Stars embrace playing Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf
By Carly Maga - Theatre Critic
Tues. Sept. 17, 2019 | 4 min. read
Stars embrace playing Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf, ‘the kind of women everybody’s trying to be right now’
One is famous as a sparrow, a nickname that matched both her name and her nerves; the other as an angel, both for her most famous film and her enigmatic, almost mystical persona. In fact, the original play about this pair and their legendary friendship was named The Angel and the Sparrow, but its Toronto premiere gets more to the point: Piaf/Dietrich: A Legendary Affair, from Mirvish Productions, begins performances this week and runs into December at the CAA Theatre, starring Jayne Lewis as Marlene Dietrich and Louise Pitre as Edith Piaf.
While both iconic on their own, the friendship — and perhaps more — between Piaf and Dietrich is much more mysterious. The latter was notably present at Piaf’s 1952 wedding to singer Jacques Pills, but the women’s relationship began in the 1940s as Piaf was first trying to break into American entertainment and Dietrich took the sparrow under her wing, so to speak. The ensuing decades, in which these two performers became intensely close confidantes, was first explored in Daniel Grosse Boymann and Thomas Kahry’s 2014 German-language musical, which interweaves their story with 20 of their songs like “La Vie En Rose,” “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Lili Marlene” and toured throughout Germany and Europe.
But when the show was set to make its English-language premiere at Montreal’s Segal Centre, Canadian playwright Erin Shields (known for plays like the Governor General’s Award-winning If We Were Birds, the Stratford Festival’s Paradise Lost, and the recent Beautiful Man at Factory Theatre) came on to adapt the literal translation by Sam Madwar for a North American audience — a crowd that’s far less aware of Dietrich’s career and much more interested in the dynamics between these two legendary women.
“There were really strong bones and a lot of really good research that Thomas and Daniel had already done, I wanted to honour their work and evolve it,” Shields says.
“For me, it was it was really following their relationship and everything that entailed in terms of conflict and who they were to each other. In many ways, they were the complete opposite. Edith Piaf was an extremely passionate artist, she channelled the gods. You just want to weep or scream,” Shields continues. “Marlene Dietrich on the other hand, and she understood, she was an image. She was a statuesque, controlled, contained person. You wanted to be her, you wanted to wear her clothing. I think she made her living making people believe she wasn’t human. In some ways I think (each) one envied the other’s position — they were always in each other’s orbit.”
Shields’s adaptation is necessarily a mix of fact and fiction, making decisions about the nature of Piaf and Dietrich’s relationship for the sake of theatricality and drama. Blending the real-life influences with their own dynamic as performers are Lewis and Pitre who, like their characters, have had a friendship over decades.
“I met you before I met my husband, which is like 30 years ago,” Lewis says to Pitre. “I’m very comfortable working with Louise. I feel very safe working with Louise. I feel very supported and respected and appreciated.”
“For both of us, this is a really fun, fantastic thing that after all these years we finally get to do a show together, and we get to kiss and everything,” says Pitre. “I don’t know if it’s really proven that they really did have sex together. But hey, what the hell? We’re having a blast!”