Category Archives: Interview

Interview with Sarah Rodgers (Thoroughly Modern Millie)

The air is sweltering in Vancouver this week, and I have plans to see Thoroughly Modern Millie again tonight at TUTS in Stanley Park.   I’m hoping against rational belief that this evening’s temperatures will cool to something more bearable.

If you haven’t already been to TUTS yet, go see both shows.  It’s a great pairing this season; the ever-popular and solid Annie (read my review) and the thoroughly fabulous Thoroughly Modern Millie (read my review).

Sarah Rodgers has spent the past few years directing musicals, but it’s been a while since she’s acted and sung in one.  This summer Rodgers is returning to her roots as she hams it up playing the villainous Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie at Theatre Under the Stars.  Rodgers gave us a few of her thoughts regarding her role.

Rodgers on musicals:

“I’ve been directing a lot of musicals in this city and having a ball with it and just loving it.  I’ve done the last three seasons at Gateway Theatre. I directed Emily, My Fair Lady and last year, Guys and Dolls.

But before that I have been a professional actor for over 15 years and I did perform in musicals years ago. But it’s been a while and I am just thrilled to be back on the stage, singing, (laughs) kicking up my heels.”

Danny Kim, Sarah Rodgers and Aaron Lau in TUTS production of <i>Thoroughly Modern Millie</i>.  Photo by Tim Matheson.

Danny Kim, Sarah Rodgers and Aaron Lau in TUTS' production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Rodgers on preparing for the role:

“I have to learn a Chinese accent, and in all honesty, I have to learn a very over-the-top, stereotypical, and for lack of a better word, a bad Chinese accent.  Because I play a character who thinks she’s a wonderful actor.  There’s a lovely footnote in the script that says ‘it is not important that Mrs Meers’ Chinese accent be good, but it is important that she thinks it is good (laughs).’

I worked with a student of mine [at UBC] who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada.  He sat down with me and I taped him and he helped me greatly with the accent.  I also had to do a lot of work.   . . . a lot of coaching and work on singing, just because I haven’t sung, myself, in many years.  So of course, I’ve been working privately on that.  Just prepping and preparing vocally.”

Rodgers on the 1967 film version of Thoroughly Modern Millie:

“I am a huge fan and I was probably not born when the movie came out.   But, they were showing it in reruns. My mother and I would watch it on the television every year.  I’m a huge fan of Mary Tyler Moore and Julie Andrews. So, I know the film inside out, love it, love it, love it!  [In the play] the character Mrs Meers is very different, which is fun for me.  I’m reinventing it and making it completely new because she doesn’t play her as an Asian woman in the film at all.  They’ve totally changed it, they’ve made it even campier and it is a crazy, crazy depiction.

But of course it’s supposed to be a real send-up on the woman and I end up going to jail, I think, for my bad accent (laughs).  Mrs. Meers ends up going to jail and the Asian sidekick gets the beautiful girl, so it all works out well in the end.”

Rodgers on playing the villain:

“I’m loving it and I would say that it’s a new venture for me as an actor.  I’m not used to playing the villains, or the old broad.  I wake up one morning and suddenly I’m playing the old broad in the show.  When did that happen?  I’ve been playing ingénues all my life (laughs), I’m used to playing the Mary Tyler Moore role. It’s a great comic role, wonderful, wonderful comic role. It’s a great character part and it’s fun being the bad guy. Who knew?”

Rodgers on Beatrice Lillie:

“From the film itself, I am a huge fan of Beatrice Lillie and a lot of people of this generation don’t know [her]. But Bea Lillie was a famous vaudevillian actress and she was also, a lot of people called her the first female comedian.  I am so honoured to be playing a Beatrice Lillie role. I’m beside myself.

There’s one thing that she does in the film which is absolutely ridiculous.  She barks at the boys. She barks at them and she says ‘shu sho, shu sho.’ Of course the first thing I wanted to know was what does ‘shu sho’ mean, because that’s the one bit of Chinese that she uses in the film. She says it quite a lot and in a way that you think she’s saying hurry up, hurry up, get going, ‘shu sho.’ And it means absolutely nothing, I found out.  , Well I put it into the show.  I do it twice in the show and that’s a treat really for the diehards.”

Tickets are still available through Tickets Tonight. Thoroughly Modern Millie plays every other night at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park at 8 pm until August 22nd.

An Interview with Naomi Emmerson (Piaf: Love Conquers All)

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.

Piaf: Love Conquers All opens tonight at the Firehall Arts Centre and plays until August 2nd.  Tickets are available online.

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.

Naomi Emmerson as Edith Piaf in Piaf: Love Conquers All.  Photo by Larry Auerbach.

Naomi Emmerson as Edith Piaf in Piaf: Love Conquers All. Photo by Larry Auerbach.

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.”