When Dietrich met Piaf: The Angel and the Sparrow takes flight

Louise Pitre and Carly Street play Édith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich in a musical about their tempestuous friendship, at the Segal Centre.
JIM BURKE, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE
Published on: April 11, 2018

It’s a safe bet that mixing the fervid passion of Édith Piaf with the cool aloofness of Marlene Dietrich will brew up some dramatic thunder when The Angel and the Sparrow opens at the Segal Centre this weekend. The casting choices for these two legendary divas certainly won’t hurt the show’s chances.

Piaf is being played by “the First Lady of Canadian musical theatre,” Louise Pitre. Pitre, who has played Piaf several times before, will be forever associated in Montreal with that other tragic waif of the Parisian streets, Fantine, whom Pitre played in the francophone première of Les Misérables in 1991.

Carly Street, who plays Dietrich, is perhaps less of a household name, but Montreal theatregoers still have fond if trembling memories of her demoniacal dominatrix in the 2014 Centaur/Canadian Stage production of Venus in Fur.

Written by Daniel Grosse Boymann and Thomas Kahry, The Angel and the Sparrow begins with Piaf’s legendary but doomed 1960s comeback performance of Non, je ne regrette rien before taking us back to the ’40s, when Piaf and Dietrich met in a ladies’ bathroom in New York.

Pitre, speaking to the Montreal Gazette during a break in rehearsals, takes up the story.

“Piaf had just performed in New York,” she says. “It was tough at first, because New Yorkers didn’t know quite what to make of her. So she was there crying in the stall over how bad it had gone. But then Marlene, who has by that time conquered America, takes her under her wing.

“I was aware they knew each other — Marlene was Édith’s maid of honour when she married Jacques Pills — but none of the Piaf shows I did before really dealt with her relationship with Marlene, so I didn’t know it was quite such a tight bond that was, perhaps, more than just a friendship.”

Ah, yes — those rumours that Piaf was an honorary member of what Dietrich called “the sewing circle,” that closeted group of Hollywood women from which she allegedly drew several of her many lovers.

Pitre says it’s pretty much a given in this show that Piaf and Dietrich were lovers for at least part of their long, tumultuous friendship. But even if there were no truth in the rumour, there’s still plenty of dramatic spark to be had, not least in the wildly contrasting personalities of the two women.

Piaf famously fell heavily into tragic all-or-nothing relationships, while Dietrich was seen as something of an ice queen capable of keeping things in perspective when it came to her affairs with a veritable who’s who of celebrities.

Things weren’t as black and white, however. Piaf, the vulnerable “little sparrow,” could be a ferociously tough sparrow hawk, too. (Pam Gems’s hit ’70s play Piaf gave an X-rated taste of this side of her personality.) As for Dietrich, her image was perhaps set with her performance as the heartless temptress in the classic 1930 film The Blue Angel. But there was clearly more to her than that.

“Carly has done a wonderful job in mastering the elegance and poise and restraint of Dietrich,” says director Gordon Greenberg. “But she also shows how she fought to keep (this image), and that it could sometimes become a strain. (Dietrich’s) putting up the armour and taking a step back to an aloof position became a form of protection for her.”

Greenberg and Pitre have worked together twice before, first on Luck Be a Lady, a show about songwriting giant Frank Loesser, then in a Mirvish workshop production of an all-female version of Man of La Mancha. That last intriguing project proved to have a touch of the quixotic about it — it never made it to a full production — but Greenberg and Pitre were determined to work together again.

When the Mirvish company told Greenberg they would love to see Pitre play Piaf again (she played her in a ’90s musical and recorded a concert CD of Piaf songs in 2011), he jumped at the idea.

“Louise is probably the foremost interpreter of Édith Piaf in the world,” says Greenberg. “I have been a fan of Louise’s since I saw her in (the Broadway première of) Mamma Mia! and thought: this woman is bringing extraordinary humanity and truth and energy to a jukebox musical. I think that’s a huge part of why the show landed so well.”

Although The Angel and the Sparrow seems to have been something of a jukebox musical itself when it first played in Germany in 2014, Greenberg insists it has been deepened and strengthened in this new adaptation by Erin Shields, the Governor General’s Award-winning writer of If We Were Birds.

But fans of the two women’s remarkable repertoires should have no regrets buying tickets, nor wonder where all the hits have gone: the show still features some 20 musical numbers.

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