What: Piaf! The Show
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Wednesday March 20, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $63.50-$73.50 from the Royal McPherson box office, by phone at 250-386-6121, or online at rmts.bc.ca
When singer Édith Piaf made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1956, her New York City concert drew praise from major media outlets, including The New York Times, which dubbed her the “high priestess of agony.”
She would return to Carnegie Hall for one final concert, in 1957, before her death at the age of 47 in 1963.
Anne Carrère, 34, who plays the French icon in Piaf! The Show, found herself on stage as Piaf at Carnegie Hall in 2017, on the 60th anniversary of Piaf’s last performance at the hallowed hall. The performance elicited similar raves from the newspaper — “Ms. Carrère can miraculously capture Piaf’s soul and timbre,” it reported.
It has been a rapid rise for Carrère, who was a relative unknown when she took on what would become the role of a lifetime in 2015. The touring production conceived and directed by French visionary Gil Marsalla has sold upwards of a million tickets in more than 50 countries, with stops in Canada getting underway this week.
Piaf! The Show arrives in Victoria for a performance Wednesday at The Royal Theatre, one of nearly 100 shows on Carrère’s itinerary as Piaf this year.
“It is a lot of touring,” Carrère said with a laugh from her home in the south of France, with assistance from a translator. “And a lot of singing.”
Piaf — born Édith Giovanna Gassion — died of cancer more than five decades ago, but her legacy has flourished, thanks to touring productions like Piaf! The Show and films such as 2007’s La Vie en rose, for which Marion Cotillard won the Academy Award for best actress in the role of Piaf.
Carrère said she studied the latter in preparation for her role in the touring production, but she also made contact with several Piaf collaborators and friends, including composer Charles Dumont and singer Germaine Ricord, who compared Carrère’s voice to “that of Édith Piaf at the top of her career.”
“I’ve watched a lot of videos and I’ve see the movies,” she said. “I also met with people who knew her, friends of Édith Piaf, and they told me anecdotes about her life.”
Her biggest hill to climb, however, was mirroring Piaf’s melancholic, sonorous voice. The “little sparrow of Paris” inspired legions of chansonnières with her music, but her life story is equally well known. Carrère was a Piaf newbie prior to her current role, so the learning curve was steep where acting was concerned.
“When I was a little girl, I knew of Édith Piaf for two songs: La Vie en rose and Hymne à l’amour. My grandmother listened to these songs at home, but I discovered the life of Édith Piaf during my years on this show.”
Raised in a Parisian bordello, Piaf was a street-smart kid with an uncanny knack for pitch-perfect singing. At 14, she was singing on the streets of Paris for money, and though she would encounter much sacrifice and sorrow — her daughter, Marcelle, died in 1934 at the age of two from meningitis, when Piaf was 19, while her mentor, Louis Leplee, was murdered in 1936 — it sharpened her infamous toughness to a fine point.
Piaf! The Show is split into two 45-minute halves, the first part tackling her days on the streets. In fact, it was the early portion of the performance that initially caught Carrère by surprise.
“I love the first part,” she said. “The audience doesn’t know all the songs, and it’s a challenge to discover the unknown. It is a lot to sing for two hours, but it is necessary.”
Piaf was one of the first global superstars in music, due to her bilinguality, and a series of performances on The Ed Sullivan Show gave her wide exposure to American audiences.
That aspect of her career is explored during the show’s second half, Carrère said. “The first part is the life of Édith Piaf on the streets, and the songs are when she was unknown. The second part is Édith Piaf when she was a success, so we sing the most famous songs.”
Piaf hits La Vie en rose, Padam Padam, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and L’Accordéoniste have all become touchstones of contemporary music. Piaf! The Show brought these and others back to life, and with lush sets backed by previously unreleased photographs of Piaf, has succeeded in creating a tribute that stands on its own as a singular piece of entertainment. The production has toured widely during its run, including dates in China, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, and Australia, which is a large part of the appeal for Carrère.
“Every show is different. Every audience is different. It’s incredible to meet different people in different cities. It’s very rich for my heart and my soul to travel around the world.”