The awareness of Edith Piaf’s place in the pop culture pantheon has resurged somewhat in the last few years. That is due, largely in part, to Marion Cotillard’s captivating performance as the troubled songbird in La Môme (La Vie En Rose), for which she won a Best Acting Oscar in 2008.
This summer, Vancouver audiences can take a more intimate look at the life of Piaf in the one-woman show Piaf: Love Conquers All. Roger Peace’s English script showcases 13 of Piaf’s best-known songs in the original French.
The star of the show, Montréal-born Naomi Emmerson, has lived in the role on-and-off for the past five years, and speaks of her onstage counterpart with an odd mixture of reverence and familiarity.
Q: What makes Edith Piaf so compelling?
“It depends on who you ask, but I think the character of Edith Piaf herself is extremely compelling. Just because of her unbelievable passion towards what she did, which was to sing and to love. She had this extreme passion for making sure, no matter what, that she could do that. If it meant keeping herself standing so that she could do a concert for her loving fans by shooting up enough morphine to keep her pain-free then she would do that. If it meant dating a famous person to get herself in the newspapers then she would try to do that too.”
“For me it’s always the music too. Some of my favourite songs of hers are lyrics that she actually wrote like “La Vie En Rose”, and “Hymne à l’Amour”. [She was] a tragic figure that, sort of like watching a train wreck, you can’t look away, it’s just too fascinating.”
Q: In what ways does your show differ from the film?
“What I’ve been told from people who’ve seen them both . . . ours is a little bit uplifting in the story. But you will definitely recognize many of the stories [from the film, because it is her life. We touch on quite a few of the little stories but you actually get to experience it as if she’s in your living room telling you about [it]. I actually do engage the audience and talk to the audience. You actually have this physical feeling as if you’re with Piaf, as opposed to a third-party observer on a two-dimensional screen.”
“And then of course there’s the live music, which means anything can happen. Lyrics could be missed or the tempo could be really energetic and exciting one night. Or I might start crying in the middle of the song because of a particular thing that’s happening in my mind as I’m doing the show. There’s more of the immediate temporal thing that you never know what can happen because it’s not recorded. The people in the audience are the ones who get to experience that moment. Where in a film you can return to over and over again and you can make mistakes because you can just record it. I think this is the case in all live theatre. The experience of going and sitting in a dark room with a bunch of other strangers and allowing yourself to be with any story, that’s told on stage in front of you, is a great experience. For me there’s nothing like it, I love going to theatre. I love doing theatre.”
Q: Having played Piaf for so long, how has the experience changed for you?
“It just gets deeper and deeper; more clear in my body and in my feelings. Sometimes when I watch the video of the first time I did it, five years ago, there’s more of a level of superficiality. Now, there’s just more of a comfort and a growth within it because I know it so well. I continue to discover new things and with new audiences you discover other dynamics.”
Q: Why come to B.C. and why now?
“We wanted to expand the audience with the show and we have family who live out West. First I thought I’d bring it to ArtSpring (Salt Spring Island, BC) and thought well we can’t really afford to just do it at ArtSpring. We’d have to make a bigger meal out of it and I really wanted to reach the Vancouver audience. It’s a beautiful place and Vancouver, the whole area, is familiar with theatre arts. I was so excited to see your website. I said, OMG, this is totally amazing they have their own musical theatre website. It was really cool to see that.”
“It’s a West Coast debut and so we’re really excited to see how the audiences respond in terms of the language; the French and the English. Sometimes people will say ah, I love Piaf, and then others are like who is Piaf? So it’ll be interesting to see how many people are familiar with her. I think the movie probably helped bring up the topic again, getting people interested again in her music.”
Q: Does the show make sense to English-speaking audiences? Will they get the same experience as a Francophone one?
“With the songs, the poetry is so simple that a lot of times you can kind of tell what I’m saying. You can create an image in your own mind because the music itself is so well-written, so lush and full of story telling in itself. What I have been told by the New York audiences who are basically just English-speaking, they would say ‘I don’t even know what you were saying but I was so moved.’ Through the particular scene you can kind of extrapolate what the song is about because of what’s just happened, or where Piaf is in the story or in her emotional state. I love Brazilian music but I have no idea how to speak or understand Portuguese but I still love listening to Brazilian music. Or Cuban music and I don’t speak Spanish. I think it’s the music itself that can be the language. Of course the text is all in English, people can understand that.”
Q: Has the show ever been performed completely in French?
“We are hoping to do that, in French, hopefully next year in Québec City. We’ll see if that works. I haven’t played it in French but it has been done in French many, many years ago by Patsy Galant in Montreal. She did it in French one night and then English the next, [Québec] will be my first time doing it in French.”
Q: Finally, if you could play any role, in any musical, what would it be?
“A couple of years ago, I was exposed to Light in the Piazza. It’s funny, because I would love to sing the mother role, but I don’t know that I’m quite old enough yet. Maybe I’ll grow into that role. [It’s] a completely different type of singing than what I do with Piaf, because that’s more of a lyric, really sort of a light opera sound. With Piaf, I use a lot of my chest voice. Piaf sang with no holds barred. She just kind of sang on high volume all the time. Well, she learned to use dynamics later on. [Piazza] would be a completely different role and I love the complexity of the mother trying to let go of her adult daughter. It’s so beautiful. She’s sort of the southern belle whose husband has fallen out of love with her.”