The Cheerful Side Of Edith Piaf

Edith Piaf is usually thought of as a gifted, tragic figure: a great voice and spirit who sang through lost loves, loneliness, drink and depression. But actress and singer Gay Marshall takes a different approach to Piaf, seeing a joyful, mischievous side to France's "Little Sparrow." Host Scott Simon speaks with Marshall, who just finished a one-woman Piaf show and has a new release, Gay Marshall Sings Piaf, La Vie L'amour.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Edith Piaf is usually thought of as a gifted, tragic figure - a great voice and spirit who sang through lost loves, loneliness, drink and depression.

(Soundbite of song, "Padam...Padam")

Ms. EDITH PIAF (Singer): (Singing in French)

SIMON: But actress and singer Gay Marshall takes a different approach to Piaf...

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. GAY MARSHALL (Singer): (Singing in French)

SIMON: She sees a joyful, mischievous side to France's Little Sparrow. Gay Marshall is a Piaf scholar and performer. She just finished a run of her one-woman Piaf show. Her new CD is titled "Gay Marshall Sings Piaf, La Vie L'amour." Gay Marshall joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. MARSHALL: Oh, thank you, Scott. I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: How does a kid from Cleveland wind up being a Piaf devotee?

Ms. MARSHALL: Well, I was totally, by chance I read a book about her, and I suddenly had to sing those songs. I had no choice.

SIMON: Now, you felt so deeply about this, as I believe I've read the story, you were appearing in "Cats" and took a vacation to go to France to find out about Piaf.

Ms. MARSHALL: I was doing "Chorus Line," actually.

SIMON: "Chorus Line" - oh yeah, you had the big number in "Chorus Line," didn't you?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes.

SIMON: "What I Did For Love."

Ms. MARSHALL: Mm-hmm. And I won a contest that was judged by Leona Helmsley of all people and they sent me to Paris, and what I did was travel the city by following the places that she had lived and sung.

SIMON: Let's hear a little bit of your different interpretation. We're going to take what is arguably the best-known Piaf song, certainly one of the best known songs in the world, "La Vie En Rose," and hear your interpretation.

(Soundbite of song, "La Vie En Rose")

Ms. MARSHALL: (Singing in French)

SIMON: Is it fair to call that playful?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes. She actually wrote the words to that song, which a lot of people don't know. They think that she was just an interpreter of songs. But she wrote quite a few.

(Soundbite of song, "La Vie En Rose")

Ms. MARSHALL: (Singing in French)

SIMON: So what do the depictions of Piaf we've grown used to, and of course most recently there's that 2007 film "La Vie En Rose" - what do some of these depictions - I don't want to say in your judgment they're wrong, but what do they miss in Piaf?

Ms. MARSHALL: I think that they lay too heavily on the same old, same old tragic, sort of sensationalist part of her life, which definitely existed. I mean, she did have a drug problem. But they always neglect to mention that her drug addiction came from being put on morphine from doctors who prescribed it because she was in a series of car accidents in the '50s that almost killed her, every single one of them. And she wouldn't wait until she recuperated to get back on stage. It was a sort of a Catch-22. She had to sing to live and she lived to sing.

SIMON: She really did have, well, yeah, I think it's fair to say a tragic love life and the death of her lover.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes. Now, that - it seems as though her life was going great guns until the death of Marcel Cerdan. And I don't think she ever got over...

SIMON: We should explain - the French heavyweight, fine heavyweight boxer, and national symbol in France. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Marcel Cerdan fought in the middleweight, not heavyweight division.]

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, he won the 1947 championship, I think, here at Madison Square Garden and - but she had asked him to come to the United States, and he was already booked on the boat and she said, oh, take the plane, take the plane, and the plane crashed - for all of you who don't know the story, and then I don't think she really ever got over that. But nothing ever sort of beat her down. She always rose to the occasion. She wrote songs for him. She sang to him. And it became another motivation for her art.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. PIAF: (Singing in French)

Ms. MARSHALL: She was so, so amazingly resilient and courageous. I think that there's more to be celebrated about her than just her voice. It's where her voice comes from. She was literally born on the street and rose to be the greatest singer that France has ever produced to this day.

SIMON: You have performed Piaf in France.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, I have. It's a tricky proposition.

SIMON: Oh boy, yes. It would be, I mean, exact analogies are imperfect, of course, but it would be a little bit like a French actor coming over here and trying to play Mickey Mantle.

Ms. MARSHALL: Or...

SIMON: Or a French singer trying to...

Ms. MARSHALL: How about Judy Garland?

SIMON: Judy Garland was on my mind, yeah.

Ms. MARSHALL: Mm-hmm. I mean if someone went - (singing) somewhere over the rainbow - (speaking) you know, I don't think anybody would really be into it. And so I worked very, very, very hard on my accent and it was - you know, one person said to me, when he asked me what I did and I said I sang Piaf, he said you can't do that, you're not French. and it really upset him that I had sort of taken a chunk out of his heritage in some way. So I stopped saying that I sing Piaf, because what would happen is people say what do you do? I say I sing Piaf, and there would be a little pause - this is French people - and then they'd smile and go: formidable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARSHALL: Really sort of: how nice for you.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MARSHALL: (Singing) I don't ever say no. I don't think wrong or right. I don't think I just go...

SIMON: Perhaps the most controversial thing - from the French point of view -you've done is to take some signature Piaf songs and sung them in English.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, but I'm very happy to say that, lucky me, one of their authors that I met gave me his blessing. And then that gave me the courage to go and find the other ones and every one, except George Moustaki, gave me their blessing on the translations, because George Moustaki was quitting smoking that day and he was in a very bad mood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MARSHALL: (Singing in French)

SIMON: I will take some license, being a Frenchman by marriage to my wife.

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes, I know.

SIMON: Can - I can't believe I'm asking this, a kid from Chicago - but can English - can the English language quite convey the way the French lyrics do?

Ms. MARSHALL: Yes and no. Can I answer like that?

SIMON: Yeah, that's fine.

Ms. MARSHALL: Because...

SIMON: We have a lot of politicians on this show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MARSHALL: Because I think the best way to hear them if you don't speak French is like the track on my CD, "La Belle Histoire d'Amour," "The Beautiful Story of Love" - goes from French into English and then back into French and then back into English. Because they you get the sense of it but you don't lose the French atmosphere.

(Soundbite of song, "La Belle Histoire d'Amour")

Ms. MARSHALL: (Singing) I will never forget, I was never so sure of my heart of a love - (Singing in French)...

(Speaking) And then on a just a cold, hard - can you do the same thing? No. And I don't think you can make "Sophisticated Lady" into French.

SIMON: Ms. Marshall, thanks very much.

Ms. MARSHALL: Oh, it was wonderful. Thank you.

SIMON: Gay Marshall. Her new CD is "Gay Marshall Sings Piaf, La Vie L'amour." She joins us from our studios in New York.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MARSHALL: (Singing in French)

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Correction Dec. 8, 2009

In our story, Marcel Cerdan was incorrectly referred to as a heavyweight boxer. Cerdan fought in the middleweight division.

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