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My France in the Theater, and Suzanne

Charles Aznavour is one of my favorite French lyricist. He wrote “La Bohème,” and “Je m’Voyais Déjà” about being the condition of the struggling artist. A few years ago, he put out an new album of enthralling compositions that I couldn’t stop playing. Favorites include “Je Danse Avec l’Amour” and “Le Chasseur” that evoke so much of the beloved countryside I come from. The thing is, as an authentic French chanteuse, you sing mostly what people already know, because your repertoire shouldn’t be obscure to the sophisticated American audience, so I never covered any of it.

Thanks to the google alert for “French singer” I found out about “My Paris,” recounting the life of Toulouse-Lautrec, a French painter from the end of the 19th century.  I asked a friend who happened to own a car (a really nice one just so you know), and “en route” to see the musical at the Long Warf Theater in Boston!

What I loved about it is that the production didn’t feel like the usual cliché of France through the eye of a romantic francophile.  It felt like real France like I know it.  Actually, the tradition of chanson is all about storytelling, and it feels natural that it would evolve into a theatrical production.  A lot of jazz standards are so short because the producers and agents needed their 32-bars kinda catchy so they could sell records and make their money. The French has a different mentality, maybe a bit more lifestyle driven, and a tad obsessive about its poetry.

Lautrec’s student is the romantic interest. Now: Suzanne Valadon is an exciting role to explore on the stage.  She is played by Mara Davi both in this production at the Long Warf and last’s year production at Goodspeed.  Suzanne was a tremendous artist, free spirited, whimsical.  She worked as a model and was a muse to many of her male contemporaries, she is the subject to many renowned paintings. A standard of beauty and a feminist before her time, Suzanne is an embodiment of the glory of “woman.” What do I call a feminist?  Well… anyone who recognizes that the world and our male driven society is in desperate need of a female perspective.

Kudo’s to Kathleen Marshall for initiating this project.  From the post performance conversation, it seems that she fell in love with Aznavour’s CD, like I did, and stepped up as a director with a terrific project!  As far as Lautrec and the book is concerned, it is a regional production and it can’t go on forever, but I would have delved more into the substance abuse.  I’m not saying Bukowski dark, but as an audience member, I could have handled more pain, less Broadway pretty.  Also, Lautrec’s greatest struggle is that his father never accepted his artistry, but towards the end of his life, his work got into The Louvre, and changed the family dynamic.  Perhaps worth exploring.

I do a lot of language work and have a knack at knowing what comes from a translation. The song “I Drink” is so good it feels that it was first written in English and there never was French words to it.  But it turns out that Aznavour wrote a lot about the drank already, so I was wrong. Some find solace in a beverage… and have one too many: “Blame it On the Summer Night” from the musical Rag used to be a favorite, but now “I Drink” is going to have to make it to my book.  And hopefully the production will make it official and get to Broadway soon!

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Flo Ankah
Actress | Director | Songstress
A French New Yorker at heart, Flo Ankah works as an actress, director and voice-over talent (Listen Up Philip, Loving the Silent Tears, Edith Piaf Alive). Her voice is in commercials and feature films for prominent directors. As the songstress 'Floanne,' she performs at Joe's Pub, Symphony Space, MoMA and Feinstein's/54 Below.