an exclusive tip interview with jacques pessis, writer and narrator of i love piaf
There is no one who knows more about the greatest singers of all time than biographer and director Jacques Pessis. The prolific expert is also the writer and narrator of I Love Piaf, directed by François Chouquet. It’s an intimate musical show, which Theatre in Paris surtitles, about France’s famous superstar: Edith Piaf. On France 5, one of the country’s most-watched television channels, Pessis directed and narrated no less than 210 episodes about the most celebrated French music hall singers, from their respective childhoods to their claims to fame. In addition to being an expert in his field, Pessis is nothing short of passionate about French music. Eager and very welcoming, he gave us his take on France and its rich musical culture, and told us all about his creative process for I Love Piaf.
"I’m profoundly persuaded that today, the public has a need for surtitled plays..."
“At a time, France was different," began Pessis, reminiscient. "For decades, French music was the ‘queen of the world’, in the US, in Japan, in China, everywhere, in Russia… just everywhere, French songs were sung. [Singers such as] Edith Piaf, Montand, and Trenet were stars in the US! Lucienne Delyle [a famous French singer from the 30s well into the 60s] was received in New York as though she were a president! It was the same welcome!”
Pessis tells us that such talent is no longer present today. “That’s why I write, not for nostalgia, but so that the older generation remembers, but also for the younger generation, so that they are inspired to do something else.”
For Jacques, France is the birthplace of great music, and the music of the mid 1900s largely contributed to its importance. “When you build a house, you need a foundation. For me, the foundation of French music is the past.”
The singer that inspired Pessis’ most recent production was an international celebrity in the 1930s. The show is now playing at the little blue theatre, le Théâtre Edgar in the artistic area of the Montparnasse district of Paris. Two young singers, Caroline Rose and Laura Le Chevalier embody the songbird beautifully, truly bringing her story to life so much that the audience truly feels as though they are in the presence of the legend that was Edith Piaf.
It’s clear that so much thought and expertise went into this production. A similar version of the show, on which Pessis also collaborated, started ten years ago. One of the writer’s main objectives in recreating it was to reach out to the younger generation, and expose them to a different, richer musical culture.
This is where Caroline Rose comes in. She’s a rocker, with some of the most powerful vocals one could hope to hear. According to Pessis, “were [Piaf] alive today, she would be a rocker as well.”
In order to make known the musical moguls of the century, and the “foundations” of French music, Edith Piaf was the obvious subject of choice. Not only was she revered worldwide, but she also has a very interesting (and risqué!) background, making for a very entertaining- yet authentic- show.
But today’s youth are not the only target audiences. Pessis told us,
“Luc Hammet, the director of the Théâtre Edgar, came to me and said, ‘Hey I’ve got an idea: why don’t you do the show with English surtitles, there are plenty of tourists in Montparnasse!’ And that’s how it was all born.”
The show is both entertaining, funny, and most of all, moving. “Many of Piaf’s songs touch me because …it’s so obvious that (her music) comes from the heart […] Four of her songs are famous, all over the world: Milord, La vie en rose, L’hymne de l’amour, et Non je ne regrette rien. They are sung all around the world. And be it in China, in Russia, in the US, people know her songs, in French, and by heart! Piaf and her music are symbolic of France.”
Unsurprisingly, the show is, already a huge hit, and the charming little venue is full every night. But Pessis does not only have I Love Piaf to be proud of. In 2015, one of the most spectacular shows Paris has ever seen, Mistinguett, hit the stage.
“The director was looking to do a show about the Roaring Twenties, and we found our subject: Mistinguett. It took us ten years to produce the show because no one believed in it.” But in 2015 the show was popular beyond their wildest dreams. “I am so proud; we produced, for the first time, a real musical à la française like no one has seen in a very long time.”
“Today, many musicals are just songs with a few sentences, with young people who sing on the radio. But for Mistinguett, we created a real story… It is based on [her life]. With François Chouquet [the director], we worked very hard. We truly studied the era, and we created a real oeuvre. And it worked. It worked because there were 198 performances! Of course, the older generation was in the audience, but there were children every night… My goal is not to create musicals with today’s bubblegum pop songs. It’s to create shows with a real story, to touch the hearts of everyone in the audience.”
Sometimes bringing such niches to life is difficult, because convincing producers, who want mainstream, often mindless and easy productions, is a job in itself.
Jacques believes that we deserve more. “I think the public wants something else. Mistinguett proved it!”
Throughout his creative process, Pessis is true to his audiences, be they readers or spectators. “As soon as I get bored writing something, I toss it in the bin… It needs to be as authentic as possible, it needs to be moving, and, above all, needs to have a rhythm.”
His favourite artist is CharlesTrenet, a French singer and songwriter who was famous in the 30s but whose career continued well into the 90s. Pessis is not only Trenet’s biggest fan, but has also written four books about the artist. What’s more, they were close friends. “One day,” Pessis began to recount enthusiastically, “We had lunch. It was a lunch that lasted 8 hours. He gave me a drawing…” He then proceeded to fetch a framed sketch of himself on which “Vive Jacques Pessis” was written, with “Charles Trenet” signed just below. During their lunch, Trenet told vibrant stories about all of the famous personalities he had known: Piaf, Jean Cocteau, and Orson Welles, to name a few.
“It was enthralling. We laughed for hours. And I believe in laughter… We cannot live without laughter… I’m a big kid, and so was he. I laugh all the time.” Anyone who sees I Love Piaf can see that on stage. “He taught me the philosophy of happiness. He used to say, ‘when one has dreamt up his life, he must live is dream.’ He said, ‘life is a dream, traversed by a nightmare. From time to time, a nightmare comes along, we digest it, and then the laughter recommences.’”
As the interview came to a close, Pessis had one last, and very important message that he would like to send to all of the English speakers who will come see his show: “We are so lucky that the world wants to discover Paris. It’s a mythical city. We are going to offer you a little cranny in Paris to discover, a little historical and yet modern district, with our hearts and souls… this show is to be shared with them, amicably and fraternally, and above all, universally.