French singer tribute takes final bow at Skylight

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For musical theater veterans Leslie Fitzwater and Jim Butchart, Edith Piaf was more than a French superstar. She was a musical sensation, the voice of the overlooked working-class French people and the subject of a production they have presented five times over the past 25 years.

“Edith Piaf Onstage,” which opens tomorrow at Skylight Music Theater, illustrates the life and phenomenal music of Édith Giovanna Gassion, once a lower class street performer who became famous under the stage name, Édith Piaf.

Piaf dazzled the world with her powerful voice and personal lyrics from the beginning of her career in the late 1930s until her death in 1963. Her music continues to be showcased today, featured in recent hit movies like “Inception” and “Madagascar 3,” and enjoyed around the world.

“She was a real phenomenon,” Butchart said. “People at the time didn’t really understand what she was doing, at least in America. They thought of the French as being light and frilly. … She sang about prostitutes, death, sailors and lowlife, which is where she came from.”

The concept for the show originated in 1987, when Fitzwater was asked to sing Piaf for Skylight Music Theater’s annual Bastille Day concert celebrating prominent French music.

“I was handed a couple of Piaf songs,” Fitzwater said, “and they went over so well that it was suggested I write a show based on Piaf, which I did. The show then premiered in 1988, just because someone liked the way I sang Piaf.”

The husband and wife developed a production on the life of the French chanteuse, with Fitzwater writing the show – in the process becoming one of the premier authorities on Piaf in the world, according to her husband – and Butchart serving as stage director and choreographer. Fitzwater performs as Piaf, singing 20 of her most powerful songs and interspersing monologues about the French singer’s life.

“If people come to see the show,” Fitzwater said, “they’ll see songs that I chose as my personal favorites, because they were the ones that affected me deeply.”

One of Piaf’s goals in her music was to touch the hearts of her audiences. She once said, “I want people to cry, even if they don’t know what I’m saying.” Fitzwater and Butchart try to encompass this emotional aspiration within their production.

“That was part of her appeal,” Butchart said. “Even though (her songs) may be in a language you don’t understand, you still understand what’s going on. You still see the emotional transition within it.”

While she loved her role, Fitzwater originally felt that after four successful runs, it was time to bid Piaf “au revoir.” The directors at the Skylight, however, had plans to make it even better than the previous productions.

“To be honest with you, (Leslie) was pretty set to retire (the show),” Butchart said. “She had done it a lot. Then Bill Tyson, artistic director of Skylight Theater, called her up two years ago and asked her if she’d be interested in doing it on the big stage, the Cabot Theater. (Leslie) was very excited … (for) a chance to do it in a fully-mounted production.”

Preparations for the final run took an unexpected halt when Fitzwater was diagnosed with colon cancer. The Skylight put the production on hold while the singer underwent surgery and chemotherapy treatments. Now that she is cancer-free, she and Butchart are ready to put on a final, improved version of the Piaf tribute.

“This show is interesting because we’ve done it so many times, and each time has been a little different,” Butchart said. “This time is hugely different. To put it on the larger stage, we have much more of a support system, much more production values in the way of sets, lights and costumes, the kinds of things that were on a budget beforehand.”

Fitzwater will miss performing as Piaf in this format but is confident she will have other opportunities to sing the famous songs. She hopes audiences will walk away from the show with the same sincere respect she has acquired for the woman she has emulated for so many years.

“It’s a story of hope amidst desperation, but it’s not as if the show itself is a complete downer,” Fitzwater said. “It certainly lets you know that if things are getting bad, you just keep going and find the thing that you love to do.”

If Piaf’s musical remedy can inspire listeners as it did 50 years ago, this kind of optimism will find its way into the hearts of audiences for years to come.

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