Meanwhile at the CAA Theatre...
Summer is officially over, but at least mother nature gifted us with a glorious end to the season. While the weather may be cooling, our theatres are heating up! If you missed the Facebook Live subscription event, check out the highlights here (link to video). There are so many incredible shows headed our way including the return of Miss Saigon! I can hardly believe it, and judging by all the hearts you were throwing at the announcement I think you all agree.
Meanwhile at the CAA Theatre…
…Legendary women are taking over the stage. Two Toronto theatre legends (more on them another day) are taking the roles of two legendary women of the twentieth century— it is very meta.
I’m embarrassed to say that a month ago all I knew about Marlene Dietrich were that her eyebrows resembled my (ill-advised) first attempts at tweezing. And, to me, Edith Piaf’s music was simply a shortcut used by lazy directors to evoke the atmosphere of Paris. I had no idea what I was missing. I’m sure I am not the only one in this uninformed boat so here are some of the most exciting/hilarious/shocking tidbits I have found out about these iconic women. They were both women who defied the expectations of women of that era. Business women who took control of their own lives and flew in the face of convention. They were pretty bad-ass!
Marlene was born first, so, as Maria von Trapp would advise, let’s start at the very beginning- a very good place to start.
Marlene was born in Berlin in 1901, but not with the name Marlene. Marlene is a portmanteau of her first name Maria and her middle name Magdalene. Clearly, she began crafting her image from a young age as she adopted this name at 11.
Marlene was very musical. Before becoming a stage and screen star she was a violin virtuoso. A finger injury interfered that career. She was also skilled with the musical saw. As far as I can tell that was not the cause of the finger injury.
She married Rudolf Sieber in 1924. The two remained married until his death, but after the birth of their daughter they led separate lives. They would often go on double dates with their lovers.
She was ‘discovered’ by Josef von Sternberg when he saw her perform in a cabaret. She had one line, but he decided she was exactly what he was looking for his film Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel). The film was shot simultaneously in German and English, and was the first German talkie.
Von Sternberg helped Marlene craft her image. She called him her Sven Gali. He brought her from Berlin to Hollywood, and called her Beloved.
She performed the first on-screen lesbian kiss in Morocco in 1930.
She popularized women wearing men’s wear. Her signature look was a tuxedo.
Marlene became the highest paid actress of her time.
Marlene was in a precarious position when the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933. Her mother and sister, with whom she was very close lived in Berlin and she desperately wanted to visit them several times each year. But her husband, who at that time was based in Paris and was an astute observer of German politics, forbade her from stepping on German soil. Instead she would travel to Austria and arrange for her family from Germany to come to her.
Her husband was correct. Because she was a big international star – the equivalent of Madonna in our age – Goebbels and Hitler wanted her in Germany acting in their propaganda films.
Across the Atlantic, even the CIA was suspicious about her motives and possible secret allegiance to her homeland; they had her investigated as a double agent. They shouldn’t have been worried because she was very secure having America as her new home. In fact, she secured her US citizenship just before war broke out, which made Goebbels especially angry. From that point on she was officially an enemy of the German state.
She didn’t mind. In multiple interviews she called Hitler “an idiot”. She even came up with a plot to assassinate him. Her plan was to seduce him and when he was defenseless she would kill him. The only problem was she had trouble coming up with a weapon that she could hide and access while she was naked. She never put this plan into action.
Instead she fought the Nazis in other ways. She toured extensively with the USO. She created counter-propaganda broadcasts in German. After the war she was awarded the Medal of Freedom for her work.
There were many chapters to Marlene’s career. After making her mark on film, she went back to her roots and began performing in cabarets and concert halls. Her concerts took her around the globe many times. Everywhere she performed she was treated with the respect and reverence that her status as legend was due to her.
Her last public performance took place in Sydney in 1975. During the performance Marlene fell and broke her leg.
Marlene was much more than a celebrity. Her influence was felt across most aspects of world culture. Her photos, the taking of which she carefully costumed, lighted and directed, her ubiquitous. When people thought of glamour, Marlene is the first image that came to mind.
As an example of the power of her influence, many decades after the peak of her celebrity, when the Beatles’ Sgt Peppers Album cover was designed, Marlene was there among other world legends – in a yellow tuxedo to the right of George.
Her life covered the entire span of the 20th century. It could be argued that she help to define the century. She knew everyone who was anyone in it. In fact, she was romantically linked with many of the century’s leading lights, from performers, writers, artists, composers, even politicians. The list is long and includes Gary Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Anna Mae Wong, George Bernard Shaw, Yul Brynner, Claudette Colbert, Ernest Hemmingway, Joseph Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf and countless others. Many of these relationships were rumoured and have never been verified.
She spent her last 13 years in seclusion in her Paris apartment. Though she refused to leave her bed, she didn’t shut herself off completely. She maintained telephone and written correspondence until her death on May 6, 1992 at 90 years old.
Edith Gassion was born in 1915. Her parents were street performers. Her mother, a singer, abandoned the family when Edith was an infant. Her father was an acrobat and contortionist who went off to fight in WWI. Edith was cared for by her grandmother who ran a brothel in Belleville.
As a child, Edith was blind due to keratitis. Her grandmother and the ladies of the brothel took a pilgrimage and prayed to St Thérèse of Lisieux to heal her. Shortly after, Edith’s sight was restored. She attributed her sight to a miracle.
With her sight restored, Edith began to travel with her father and thus began her singing career. She would sing as she collected money from the crowds watching her father’s performances.
She and a friend decided to take their acts from Pigalle to a more lucrative area of Paris. While singing on the Champs Elysees she was spotted by Louis Leplée. He heard the potential in her voice and offered her a job singing in his nightclub. Leplée even provided her stage name: La môme piaf (the waif sparrow).
Many of her songs were based on stories from her life. She would inspire musicians with stories of her life or suggest a feeling she wanted to explore and they would write songs based on her input. She worked with many composers and lyricists. She occasionally even wrote her own lyrics. She even penned her most famous hit, “La Vie En Rose”.
During the Second World War, during the Nazi occupation of France under the Vichy government, she continued performing. This was a controversial decision as she was performing for the invading Nazis. After the war, she was tried as a collaborator.
At her trial it was revealed she had secretly worked with the resistance all throughout the war. Among the many clandestine activities she was involved in was performing for French POWs. Under the guise of being photographed with a celebrity, select POWs were able to have counterfeit paperwork made with the photos, which Edith would smuggle in during subsequent performances. The paperwork was used to free the POWs. She also gave generously to help hide Jews from the Nazis.
Instead of being convicted, the tribunal applauded Edith for her bravery and exonerated her.
As many of her songs indicate, Edith lived through more than her share of heartbreak. In 1949 the love of her life, boxer Marcel Cerdan, was killed in a plane crash. He was enroute to see her in New York and upon Edith’s advice had flown instead of travelling by ship. Edith lived with the guilt that she had caused his death for the rest of her life.
She suffered from pain her whole life and was on various medications for arthritis. Her pain was exacerbated by three serious car crashes. To deal with it, she added alcohol to the pharmaceutical cocktail that was her daily diet.
By 1963, her body could no longer take the strain. Already looking twice her age of 47, she died from liver failure on October 10th.
Even in death, Edith’s life was complicated and filled with conflict. Due to her irreverent lifestyle, Cardinal Maurice Feltin refused to perform a catholic funeral. It didn’t matter to her legions of fans. Parisians flocked to the street for her funeral procession, stopping traffic.
“Je Ne Regrette Rien” was recorded during a resurgence late in her career. More than any other of her famous songs, this one sums up her life.
We want to hear from you!
Since I experienced The Band’s Visit last week, the song “Answer Me” has been running through my head. And now my ears are thirsty for your voice, for your voice- or, rather, my inbox is thirsty for your emails but that doesn’t have the same poetic ring to it. At Meanwhile we’d love to hear from you. If you have any questions about theatre- why do we say break a leg? why is it bad luck to whistle in the theatre? what happens at a first rehearsal? what does a producer do?- I want to go on a theatrical journey wherever your curiosity leads us. Please send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org. And before you ask, I DO NOT have an inside track for tickets to Hamilton or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or Miss Saigon or anything else, so don’t ask! Once a month I’ll round up a few questions and seek out the answers for you.