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Louise Pitre: Canada’s ‘First Lady of the Musical Theatre’ Comes to Seattle with ‘Marie, Dancing Still’

by Steve Duffy
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Apr 4, 2019
When librettist Lynn Ahrens saw the Edgar Degas statue “Little Dancer” in Washington’s National Gallery of Art for the first time, she wondered what the story was behind the statue. She explored what she could learn about Marie van Goethem, the 14-year old ballet dancer who modeled for the artist in 1880 while a student at the Paris Opera Ballet dance school, and learned the teenage Marie, who came from a working class background, abandoned dance not long after posing for Degas, having been dismissed from school because of too many absences the following year. In her dismissal, she was reprimanded for spending too many evenings in a number of Paris’s less savory nightclubs. Ahrens saw the intersection of classical dance and Impressionist art as the basis of a musical, and turned to her long-time collaborator Stephen Flaherty (“Once on this Island,” “Ragtime” and the current hit “Anastasia”) to create a musical about Marie.

The result is “Marie, Dancing Still,” a new musical that is currently at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre where it plays until April 14 with its eye on a Broadway run. The show had previously played the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in 2014 under the title of “Little Dancer,” where it starred New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Tiler Peck as Young Marie. Peck returns to the role in the new production, where she is joined by Broadway veterans Terrence Mann, Karen Ziemba, Dee Hoty and Louise Pitre, who plays Marie’s older self. Five-time Tony winner Susan Stroham directs and choreographs.

Often called the First Lady of Canadian theater, Ms. Pitre came to fame on Broadway when she won the much-coveted role of Donna Sheridan in the original New York cast of “Mamma Mia!” after playing the role in Toronto. Her performance won a Tony nomination. She also played the role in Toronto and on tour. She also played Fantine in “Les Mis√©rables” (Toronto, Montreal and Paris), the title character in “Edith Piaf,” Mama Rose in “Gypsy” (at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, directed by Gary Griffin) and Joanne in “Company” (again with Gary Griffin).

Ms. Pitre made her Carnegie Hall debut in he role of Ulrika in the concert version of the musical “Kristina” by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, which she reprised at Royal Albert Hall. She also premiered her original, solo show “On The Rocks” at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille in 2013 with original songs by Louise Pitre, W. Joseph Matheson and Diane Leah. Over her career, she won four Dora Mavor Moore awards in Toronto (“Mamma Mia!,” “Toxic Avenger,” “Piaf,” and “Blood Brothers”).

There’s little rest for Ms. Pitre after “Marie, Dancing Still” closes: on April 26 she stars in a production of “Next to Normal” at Toronto’s CAA Theatre. EDGE spoke to Ms. Pitre about her role in “Marie, Dancing Still,” being considered the Canada’s leading musical theater star, and what are her favorite roles.

EDGE: Are you excited about performing in Seattle?

Louise Pitre: I am very excited. I have never been to Seattle. My husband and I have talked so often about coming here, because we are into food, wine, and water. It’s a savvy theatre and ballet town. 

EDGE: First thought when you hear you are regarded as “Canada’s first lady of musical theatre?”

Louise Pitre: I always think of my mother and how she always told me to be humble. It’s an honor and a beautiful thing to hear. It’s very humbling and I take it as a validating complement. 

EDGE: What about the character of Marie attracts you to her?

Louise Pitre: I was intrigued by the story. I know Degas and I know his work and I knew the sculpture, but I did not know her story and that she had actually vanished after the sculpture was exhibited. After they sent me the score and the script, I bought the book “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” by Camille Laurens. I was mystified by the story. This story is true and fiction because we don’t know what really happened to Marie van Goethem. 

EDGE: How did you prepare for this role since there is so aspects of both fiction and non-fiction to the story? 

Louise Pitre: In reading the book and then talking to Lynn, Stephen, and Susan, they had decided that she had survived. I look at how she was as a young girl and how they worked at the Paris Opera Ballet and how they were worked to the bones. I loved how Degas pictured her in the sculpture certainly gave me indication of what kind of person she was. She was not a soft little apologetic person, she was tough and got through the grind of that work basically to help her mother and sisters survive.

EDGE: Any rituals you perform when you debut at a new theatre?

Louise Pitre: No, not really. I guess my pre-show ritual for this show is my walk to the theatre, which is all up hill, thinking about going through my opening number. I come out of the gate with the first number. It’s a big one that I lead and it’s full of all kinds of lyrics and music, and a scary way to start the show.

EDGE: Talk to me about taking on Stephen Flaherty’s music. 

Louise Pitre: It’s been a dream of mine forever to be in a new Flaherty musical. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat on my terrace with a glass of wine in hand and throwing my wish to the stars that I may debut a new Flaherty musical one day before I am too old. His music has always reminded me of why I have been in this business. 

EDGE: As an accomplished singer, television actor, and cabaret performer, do you have a favorite?

Louise Pitre: That’s tough, but I do think that musical theatre and being in a musical is my favorite feeling. I do love performing in concerts because then I get to choose the songs that I sing and wear pretty gowns. Being in a really good musical is perhaps the most complete feeling where you get to act, sing, and move. Most importantly, it’s the community feeling that you get when you are telling a story and touching the audience with some kind of emotion. 

EDGE: You’ve had a lot of great roles. How have they shaped you as a person?

Louise Pitre: Some are more demanding than others. I think I always use a part of myself in each role; but some roles and directors, have taught me to either use less of myself or more. My most demanding role to date was when I played Mama Rose. Director Gary Griffin made me go to places that I have not gone to before as an actor. I have never been so exhausted and proud at the same time. 

EDGE: What do you hope the audience learns from “Marie?”

Louise Pitre: That it is possible to see a piece of musical theatre that incorporates not only theatre and music, but also ballet. “Marie” is the most stunning visual of art on stage that I have ever been apart of. I think they will learn it is possible to see a beautiful painting come to life. It honors the different performing arts to such a heightened degree while telling a story. 

For more information about Louise Pitre, visit her website. For more information about “Marie, Dancing Still” at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle, WA, visit the theater’s website.