Entertainment

Francofolies: An Edith Piaf Tribute

by Jonathan Leaf
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Sunday Sep 22, 2013
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Singers performed 20 songs in honor of Edith Piaf
Singers performed 20 songs in honor of Edith Piaf  (Source:Beacon Theater)

Edith Piaf wasn’t the only one absent from "Francofolies: An Edith Piaf Tribute," the Beacon Theater’s concert on Thursday night commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of her death.

Also missing were Marianne Faithfull and Charles Aznavour. While both singers had been scheduled to attend, Aznavour’s failure to appear was more conspicuous as Piaf had discovered and promoted him at the beginning of his career.

Whatever the cause of the delinquency, it can be safely said that Faithfull and Aznavour were the ones who lost out. For the capacity, mostly Francophone, crowd in attendance was not at all nonchalant in its appreciation of the performance of twenty songs connected to Piaf.

Should readers not be familiar with the four-foot-eight-inch chanteuse, Piaf was the most popular French cabaret performer of the twentieth century. Born Edith Gassion and raised partly in a Parisian brothel, the singer began her career on the streets and then came to perform in fancy nightclubs and music halls under the name, Piaf, which means "little sparrow." (If you are indeed not acquainted with her, you may wish to watch the Oscar-nominated film of a few years back, starring Marion Cotillard, about her life. Although over-the-top, it does tell the story with some reasonable degree of accuracy.)

Organized by the 28-year-old La Rochelle, France-based music festival Francofolies, the concert was shot for French television, and, as such, it included celebrity appearances by French, British and American celebrities. Likely best known among the anglophone interpreters was a surprisingly lackluster Harry Connick, Jr. who gave a perfectly accurate but unemotional reading of Piaf’s most famous tune, "La vie en rose."

The concert’s roster of inspired French performers included many names that will be less known to Americans, but among these were Piaf’s now 84-year old songwriter collaborator Charles Dumont, Telephone lead singer Jean-Louis Aubert, Patricia Kaas and French Pop Idol ("Nouvelle Star") winner Christophe Willem.

The concert’s roster of inspired French performers included Charles Dumont, Telephone lead singer Jean-Louis Aubert, Patricia Kaas and French Pop Idol ("Nouvelle Star") winner Christophe Willem.

It was Willem who provided the evening’s high point with an astonishing rendition of Piaf’s affecting "Mon Dieu." Speaking in English momentarily, the show’s peppy bow-tied Master of Ceremonies Francois Xavier Demaison introduced Willem as "The Voice," and Willem more than lived up to the billing, displaying an almost unbelievable combination of vocal power and complete ease in moving about the very top of the male range.

The song, "Mon Dieu," is about a woman asking God for a few more days with her lover. Yet Willem brought it to life, and made it seem fresh and vital.

Other highlights included Madeline Payroux’s performance of the Piaf hit "Padam Padam," which is about a women listening for her lover’s footsteps, and the British singer Duffy’s account of Piaf’s "Hymn To Love." Lavishly produced, the show included a 26-piece onstage band and elaborate lighting and visual effects. In the case of "Hymn To Love," the song was backed not only by a big string section and drums but also by a montage of films and photos showing Piaf’s greatest love, the married middleweight boxing champion Marcel Cerdan. The audience was visibly moved by this presentation as almost all in attendance were aware that Piaf’s affair with Cerdan was cut short by his death in a plane crash.

This was, of course, but one of the many tragedies that befell the singer who also experienced temporary youthful blindness, the passing of her only child from meningitis, repeated near fatal car crashes and her own early demise from liver cancer.

Other visual compilations during the show featured Piaf’s frequent performances on the Ed Sullivan Show and at Carnegie Hall. Sadly, these clips pointed up her superiority to many of the celebrities on the stage interpreting her most famous songs. One could not but be struck by the greater presence Piaf displayed, and the greater poignancy of her takes on ballads like "Johnny tu n’es pas un ange." Also notable was the far greater clarity in her diction than that shown by rockers like Aubert and Alex Hepburn.

Nonetheless -- and in spite of a certain amount of kitsch during the show -- it was in all a beautiful and affecting night of tribute to a profound artist who is not yet forgotten.

"Francofolies: An Edith Piaf Tribute" was performed on Sept. 19 at the Beacon Theater, 2124 Broadway in New York. It was recorded for France 2. For more information, visit www.beacontheatre.com/events/2013/september/francofolies.html‎

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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