Piaf Remembered is a 50 minute theatrical and musical production by Gary Merry (Director/Writer/Spoken Word), Katy Jungmann (co-producer and also performing on Saxophone/Clarinet/Accordion ) starring French born, London based cabaret artist, singer and performer Oriana Curls as Edith Piaf that is currently in performance at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Symposium Hall.
In this production, we look at Edith Piaf as a performer from the unusual perspective of a man remembering back 55 years to being taken as an 8 year old boy by his father to Edith Piaf’s last live concert performance at The Olympia Paris in 1962. Both Gary and Oriana were kind enough to take some time out of their busy schedules to do this short interview.
1. This production of Piaf Remembered takes an unusual look at a young 8 year old boy being taken to Edith Piaf’s last live performance at Olympia Paris in 1962, and our performance by Oriana as Edith Piaf is as a vivid memory. How did that idea come about?
GARY - The idea was actually one between Katy and myself and we wanted to look at Edith Piaf as a performer but do something different with the format, something that also had a theatrical story to it as well as a musical performance. The idea of viewing the performance as the childhood memories of the narrator fitted that outline. We were both lucky enough to find Oriana and knew that we had found our Edith Piaf.
ORIANA - For me, it was the originality of the idea that really interested me in this project. The telling of someone’s story and memories of seeing Edith Piaf perform. I don’t think I would have been that interested if it had just been a performance of me performing as Piaf alone. The project also came along at a time when I was able to fit the project into my other performance schedules.
2. There are really two performances here on stage. Oriana Curls as Edith and Gary Merry as Robert. I found your performance of Robert to be so believable that there were at times “could it be” questions, but the strange thing of this show is that although “Piaf Remembered” is actually Robert’s story, this part always in most audiences’ minds takes second place to Oriana’s performance as Edith Piaf. How do you feel about that?
GARY - I have no problems with that at all, there are many different elements to this story and this production and the memory of the narrator seeing Piaf perform as a young boy has never left him, so the more I can bring you into that memory as a performer and into Oriana’s space as a performer of that Piaf memory, the more I know that my story is working and the audience are coming into the world of my memories.
3. Oriana, you have a solid reputation as a live performer across many genres including cabaret. In this performance Edith Piaf has no commentary with the audience other than the performance of the songs. Did you find that difficult to do as a performer on stage? Did some part of you still want to talk to and interact with your audience?
ORIANA - Being used to always interacting with an audience, part of this was difficult, but that was also part of what attracted me to the project. For once I was able to react only to the music and words as a performer and almost become someone else on stage here. I could perform a song then come back into the space that I had created as Piaf.
4. How difficult was it for Oriana Curls as a performer to do this role? There must be a fine line where you want to capture a little of the spirit of Edith Piaf but always retain enough of your own self as a performer to present something unique on stage.
ORIANA - No one involved in this project, including myself, wanted this to be an Edith Piaf tribute act, so there is still a lot of my personality on stage, particularly in more expressive arm and head movements than Edith Piaf used. I do have that classic black dress, black hair look onstage though, so I do have a visual resemblance to Piaf – even if at a younger time in her life than she would have been for these original shows
GARY - That is actually part of the story, our narrator’s memories are 55 years old, they are the memories of a young boy, and our memories often change with age.
5. There are some iconic Piaf songs in this performance – La Vie En Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien of course have to be there, but also some that maybe are not that well known to non French audiences. Was that a deliberate choice?
GARY - Yes, we were trying to show that Piaf sang many types of songs, but for the most part we have stuck to songs that would have been in the original concert set list.
6. How difficult was it to capture the spirit of these songs, as they have real stories and almost a life of their own. In the wrong performer’s hands these songs can so easily just become nothing more than words, and some like “La Vie en Rose” can so easily become bad Karaoke. Oriana, you give a very personal and powerful performance here, but these are difficult songs to sing.
ORIANA - These songs are all wonderful stories and I have heard them played all around me as I was growing up. I am also of an age now to have experienced enough things in my life to understand now not only the words, but the emotions of these songs just like Piaf did. These songs are wonderful songs for an expressive performer like myself to get the chance to sing.
7. Many people will automatically think of La Vie En Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien for Edith Piaf songs but, for me, the great Edith Piaf song is always Hymne à l'amour and you can always feel her pain at the loss of her lover Marcel Cerdan in this song. I loved your performance of this song when I saw the show. How do you feel about this song?
ORIANA - This is one of my favourite songs too. If you have experienced that loss of someone you love, then you will immediately understand the words and the emotions of this song.
GARY - I also think that musically, this was one of Piaf’s best songs.
8. The French “Chansons Francais” songbook is to me one of the few collections of work from the 20th century to rival “The Great American Songbook”, yet their approach to telling a story is often very different, there is a far darker side of life in the French songs. Do you think the darkness of the subject matter is what drew Edith Piaf to many of these songs?
GARY - Perhaps, but I think that with her upbringing Piaf would well have understood the darker side of life. It has to be remembered though that in her private life Piaf was like all of us happy and sad at different times, but her private life did overall seem to be a happy one for a lot of the time.
ORIANA - As a performer these songs are wonderful because you are always drawn to the contrasting light and darkness of their stories.
9. Following on from that songbook statement – the great American songwriter Johnny Mercer adapted “Les Feuilles Mortes” and gave English lyrics to “Autumn Leaves”. Would either of you have liked to have found a way to get this English language song into the French language set somehow?
ORIANA - It’s a beautiful song, but from the outset this was always going to be a French language song performance by Piaf.
10. Edith Piaf recorded some of her best known songs in English too, but for me, for some reason they never really worked as well as the original French language recordings. Some of the reasons for that failure were, I think, that sometimes there was just no literal French to English translation possible, but also these songs were written in French to the rhythm and beat of that language and not English. Would you agree with those statements?
GARY - Yes, they are French songs written for the French language and with a specific rhythm and metre to them. So much of that care in crafting the words and the music is lost when translated to another language.
ORIANA - For myself, I cannot imagine singing Piaf songs in anything but French.
11. I speak only a few words of French, but somehow from a performer like Piaf or from Oriana is this show, you instinctively understand the emotions of the song. Your narrator himself comments on this. Why do you think that is so?
GARY - It is a combination of the words and the music meeting an emotionally expressive performer like Piaf or Oriana.
ORIANA - These songs have a story and almost a life of their own, and as a performer if you let the words and the music tell their own story with how they make you feel, then people will always understand that no matter what the language.
12. There is a very powerful but short scene here after Edith Piaf leaves the stage. Do you think that there were two distinct personalities making up Edith Piaf as a human being – the performer and the private person - as there is almost this woman who, when on stage, finds extra life through the words and music of her songs.
GARY - I think the two are very separate but they also needed each other, and it was very important for this story to show both the on stage and off stage woman that was Piaf.
13. There is a lot about Edith Piaf on the internet. At one point in the story our narrator tells us that there are over 500,000 Google references and much of the information is at least contradictory (often in Piaf’s own words), or simply untrue. For me, none of this matters for this show as this is about Edith Piaf and her music and the effect on a young 8 year old boy that hearing this music had on him not only then, but upon his life as he grew older. Everything I need to know about Piaf in “Piaf Remembered” is in the songs. Do you agree with that?
GARY - Our narrator actually says words very similar to that at one point in his story, everything you need to know is in the words and music of the songs.
14. Piaf Remembered is performed with on stage musicians - Joe Bickerstaff on piano and Katy Jungmann on clarinet, saxophone and accordion. Performing any production with live musicians is always an extra expense and many productions opt for the economy of pre-recorded backing music. How important is this to Oriana not only as a performer, but to the feel of the music and authenticity of the story?
ORIANA & GARY - We would never have considered doing this show without live musicians. Using backing tracks was never an option.
15. Where does “Piaf Remembered” go as a production after the Edinburgh Fringe?
GARY - Who knows, at specifically 50 minutes for a Fringe production the show is a bit of an odd running time, but it would be great to get the chance to develop this project further for stage and maybe there is also film project there for a future date.
Interview by Tom King
Click here to our review of Piaf Remembered