Peace for Piaf

By Sharman Yarnell on February 5, 2009

She was born in Belleville, Paris in 1915 and died at age 47 in 1963. Little did she know the lasting affect that she would have on generations of music devotees the world over.  She was once the most highly paid star in the world, but when she died, much of her savings had been spent on alcohol and a drug habit.

Books have been written about her, museums dedicated to her, movies honour her life. The last, La Vie en Rose, won a Best Actress Academy Award for Marion Cotillard. 

Piaf - The woman, the songstress and story-teller. Piaf. The tortured soul.

All are succinctly brought to life in Roger Peace's Piaf: Love Conquers All,  on at the The Centaur Theatre until February 8.

This is a must see for the die-hard fan.  There is no embellishment here, just pure Piaf relating stories and singing.

Written by Montrealer Roger Peace in 1992 for Patsy Gallant, the show was part of a trilogy of plays on strong women who had all  suffered difficult lives and left their marks on society.  Edith Piaf had a life that is great fodder for any writer. (Even her name had drama attached to it. She was named Edith after Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed in World War 1 for helping French soldiers escape from their German captors.) The second part of the trilogy, 'Songs and Stories of the Red Hot Mama', created for Geraldine Doucet, focused on Sophie Tucker who, because she was overweight , also suffered difficult times as a Vaudeville performer, as did Billie Holiday who was brought to life by Ranee Lee in 'White Gardenia'. All written by Peace.

Each unique, each tormented, each very talented, these ladies drew on their painful pasts for inspiration.

That's exactly what drew Peace to the women. “Somehow when women have suffered, it stands out and affects you more.  Look at Piaf. If you tried to make up something like that, no one would believe you:  She was blind from age 3 to 7, her only child died of meningitis at the age of 3, she had to pimp herself so she could get money to bury the little girl and later in life she was also accused of murder. 

 And yet, she believed, she believed that love conquered all”. In fact, a relic was found on her possession after she died that had those very words engraved on it. And she truly did believe it.

All of that pain and suffering is reflected in her music, “she sings her stories – stories of love and passion”. Fire and passion that reaches out to people and speaks so profoundly.

Peace has isolated these very qualities and written most eloquently about the lady who has tugged at the heartstrings of so many. 

Alan Sandler produced the original production of Piaf: Love Conquers All at La Diligence in English and French staring Gallant, and it did so well, it was transferred to Place des Arts towards the end of 1992.  She received standing ovations for her performance every single night.

More recently, the show enjoyed great success off-Broadway with Montreal's Naomi Emmerson in the lead.  It won 'Outstanding Musical' at The Fringe Festival in New York and was so popular that it was given a three month extended run at The Soho Playhouse. Prior to that it was chosen by the Toronto Fringe Festival as 'Most Popular Show' of 300 productions.

And now, here it is, once again, at The Centaur Theatre with Emmerson in the lead.

Emmerson was first introduced to the show when she was asked to play Piaf on television in “Here's to the Ladies”(including Holiday and Tucker). Gallant wasn't able to continue due to contractual obligations. She was off to Paris with 'Starmania'.

While an actor may breath life into a role, it is the writer who digs out the juicy bits, deciphers thoughts of the real life character, transfers them to the page and pulls everything together into a tight package of emotions and rich story-telling for our entertainment.

Peace has created a tight, very focused and profound piece of work into which Emmerson can throw herself with complete artistic abandon. 

Piaf was a tiny lady, usually dressed in black.  In fact, her tour of the US nearly came to a halt because she lacked what most North Americans saw intrinsic to a French singer - sophistication.

Perhaps she hadn't the sophistication or class.  She was, however, a lady of grace. That is what audiences in North America finally recognized in the diminutive form that walked out on stage to sing in a language they couldn't understand. Her persona was hypnotic, her voice compelling.

Watching Emmerson, its hard to see her as anyone else but Piaf.  There was lip-synching in the 2007 movie. But not here.  Just great acting and a voice incredibly like the little Sparrow's. Deep, moving and wasted. Ahhhh, but that's acting, isn't it.  And Emmerson does it so well.

And as for the author: well done Roger Peace. Which is the next of the great ladies to grace your pages?  Judy Garland?

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