with “Candelabra” was that Soderbergh was looking for more than just a pretty set of hands. This person needed to be able to play about as well as Liberace and fit into the replica costume jackets designed for Douglas.

Soderbergh put the word out that he needed such a person and got a response from former “Phantom — Las Vegas Spectacular” music director Jack Gaughan, who thought Fortenberry might fit the role.

“So I get this call from Jack Gaughan, out of nowhere, and he asks, ‘Do you have any photos of your hands?’” Fortenberry said. “I said, ‘I don’t know you that well!’ But he explained to me that they were looking for a hand double for Michael Douglas and asked me to literally take pictures of my hands, and then take video of my hands at the piano, because Michael Douglas doesn’t play the piano.”

Soon, Soderbergh invited Fortenberry to Bel Air, Calif., to the mansion owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor being used in the film. Fortenberry was speaking with the director and members of the creative team when he felt a hand touch his back.

He turned around and …

“I gasped. I am not kidding, I actually gasped,” Fortenberry said. “I actually thought I was meeting Liberace. He says, ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Michael Douglas.’”

Douglas was in full makeup and wearing what Fortenberry describes as “a dressing gown,” as he was taking a break between scenes.

“He totally embraced this role. This man is an artist. When you take the diligence to re-create that character, oh my God,” Fortenberry said. “I was convinced.”

The meeting was to pore over Liberace’s audio recordings and transfer, by ear, the notes to sheet music. The pianist never actually wrote his piano parts, and sheet music was needed to record tracks for Fortenberry to play to during the performance scenes. All of those segments were filmed at LVH Theater, the former Las Vegas Hilton Theater, where Liberace headlined and taped his TV specials.

“In the course of this, I would be seated at the piano, then they would film Michael Douglas doing a number, then me,” Fortenberry said. “We would do a couple of different takes so they could take my head off my body and put his on. It was all sort of eerie, actually.”

Fortenberry did learn about Liberace’s attention to detail during the filming process.

“His coats were cut in such a way that his arms and hands would be featured prominently,” Fortenberry said. “The way the mirrors reflected on the piano was to make it seem like four hands were playing at all times, and Soderbergh was exploring every angle to capture me playing into those mirrors.”

Liberace didn’t need pyrotechnics to create a sense of explosion while performing.

“All that bling, the fire that comes off those rings when you’re playing, is incredible,” Fortenberry said. “I didn’t realize until I actually played that way what it meant. He was such an excellent showman, and musician, to be able to play while wearing all that bling.”

It wasn’t so easy for Fortenberry, though. At least not at first.

“These rings kept flopping around and clicking on the keys,” he said, laughing. “They had to glue them onto my fingers.”

Fortenberry said the just-released trailers of the film “freaked me out” because the first scene is of his hands. As is the case with any hand model, he was instructed to keep his hands protected, manicured and out of direct sunlight so that they would closely match Douglas’.

Fortenberry is still astonished that he was chosen to portray Liberace in such a way.

“I have to laugh because I’m not just a piano player from Mississippi,” Fortenberry said. “All of a sudden, I am a hand model as Liberace. You never know what momentous thing might happen.”

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