How can any tribute match the impassioned artistry of Édith Piaf? As we saw in the event marking what would have been Frank Sinatra’s birthday on CBS on December 3, a Whitman’s Sampler of musical categories is too scattershot — but a night of carbon copies would be even worse.
On December 19, when Piaf (A Centennial Celebration) marks the hundredth year of the Little Sparrow, the nine divas onstage at Town Hall will present a cross-section of musical theater, but they all share the same deep familiarity with and respect for France’s most beloved singer. Even amid an all-star cast that includes Christine Ebersole and cabaret legend Marilyn Maye, the biggest get is undoubtedly Elaine Paige, the “greatest white female singer in the world,” according to Ella Fitzgerald.
If the name barely rings a bell, that’s not surprising. Though revered in London as the “first lady of British theater,” Paige never managed to establish a beachhead on Broadway. When her long-awaited debut finally arrived in 1996, it was in the ill-starred West End transfer of Sunset Boulevard. Her only other appearance was as part of the ensemble in the 2011 revival of Follies.
The real tragedy is that Piaf, a play with fifteen songs, proved so punishing that Paige had to cut short the 1993 production of it; moving it across the pond was out of the question. And this despite the fact that she truly inhabited the tortured soul of the singer who brought the music of the streets into Paris’s cabarets and concert halls.
Paige tells the Voice that she came to identify strongly with the chanteuse after several months of researching Piaf’s life and artistry, including a long stint in Paris. “There’s a lot about her life and beliefs that are not dissimilar to me,” she says. “We are exactly the same height and are physically similar. She was also driven and very passionate about her music. She had a great sense of humor and liked to hang with her own kind, not the glitterati. But she was also very vulnerable and came from a poverty-stricken background.”
A visit to Charles Aznavour’s apartment finally gave her the confidence that she could convey the way Piaf’s music reflected her own intensity and turmoil. The singer, who had composed for Piaf, “had a beautiful grand piano,” Paige recalls. “Much to my astonishment, he asked me to sing. He sat down and played a song he wrote for her. ‘It’s do or die,’ I thought. Fortunately, he was thrilled. He threw his arms around me.”
If hardly at a Piaf level of angst, Paige keeps her own life at the plangent pitch necessary for an adored diva. Her dramatic announcements of retirement followed by comeback tours are beginning to approach Cher’s record. (Yes, she tells the Voice, she “may be coming back” to the States next year.)
Piaf began singing in the streets to keep from starving. Paige’s childhood was hardly that Dickensian, but she had been treading the board for a decade in 1976 when she began to despair that she would never achieve her dreams of stardom. A chance encounter with Dustin Hoffman produced some advice that looks prescient in retrospect. “Early in my career,” she recalls, “he told me if I had to, to sing in the street like Piaf.”
The next year, she had the luckiest of breaks: the lead in what became the season’s hottest ticket, Evita. Her magnificent voice and acting chops catapulted her career into the stratosphere. In Follies, she brought down the house every night with “I’m Still Here,” and her original version of “Memories” from Cats is equally memorable — but Evita remains her signature role, even if she certainly is “still here.”
Piaf gives New Yorkers a rare opportunity to experience the effect that Paige — who has given just two non-Broadway New York performances over the entire span of her career — has on audiences. We have impresario Daniel Nardicio to thank for that. Long known for producing some of the raunchiest gay parties in town, he branched out to Fire Island several years ago. After being rebuffed by club owners in Fire Island Pines, he moved a quarter-mile west to the more modest gay community of Cherry Grove. For years, every Friday night, the buff boys of the Pines have trekked over to the Grove’s ramshackle disco, the Ice Palace, for his massive underwear parties.
Then, a few years ago, Nardicio began booking talent, including a pre–”Poker Face” Lady Gaga. What really bumped up his cred in the gay world and beyond was bringing Alan Cumming and Liza Minnelli to the Grove. Since then, he’s made it his mission to introduce divas like Carol Channing and Chita Rivera to a new generation of gay men — even if he often isn’t sure whom he’s booking.
“I love talent, but I’m definitely not a devotee of Broadway, to be sure,” Nardicio tells the Voice. “Sometimes I have to look them up to see who they are when I work with them. The guys who work for me are all show queens, which helps.”
The Piaf concert began as an idea birthed in Cumming’s car, where Piaf was playing over the speakers during a road trip. On a whim, he called Town Hall to see if the date nearest her birthday was available. To his surprise, it was. “Then,” he says, “I started the whole process of piecing it together.” He enlisted Andy Brattain, Michael Feinstein’s production assistant, to come up with some names. Brattain brought in the American Pops Orchestra, but Nardicio was the one who thought of asking Paige.
“I’ve worked with a lot of grandes dames,” he says. “Frankly, everyone has told me there’s nothing like an Elaine Paige performance. So I asked, and she enthusiastically jumped on board.”
For Australian cabaret star Meow Meow, the attraction to Piaf was the opportunity to explore her “exquisite pain of longing.” “She wasn’t just a singer, but a storyteller — so much drama packed into two or three minutes.” But it’s worth noting that Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie en Rose,” is an ode to the joys of life. “People look for the tragedy,” Meow Meow says. “It says a lot about what an audience wants that she’s always seen in a tragic light.”
Vivian Reed, for her part, was originally trained to be a classical singer at Juilliard but found herself attracted to the story-songs that are cabaret staples. A seven-year sojourn in France and a French manager, Lionel Lavault, inevitably got her interested in Piaf’s repertoire. “I’m particularly drawn to performers who live their lyrics, make them come alive for the audience,” she says. “She was known for that. She was a dramatic performer; that’s what I’ve always liked about her.”
With two recent Piaf tributes at Feinstein’s/54 Below under her belt, downtown cabaret favorite Molly Pope “was thrilled” to be asked — even though she worries about her French pronunciation. “I’m a bit of an amateur Francophile,” she says. “When I started taking French at Cooper Union, the teacher asked if I was a singer. Singers move their mouths more violently, like the French. I know some French people and fully intend to have them coach me.”
To help segue between songs and singers, TCM host Robert Osborne will be on hand at Town Hall to provide connecting anecdotes. Nardicio promises that this will indeed be a celebration that emphasizes the glorious triumphs of Piaf’s checkered life — none of that bathetic Judy Garland stuff. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t stuffy,” Nardicio says.
The Town Hall event marks another step in Nardicio’s own evolution from hot boys in underwear to divas in diamonds (or diamanté). He calls his beloved divas his “Norma Desmonds,” but maybe it’s because he’s had some Norma Desmond moments of his own. “Someone said to me, ‘You used to be huge,’ ” he says. “I’m working on a TV project with Alan. It’s not going to be so much about throwing parties. It’s a younger man’s game.”
Bien sûr. But reflecting the title of one of Piaf’s most famous popular songs and her last big hit, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” Nardicio doesn’t regret what he’s done. Instead, he’s looking forward to the next phase — and a rose-colored one at that.
Piaf (A Centennial Celebration) will take place at 8 p.m. on December 19 at Town Hall. For tickets and information, go to piaf100.com.