In Paris, France, at a café I enjoyed a coffee and conversation about Gil Marsalla’s production, Piaf! The Show starring Anne Carrere. This musical extravaganza began as a tribute to “The Swallow of Montmartre” on the centennial of her birthday and was evoked by the award-winning movie about Edith Piaf’s life, La Vie En Rose. The musical production portrays the inspiring poverty to celebrity story of the Parisian singer’s career through her iconic songs back-dropped by a panoply of rare photographs from the locations Piaf knew, frequented, and performed in. Gil Marsalla, a prodigiously talented musician and performer in his own right produced, directed, and wrote Piaf! The Show which has been touring the world to sold out performances. I was thrilled that he found the time to sit down with me to discuss what is in the pipeline for this show, and some of his other productions.
Tell me a bit about what you’ve discovered on the world tour.
Piaf! The Show has become the most important French international success in the world. When we include the shows from last year and add them to the upcoming shows this year, we will be performing 300 times throughout the world in twenty-three countries. So we are very proud that 500,000 people have bought tickets to see the show. We are looking forward to Carnegie Hall on January 6, 2017.
Because of the great love many around the world have for Edith Piaf, the story which recently occurred in Athens seems to be a typical one that often occurs when people hear about Piaf! The Show, and they wait to get tickets. For example, we are going to perform the Piaf! The Show in the National Theater in Athens, Greece, the Herrodio Atticus Theater which is near the Parthenon, on the twenty-eighth of September. There is a Greek Festival going on and we will be performing during the days of the festival. Well, with the advance ticket sales, the performance is sold out and there were people clamoring for tickets to see the show. Because the demand was so great, we decided to do another show. So we will return to perform the show a second time in Athens. The second performance will be presented one week after the first one. So after the twenty-eighth of September, the second performance will be on the sixth of October.
What gave you the idea to evolve Piaf! The Show.
For twenty years, I’ve been a producer of French shows and French artists. For example, now I am in Paris producing a show with another French artist. So I don’t only produce Anne Carrere; I produce other French artists.
Would American audiences know about your French shows?
I don’t think so. It is a French market. Some are French comics. For example, I’ve produced Gad Elmaleh. (Gad is a French Comedian who has gone global, has performed at NYC’s Joe’s Pub, has been on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and will be at Carnegie Hall on February 11) He is amazing. He is like me. He wants to expand and become known outside France. So he transformed his show and adapted it to English-speaking audiences. Now he is a very big success in America. I have produced Gad Elmaleh. Currently, he is performing in English and will be at Carnegie Hall on February 11, 2017.
While we’re on the topic of artists expanding their global reach…do you see that happening, because of global awareness through social media? For example with YouTube and other internet platforms, translation is easily accomplished. There is a tremendous cross-over between and among cultures and countries.
Yes. Because of the Internet, you can see a lot of French artists. You have French artists in English. And you can go online and have the translations set up to understand it in English and other languages. What is interesting is that even prior to YouTube, French music from the Twentieth Century, for example, Charles Aznavour (he is still performing at 92 and has sold 180 million albums), Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel (he has influenced groups from Nirvana to David Bowie to Céline Dion, Sting and Nina Simone), are very famous all over the world and in the U.S.
That is why I wanted to bring Piaf! The Show to the U.S., Canada, and Asia. I saw that when I traveled and conversed with people, Americans said to me, “Hey. You’re show is wonderful. But why is it when we come to Paris we can see Moulin Rouge, we can see the Lido but we can’t see musical comedy based around French songs which we love?” So I thought it was a good idea to create a show in French, because people want it and love it and really enjoy French musical comedy.
Also, don’t forget that Edith Piaf sang French songs around the time when the American GIs and soldiers came to France in 1944. The only songs that they heard and that resonated with them were Piaf’s songs. So when they went back to America, they remembered Piaf. There is a strong connection between Americans and Piaf’s songs and Piaf.
And that, I believe, is why Americans love French songs and French people. That has contributed to creating the success of shows which have French songs. Piaf gave many performances throughout Europe. Two times she came to New York, in 1952 and 1957. And when she came to perform in 1957, the venue was very over-crowded. It was after the war and many wanted to see her because they remembered seeing her in France and remembered hearing her songs. So in 1957 in her performance at Carnegie Hall, there were so many people who wanted to see her, there were not enough seats. They put chairs on the stage to try to get as many people in as possible. There are iconic photographs of of this showing her great popularity. It was her last performance at Carnegie Hall.
You’re a producer for twenty years producing French artists. You’re in your forties, so you have a lot of experience producing French artists. How did the idea for Piaf come to you?
You know I realized that Piaf! The Show could be interesting and would work for an international tour…not only in France, but all over the world. So I researched Piaf.
You studied about her life?
Of course. That’s very important. How can you create a show if you don’t know exactly what to reveal about an artist’s life? Piaf’s career is wonderful. It includes her singing 400 songs minimum. She composed and sang 400 songs. Sometimes she worked with composers to write songs. For example, she worked with Charles Dumont. He is the composer of No Je Ne Regrette Rien and Mon Dieu. Charles Dumont is still alive and lives in Paris. He’s a wonderful man. Have you seen the film La Vie En Rose? Do you remember the young man playing the piano for her in the film? That is Charles Dumont.
I had a meeting with him and I asked him about how well he knew Edith Piaf. I asked him to tell me about her because I wanted to produce a show about Edith Piaf. After I met with him, I met with others who knew Piaf who are still alive, for example, Ginou Richer, the personal secretary of Edith Piaf who is living in Cannes. So we did a lot of interviews with these individuals and spoke to them about the show. That is the reason why we have a production that is close to the reality of Edith Piaf’s career and the songs she sang. Then afterward we needed to find the right performer.
How long after you met Charles Dumont, the secretary, and others did it take for you to pull this information and research together to write the show and select the songs?
From the time I did the interviews and met all the individuals to do the research? One year.
Then you had to find the performer. What is the time line for this?
At the end of 2014 I finished writing the show and after that we looked for the right performer. Before that I was adrift about how to construct the show and Edith Piaf’s career, so I created a lot of smaller shows in France and we tried to create experiences about a French show and Edith Piaf and the songs of France. It was not that I decided to write the show at the end of 2014. The process was longer, say five or six years before. Little performances with Piaf songs were created. We were looking for singers. We were initiating experiences and experimenting with the goal of having a production for the one hundredth anniversary of Edith Piaf in 2015. We considered that would be the time to have a larger production about Edith Piaf’s life and career. That’s the reason I wanted to include other songs and write other parts of the show and ultimately find our Edith Piaf.
So you workshopped the idea and moved toward Piaf! The Show for a number of years. Would you say it was around 5 years?
Yes. We were perfecting the performances, because with the right singer in a different production, I saw there was a lot of potential. I don’t like the word potential. Rather, there was a lot of interest.
People love her. She is historical, yet, she speaks to today. So you are driven to find your Piaf.
Yes. In 2014, I had to have another audition because by January of 2015 we needed to be ready. So I held an audition in August 2014. There is only one Edith Piaf. There is only one possibility to have someone like her. We know we are not looking for someone to imitate Edith Piaf. We are looking for someone with personal charisma, a striking voice, who is fantastic at interpreting songs. She cannot be a Piaf mimic. For twenty years, I’ve produced a lot of singers, so I have a lot of contacts in this business. We held a lot of auditions in Paris. We are looking for the “one.” I didn’t find her.
In Paris you didn’t find anyone who would be able to take on the role?
No. I was looking for someone unique. First of all, the performer who sings Edith Piaf should be very strong, very powerful. She should be someone who represents a new generation. That is the part that carries the interest for the show. We wanted to touch the new generation with her evocation of Piaf, not only for an anniversary celebration, but to reach out to a young audience of those who love Piaf. The movie La Vie En Rose with Marion Cotillard was very influential. The film touched younger audiences, especially in New York, Los Angeles on the East and West Coast because the movie was amazing.
Cotillard was the first French actress ever to win an Academy Award. That also reinforced world-wide attention to Piaf because of all the millions who watched Cotillard’s Academy Award win. The win not only promoted the film, that attention and the movie helped us. It had the attention of millions of people, old and young people alike, who saw that Piaf’s life story is amazing.
So it happened that simultaneously, I was creating another production, Paris! The Show. It is a musical comedy using the greatest songs of the Twentieth Century. And we needed to have casting for that as well. So I am auditioning for both shows. And here comes this little girl from a little village, Puget Ville, in the South of France. She’s not famous. She comes to the audition and why not let her try out? I have my two musical directors with me, Philippe Villa and Arnaud Fuste Lambezat auditioning for Paris! The Show, not the Piaf show. And Anne Carrere sings. She sang three notes and was amazing. I knew I found my Piaf.
She’s the one and you knew with three notes?
One, two, three. (Gil laughs)
What did she sing?
“La Accordeoniste.” “La Accordeoniste” is a very difficult song. It is a wonderful song, but a very, very hard song to perform. So when you want to test someone, “Ah, you want to sing Piaf? Sing ‘La Accordeoniste.’” (Gil laughs). When a singer sings La Accordeoniste very well? She’s very good.
So Anne auditioned for Paris! The Show. I changed my mind. Do I keep her for Paris! The Show? No. I asked her, “What are you going to do in 2015, 2016, 2017?” She said, “Why do you say that?” I told her, “Well, I have a little project for you. It’s the official show of Edith Piaf’s one-hundredth anniversary, and I would love for you to be my performer.” She looked at me as if to say, “Are you kidding?”
Then we began the process. For three months we worked preparing for her to be ready for the APAP Convention 2015. It is a convention of shows coming from the US, South America, etc. to New York, the first week of January to present and market their productions. Perhaps there might be 10,000 people coming to New York. It’s like a marketing convention. So we intended to be completely ready with a showcase for the convention.
How many songs were in the showcase?
It was one-half hour, perhaps 7 songs. No background from the shows, just the voice. In a showcase you don’t have any time to set up the show or have scenery. So this was just Anne’s voice. I was surprised. I have been to the convention before, but I saw that there were a lot of people there and I saw that there was a lot of interest in Piaf. And once she began her songs, the people were, “Oui, oui.” That is where I met Magda Katz (Magda is a videographer and Entertainment Journalist).
There were a lot of people who came to our venue. After that we built our tour. The tour included the NYC Symphony Space performance in October of 2015. We were three weeks on tour in the US and Canada, starting from the fifteenth of October to the fifth of November. To get an idea of where we toured in 2015 you can visit the website. There you will see that Anne has performed in the U.K., the U.S., Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, South America-Brazil, and Chili to name a few.
On the website you will see after scrolling down that Anne Carrere will appear at Carnegie Hall on the sixth of January 2017. We are using Carnegie Hall as a promotion to kick off the big U.S. tour in 2017 which will include all the major U.S. cities like Seattle, etc., in large accommodating venues. We are very proud of this.
So to recap, prior to the fifteenth of January at APAP 2015, you had worked very hard with Anne for three months convinced she is your Piaf. Were there money issues that you might discuss?
Well, I have my team for twenty years. I have a lot of musicians and we share the same thing, the passion. Money is very important in this business, but it’s not the only one thing. We need to have more passion than money.
If you don’t have the passion, the show is not good. This is my personal system. But the money is not that important because we are in Nice, this is my town, I have my venue, my team, my sound and actors. So it’s not a lot of money if we have a lot of patience because we discuss the situation with the actors, the musicians, the artists and take into consideration the scenery and other elements. The money needs to be spent on the tour because we need to go on tour and do the showcase in New York. The showcase in New York is $10,000 to just come and stay for two days.
After January 2015 what did you do?
After we did the showcase, my phone rings all the time. I made a video of the showcase in New York, just of the voice of Anne and sent out a newsletter. And one day in Paris, the most important producer in Brazil, Manoel Poladian who is huge in South America, called me and said, “Hey man. I just saw your newsletter with video links. I want this girl in South America.” I said, “Are you kidding me?” He said, “Tonight I give you the contract. You sign the contract. In March you’ll come and we’ll have a big tour in Brazil.” I said, “Just two months to create the promotion and build the tour?” He said, “Believe me, I am the most important producer in Brazil.” This guy is crazy. A month or so after, he calls me from Brazil and he says, “We are going to perform in the Teatro Municipal of Rio.” This is a huge beautiful theater that you can’t easily go inside because it’s a government venue.
I was out and when I went back to my office, I saw the contract from him. I signed the contract. Then I heard from Poland and Asia. It was the same thing. So in one month we built a world tour of 150 concerts.
That’s the effect of passion.
And Anne Carrere is good. After Symphony Space we continued the tour. As you know in Broadway and America it is very difficult to prepare and have more time to rehearse, work and present the show. But it is being performed and we have a big production and an influential way to present her.
After the production at Symphony Space in 2015 did you make changes to the show?
Of course, we are constantly working to upgrade Piaf! The Show.
Continued in Part II
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