Bringing a legend to life... behind the scenes at Piaf
Access all areas... Gemma Collins tells the fascinating backstage story behind the making of Curve’s hit Piaf
It’s late morning at Curve. The studio is calm and clear. In just two hours, the stage will come alive with light and music and the story of one of France’s greatest cultural icons will be told. But do we ever think about the story behind the story? The making of that show?
Curve’s artistic director, Paul Kerryson, started imagining Piaf more than a year ago.
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“I knew it would do good business,” he smiles, as we sit in the empty stalls. “Piaf’s music is still very powerful and continually rediscovered by new generations, and this year is the 50th anniversary of her death. It made sense.
“Casting was vital,” he explains. “Unlike other shows, you’re totally reliant on who you get to play your lead. Piaf was diminutive with a big voice and her character has to age from 17 to 47 in the space of two hours. That takes a certain kind of someone.”
Someone like Frances Ruffelle, the stunningly beautiful, petite, Tony Award-winning actress with a voice to die for, perhaps?
“I knew of Frances, but she auditioned like all the others.
“She surprised me by how young she looks – she’s nearly 50, for goodness sake. There was something apparent about her and then the voice... Oh, I was very pleased.”
For the uninitiated, Piaf was written in 1979 by acclaimed playwright and feminist, Pam Gems. What Gems did was develop a fresh artistic form somewhere between a play and a musical to tell the story of “the sparrow’’ who rose from the streets of Paris to the international stage. Gem’s slant is of a very strong woman operating in a difficult time,” says Paul. “Piaf is surrounded by men trying to control her. But she chews them up and spits them out. My task was to be true to that spirit.”
That meant research.
“Research is especially important with a biopic – they’re notoriously difficult to pull off,” he admits.
“Fluidity was also important for me. The beginning is quite jerky and we played her younger days as a series of snapshots. It settles around her downfall. That is the peak.
“Elements are shocking. Edith’s life was. If people think they’re coming to see a few nice songs on stage, they’ll regret it,” he laughs.
“If the show works and the audience is on Piaf’s side, they’ll understand why she’s like this; they’ll forgive her for anything – her behaviour, her language – they’ll be with her throughout. To the end.”
It’s a strange thing, walking on to an empty stage as a punter, the set
standing proud around, as you look out on a sea of vacant seats.
Production manager Al Parkinson’s job started way before Christmas when he met with Paul and designer Simon Scullion to realise their vision for this theatrical landscape.
“I’m at the very start of the process. By the time press night has come, I’m on to the next show,” explains Al.
He has worked on all sorts of productions before, from small fringe theatre, to the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics.
From a white card model, “often made out of cornflake boxes”, to the set we see before us, a lot of work has gone into making Piaf technically sound.
Al and the team had to figure out the physical obstacles in a space such as Curve’s studio. They also had to think about lighting and sound, where the speakers would sit and how on earth the raised stage edge would support a baby grand piano.
From the finished model, Al talked to out-of-town set builders about realising the design.
“The set is quite tricky as there are no right angles and, if you look, it’s skewed and leans back, like Piaf’s version of reality. We didn’t know how it was going to react to gravity. And until it’s all here, in the theatre, you’re never going to be relaxed.
“Fortunately, it works really well,” he smiles.
Piaf’s set is all black, but not just any black. There’s brickwork and fabric, texture, paint and gloss, silk and matte finishes.
The big corner, like a picture frame, looks so natural, you would assume it’s a permanent piece of the stage. Only the hollowed-out inside and lines suspended from the ceiling, reveal the truth.
“That’s exactly what we want people to think,” laughs Al. “That’s a job well done.”
Upstairs, in wardrobe, the team are preparing for the afternoon matinee. It’s 12.30pm and there are jobs to be done.
“Could you put the washing on please, Ellis?” comes a voice behind the clothes rails.
That’s Siobhan Boyd, head of wardrobe and costume design. She’s been in charge since The King and I, five years ago, and clearly loves her job.
“The vision for Piaf was so clear. One dress, and one dress only to create
continuity – a black number, made from French crepe,’’ she said.
“We designed that from scratch. We have a lot of clothing in stock and use vintage shops in the city, such as Dolly Mix, but this one was special.”
Siobhan started making plans for Piaf about five weeks before the show started.
“The first thing I did was read the script – several times,” she explains. “There are always references to clothing and props, so you have to take note. I also watched the film, La Vie en Rose, but I find it’s nicer to come up with my own ideas.
“The costume changes are subtle for the character Piaf, a wig here, a coat there to differentiate eras and her rise in fortunes. They’re mostly on stage behind the wing. Frances is so calm, as are all the actors – they make our life easy.”
Wardrobe and wigs mistress Ellis Ladd was in at 10.30am today.
“People don’t realise, but we’re here hours before the cast,” she says, while brushing what appears to be a hairy caterpillar.
“It’s a moustache and made of real hair, but it’s much softer than facial hair – here, touch it,” she says,forward the lace-backed fuzz. Ellis soon turns her attentions to a glamorous-looking wig.
“It’s one of Piaf’s – she has three in total and starts with her own hair. I’m just using the heated tongues on it now – it’s real hair so we can do that – and I’ll put this one in rollers every few days.”
Goodness. That’s a lot of work for one wig.
“Because the studio is such an intimate space, attention to detail is so important,” she explains. “When Piaf wears her balding wig she couldn’t just wear a wig-cap – it would look terrible – so the team had to make prosthetics.”
Like an actress, Ellis has a script. A plot for costume changes: which hat or coat; whose necklace and dress; which bra or wig and where.
“It was my bible for the first few run-throughs, but I’m doing things instinctively now,” she says, as we leave Siobhan dealing with repairs and alterations and go backstage for the “pre-set’’.
There’s a passage running between the main stage and the studio. Racks of clothes sit either side. A small room to stage left, another to the right and costumes are set for all the cast, alongside baskets of shoes, hats and accessories.
“Everything has to be in the right order, in sequence of scenes. I have to wait until the curtains close to run from the side room to the stage wing and not be seen. “You get about two minutes to put a wig on Frances. And they’re pinned in, not just plonked on the head. Time is everything.
“It’s a huge responsibility. You have to get it right and the darkness adds to the pressure. It’s exciting, though. I get an adrenaline rush every night.”
Just an hour and a half until show time and actresses Laura Pitt-Pulford and Tiffany Graves are hanging out in their dressing room.
They look a picture, all rollers and raucous laughter. “Our ages?” they joke, “oh, we don’t talk about that,” says Laura, in overly-dramatic fashion.
You may recognise Laura’s face. She played the refined Irene Molloy in Curve’s recent production of Hello Dolly. In Piaf, she plays Toine, “a hard-faced prostitute with a big heart’’.
“Oh, she’s the complete opposite, legs up in the air, asking if you can see her crabs,” laughs Laura. “Yet she’s the one friend who follows Piaf her whole story through. The one she always asks for.”
Since graduating from Mountview Academy in 2005, Laura has played the lead in a lot of musicals.
“For me this is very different,” she explains. “I’m not singing and it’s nice to depend on the character. Preparing, getting into the part, it’s something that comes gradually for me and I’ve felt her grow, as she grows from the age of 18 to 50. That’s exciting as an actor.”
Seasoned soprano Tiffany’s challenge is altogether different. She plays three parts in the show; the legendary Marlene Dietrich, Piaf’s PA, Madelein, and a nurse.
“Learning the lines is probably stage one and the repetition in rehearsals helps with that, but I spent a lot of time sitting at home in the evenings with a glass of wine, watching documentaries on Marlene. She’s incredible to play, an iconic role and such a strong woman and influence on Piaf’s life.”
But show time is nearing for the girls and we don’t want to intrude.
“I don’t come in until the penultimate scene of Act One,” says Tiffany. “It means I can arrive at the last minute, get changed at leisure and find my peace and quiet during the show.”
“ I like plenty of time to focus and always have a cup of coffee to give me a buzz when I’m getting my slap on,” says Laura. “And we’ll be bellowing out every song possible. We have sing-offs,” she laughs. “We’re loud and laugh a lot. But the piece is so tragic. We need a flip side of that.”
It’s your stereotypical vocal warm-up, a series of ooos, aaahs and enunciations; but being privy to this session just 30 minutes before the matinee is still a treat.
If you could catch camaraderie, Curve would be a hunting ground right now. The cast are the firmest of friends – a caring hug here, a playful punch there, as they convene on stage.
And then in walks Frances Ruffelle.
Dressed in an animal print onesie and battered baseball boots, she’s a diminutive figure, but the definitive leading lady.
“Higgerty haggerty, pickety, packety,” sings musical director, Ben Atkinson, at the piano.
“A proper cup of coffee from a copper coffee pot. Bella Senora...”
Assonance and dissonance and all sorts of alliteration later and they break into harmony, a handsome cast of just nine making the richest, roundest sound you could imagine.
“Good luck guys,” comes the shout, as they leave the stage, bound for curtain call.
And so the story is told: the story of one of France’s greatest cultural icons.
Frances Ruffelle is exhausted when we finally get a moment with her after the show. The dressing room is warm and steamy and she relaxes into her chair like a rag doll. “I’m so emotionally tired by the role. It sounds a bit over the top but I burst into tears after the show. I’m starting to cry now,” she says, wiping her eyes. “I just find that final scene... the cast with me... This afternoon was so strong, so moving.
“Piaf had lots of car crashes in her life and I’m feeling like I have. My back is aching, I’m exhausted. I’m loving it, though,” she smiles. “I’m really not complaining. It’s an amazing role.”
It doesn’t take an expert to realise Piaf is a vocally demanding part.
“Learning the French was the most difficult thing,” she admits. “English songs take me two seconds, but I’m quite slow at learning French and studied every day, including Christmas. I had to. It was work, work, work.
“I’m off stage only a few times to put on shoes or change my coat. There’s hardly a second even to take a gulp of water, no time to clear my throat,” she explains. “Now we’re in production, I am doing everything to look after my voice, so I try not to speak on the phone before a show and I have my own vocal warm-up before I come to the theatre. “I steam a lot, too,” she smiles, pointing to the clothes steamer and humidifier on the side.
“I don’t get nervous. Well, I think I probably do, in a funny way. In the few weeks before a show, during rehearsals, I’m not easy to be around. But now I’m enjoying it.”
We’ll leave the final words to the. “I’m very proud,” says Paul. “I’m especially proud when I watch Frances giving such emotion on stage. It’s a huge challenge to get up and sing those songs. And she’s supported by the whole company and the band.
“I have to take responsibility for the set – which looks beautiful – and the sound... the sound has been criticised in a number of reviews.
“I haven’t done much amplification in the studio, but I took an opinion on this show. I went for a level which wouldn’t be disturbed by a modern audience and I know I’d want to punch someone if I could hear the rustle of a Malteser box during an emotional moment.
“Piaf always sang with a mic – it was one of her hallmarks. I can only be true to what I think.
“We’ve never had such a response to a show in the studio – we’re completely sold out. That speaks for itself.
“Any publicity is good publicity and we’ve had some stinkers over the years. I don’t mind, I embrace it all. Everybody’s views are welcome. Theatre is controversial at its best.”
• Piaf’s run at Curve’s studio ends on March 16. Extra dates have been added in the main theatre from April 3 to 6.