Milwaukee actor and singer Leslie Fitzwater did not know who Edith Piaf was when she was asked to perform one of the French chanteuse’s songs during the Bastille Days celebration in 1987. Twenty-five years later, no area performer has a stronger connection to “The Waif Sparrow” than Fitzwater.
She has played Piaf, who died in 1963, numerous times, including four productions at Skylight Music Theatre – most recently in 2007. On Jan. 25, Fitzwater becomes Piaf once again in Skylight Music Theatre’s “Edith Piaf Onstage.” Interspersing Piaf songs with monologues that chronicle episodes in the singer’s life, Fitzwater shares the singer’s artistry while building the audience’s understanding of the first French superstar.
“Piaf approached songs the way I do, choosing those that affected her deeply,” says Fitzwater, who also serves as a private vocal and acting coach. “What I love about her is her absolute dedication to telling the stories contained in the songs.”
Piaf’s devotion to songs of love, loss, despair and hope were considered some of the best of their day. The emotion she projected drew heavily on the singer’s colorful and tragic past.
Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1915, Piaf’s mother was said to have given birth to her on the Paris streets, although documentation shows she was born in the Hôpital Tenon in Belleville, in the city’s 20th arrondissement. Her father was a street acrobat, her mother a café singer who had no capability or interest in caring for her daughter. Shuttled between grandparents, she eventually landed with her paternal grandmother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. The brothel’s prostitutes helped to raise the young girl.
As a child, Piaf contracted keratitis, which rendered her blind. The prostitutes made a pilgrimage to honor St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Piaf regained her sight. While a miracle may be questionable – she was under a doctor’s care – its possibility made Piaf a lifelong devotee of the saint.
Piaf first sang on the streets of Paris at 14, sharing an act with her father. She soon went her own way, gave birth to her only child at 17 and saw her daughter die two years later from meningitis. She was discovered singing in Pigalle by nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who persuaded her to sing in his club and helped refine her as both a performer and human being. He nicknamed the 4-foot, 8-inch performer “la môme piaf,” or “the waif sparrow,” her stage name.
Fitzwater’s original research for the show took her through multiple biographies, articles, and eventually a 10-CD collection of Piaf’s music, some of which she wrote herself. A recording of a live Carnegie Hall performance from 1957 allowed the actress to master Piaf’s stage patter and storytelling, as well as better understand how she presented a song.
“She insisted on choosing great material and surrounded herself with people who could help her mold her career,” Fitzwater explains.
Piaf’s music evolved with the times, moving from a jazzy sound in the 1930s to more of a Big Band delivery during the ’40s. By the 1960s, when Piaf recorded “Non, je ne regrette rien,” her music was arranged using a rock ‘n’ roll triplet in the background, signaling that both she and her arrangers understood the market in which she was performing.
But the lyrics about love and loss remained the same, themes that Fitzwater says most resemble current country music.
“Piaf’s parents and grandparents were deeply alcoholic, so she started drinking early,” Fitzwater says. “She was involved in several serious car crashes, one with protégé Charles Aznavour, which also led to a morphine addiction that plagued her in the later years of her life.”
The personal tragedy of Piaf’s life was a contrast to her enormous success, especially after World War II. She toured Europe, South America and the U.S., appearing at Carnegie Hall several times and on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Piaf’s signature song, “La vie en rose,” written in 1945, was voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Award winner in 1998.
Piaf married three times, with Marlene Dietrich, who famously called the singer’s voice “the soul of Paris,” serving as the maid of honor at her second nuptials. Her third marriage was to a former hairdresser-turned-singer 20 years her junior.
Piaf went into rehab three times for addiction, but none of the treatments curbed her dependency.
Piaf died of liver cancer in October 1963 at age 47 while planning her next series of concerts in Berlin. Her final recording, also in 1963, was “L’Homme de Berlin.”
Despite her personal challenges, Piaf was a tower of strength and a pillar of hope, Fitzwater says. That’s what kept her going to create her a global musical legacy.
“I want to introduce, or maybe re-introduce my audiences to Piaf and her spirit,” the actress adds. “Bad things happened to her, but with Piaf, there was always hope.”
Skylight Music Theatre’s production of “Edith Piaf Onstage” starring Leslie Fitzwater runs Jan. 25-Feb. 10 at the Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Phone 414-291-7811 or visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org.