Louise Pitre’s film “On the Rocks” is a revealing portrait of the artist’s life

by Arpita Ghosal,  SesayArts Magazine | May 22, 2021
Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004 and SesayArts Magazine in 2012.

The film premiere of Louise Pitre’s On the Rocks…Stirred Not Shaken is a source of great excitement. Filmed live during its 5-day sold out run at Theatre Passe Muraille, Pitre’s 2013 solo show will premiere on May 27 – 31, 2021 through Stream Stage Productions. Now those of us who could not see her perform it on stage (or who have been itching to see it again) can get a close-up view. At home. With no fear of inferior sidelines. 

Even better? I get to talk to Pitre about it – at her request.

I have followed her career since seeing her as an astonishing Fantine in the original Canadian production of Les Misérables. Many a time, I made my way from U of T to a $15 “nosebleed” seat in the last row of the upper balcony of the Royal Alexandra Theatre to catch a matinee and then head back to school. Pitre reprised her role as Fantine in English and French, and since then, has accrued a slate of the most iconic roles in the musical-theatre canon. The colour and texture of her voice leave an indelible impression; her interpretations of roles like Fantine, Edith Piaf, Donna Sheridan (which she originated on Broadway and for which she received a Tony-Award nomination) and Mama Rose will forever bear her signature. Not restricted to performing in musical theatre, she has played numerous roles for television, released five solo albums, and is an in-demand recitalist at the world’s most famous concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. (Surprisingly, she has yet to star in a show at London’s West End, but that is bound to be rectified post-COVID.) 

When I launched SesayArts Magazine in 2012, I had been away from arts journalism for years. I dipped my foot back in at the request of fellow parents looking for recommendations of shows they could take their children to. Lacking the publicity contacts of my freelance days, I wrote about shows that I attended and discussed with my opinionated children. One show they saw – but I didn’t – was Young People’s Theatre’s (YPT) 2010 production of A Year with Frog and Toad co-starring Pitre and YPT’s Artistic Director Allen MacInnis. No doubt like most children in the audience, mine were ingenuously unaware that they were watching a Tony-Award nominated Broadway star from just 6 rows away. And little did they know that she would earn another Dora Award nomination for her performance. I was abroad at the time, but heard all about the show over a giddy transatlantic phone call. Despite the jetlag, I registered their enthusiasm. How cool, I thought, that mother and young children now have a favourite artist in common. 

In 2014, I profiled Pitre about playing Miss Hannigan in YPT’s production of the musical Annie. In that interview, I experienced her warmth, candour and lack of pretension. For a performer with a big presence and a global reputation, she had little ego. She personably and animatedly answered all of my questions. She offered advice to young people about watching shows from the heart, confessed her Quixotic quest to find the world’s best potato chip (Cape Cod Russets being the forerunner at the time and now supplanted by the “AMAZING” ones at Barrie’s Asparagus Farm that are “homemade and absolute perfection!!!!!”). She even agreed to meet my children after a show. And she did it all with a laidback humour and sensitivity. The icing on the cake was an email from Pitre thanking me for the piece, calling it a rare one because she could truly recognize herself. 

Of course, we have since seen her in many more shows because Pitre the international star is riveting on stage. But we have also never lost our appreciation of that homespun humanity, humility and lack of affectation. 

So who else is Louise Pitre? What else is she about? A mid-pandemic email from her asking if I would like to write about the film premiere of On the Rocks…Stirred Not Shaken feels like an invitation to answer these questions, and get to know the artist through her art. The show, which she wrote and performed, is based on Pitre’s life. It features songs that she co-wrote with her husband, actor W. Joseph Matheson, and on which she is accompanied on piano by long-time collaborator Diane Leah. The show was produced with an all-female creative team, led by director Jen Shuber. 

The show was born out of a request from Theatre Passe Muraille’s then Artistic Director Andy McKim and General Manager Kendra Fry to create something for their theatre. “They said they wanted something musical,” Pitre recalls, so she bravely decided to write a deeply personal show with all original songs: “This is not a journey through the shows I have done, but rather a pretty hard and honest look at the artist herself.”

Having done “so many shows and concerts”, Pitre began by writing down thoughts about how she felt in general. She smiles: “gradually, it became obvious that I wanted to be ME. Plus the fact that my mother had recently given me the best surprise: she had kept my childhood drawings and my Barbie all these years without me knowing. I could not believe how I felt seeing those things again, and that is what gave me the initial idea to go personal.” The show’s production photos show Pitre not in her usual evening gown, but in a three-piece suit with tails reminiscent of a symphony conductor (or, as befits her wry sense of humour, a circus ringmaster). With her striking silver pixie cut, the look promises an entertaining tour of her curated memories . . . with a few audacious twists in store.

Yes, she nods, the intimacy of her show requires vulnerability. “It is basically like taking my clothes off. That is why I chose that photo for the poster.” And how does she feel about using that revealing photo years after it was taken?”  She beams, explaining that the photo is a testament to “working out like a crazy woman all these years” –  her “big pay-off!. And I am really proud of that.” 

Pitre wrote the book of On the Rocks…. on her own, with Shuber’s expert eye to guide her. “My husband and I have written songs together before, but this was special because he wrote lyrics about me that sound like they were written by me……although he is more poetic!!” And why did she decide that now would be a good time to show the film? For many reasons, it turns out: “Because I have never shown this film. Because I am proud of it. Because these last many months have made me wonder if I can actually remember what it feels like to be in front of an audience. Because I want to feel it again!” 

Before the sudden shuttering of the arts in March 2020, Pitre had been anticipating performance dates abroad, and was smack in the middle of a run of The Times They Are a ‘Changin’  with her husband at the Segal Centre in Montreal. The show’s title seems prescient, considering all that has happened since. Although she profoundly misses live performance, Pitre is not a glass half-empty person: “The one concrete great thing that has come out of this is that all of a sudden you have TIME!!!!!!” Time that she has used to co-write a musical for children with her husband and pianist Diane Leah, who is also Musical Director. “We are thrilled with what we have — and we will, at least, have this to show for all this time!!!!”

Until that show’s debut, the On the Rocks… film will give us a welcome glimpse into the life of Pitre the creator at the top of her game — and whet our appetite for seeing her perform live once more. The May 27th premiere will include a Q&A with her. And while Pitre will inevitably leave us wanting more (having inspired still more curiosity about her life), long-time fans are really going to appreciate spending some up-close-and-personal time with someone whose work we’ve missed.  

Click here for tickets to On the Rocks . . . Stirred Not Shaken. Follow Louise Pitre on InstagramFacebook and Twitter

© Arpita Ghosal, SesayArts Magazine, 2021  
original article: http://www.sesayarts.com/louise-pitre/