The year 1915 was a musically auspicious time to be born. We’ve already celebrated the centennials of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra this year, to name just two, and Saturday marked what would have been the 100th birthday of iconic French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Nightlife producers Daniel Nardicio and Andy Brattain celebrated the anniversary by organizing a glorious, all-star gala concert in honor of the little sparrow at The Town Hall in New York City.
The evening, hosted with charming understatement by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, featured a glittering lineup of singers (and one solo violinist) performing a variety of Piaf’s signature songs (and a few kindred numbers). The lyrics of these songs, many of which have become beloved standards in English and French, often reveal poignant narratives of love and loss, alienation and its overcoming. The complexity of these story-songs allowed the singers to show off their emotional ranges, which made for a thrilling and dynamic concert.
Particular highlights on Saturday included several singers who evoked—in some cases, channeled—the unmistakable quirks of Piaf’s unique voice and style. The most Piaf-esque performance of the night came from Broadway veteran Gay Marshall, who, Osborne explained, many years ago left the cast of A Chorus Line in New York to move to Paris for the love of Piaf. It paid off. She performed two of her three songs with very intimate orchestration and interpreted the unfolding, emotional narratives in “Pigalle” and “L’Accordeoniste” with moving depth.
The punk musician and interdisciplinary artist Little Annie was another powerful standout. Whoever figured out that Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” should fall to her for this concert is wise, indeed. She sang with a frail vulnerability, letting her voice occasionally drop to a whisper—or less—for emotional effect. Another singer whose voice evoked Piaf was the protean downtown chanteuse Amber Martin. “Cause I Love You” suited Martin’s big, warm, sensitive voice excellently. In the past, I’ve heard her embody such artists as Janis Joplin and Reba McEntire, and Martin made a compelling case on Saturday for adding more French torch songs to her repertoire. Molly Pope, another powerfully-voiced darling of the downtown cabaret set, opened the show with an enthusiastic, jaunty “Milord,” (en français!).
Vivian Reed seemed to take a different approach, less interested in mimicking Piaf’s sound and style in “Heaven Have Mercy”—closer to Piaf in “Mon Dieu”— but singing with such beauty, presence and outright magnificence that the entire audience was more than happy to embrace her artistic choice. The Australian cabaret singer and performance artist Meow Meow was equally captivating, but traded Reed’s gravitas for her own playful engagement with the audience. A brilliant deconstructor of the trappings of cabaret, she passed roses out to the front rows of the audience so that they would be able to shower her with those same flowers when she reemerged on stage, acting mock-overwhelmed at the mock-thoughtfulness of the audience to fête her thus. In addition to her genuinely delightful stage antics, Meow Meow is also possessed of a gorgeous, rich voice, which she showed off in “La vie en rose” and in the only new song of the night, “Mon homme marié” (“My Married Man”), which fit elegantly in the spirit of Piaf’s songs, and which Meow Meow co-wrote with Thomas M. Lauderdale (of Pink Martini fame).
The only two men on the bill also had starkly contrasting styles. Australian cabaret and pop singer Kim David Smith often sings mid-century European cabaret standards—Brel, Weill, etc.—and “Padam,” written by Piaf herself and specifically chosen by Smith, brought out an intense, complex performance. With only a piano backing him, he delivered a hyper-dramatic rendition of the song, using his agile voice, contorted gesture and arresting stage presence. Violinist Aaron Weinstein, conversely, began informally with clever banter about his playing sounding like a “Jewish favorites” arrangement of Piaf’s song “I Shouldn’t Care” before announcing that he would be “playing the violin in French.”
The two highest profile performers of the evening, Marilyn Maye and Elaine Paige, sounded beautiful, were having evident fun and gave strong performances. Maye sang “I love Paris” and “C’est magnifique” with verve and executed a big, crowd-pleasing finish. Paige, the headliner and a long-time devotee of Piaf’s songs, closed out the evening with “Non, je ne regrette rein” and a heroic “Hymn to Love.”
The American Pops Orchestra, led by Luke Frazier, also made a strong showing, but if I have one quibble, it is that their playing was perhaps too smooth and too elegant, their sound too frothy and sweet. Piaf’s music ought to have some kind of grit, some tension, some edginess, and that was missing from the orchestra.
Presumably, through, the sweetness of the orchestra was intentional. Piaf’s personal struggles and tribulations are well known and integral to her life, but Osborne specifically announced that the concert was conceived as a simple celebration. The goal was not to dwell on the challenges Piaf faced, but purely to bask in the Parisian love songs she made such an enduring part of international culture, and which continue to delight half a century after Piaf’s 1963 death and on into the boundless future.