Yesterday was one of America’s darkest days, and like many of you all I spent most of it immobilized, prostrate, occasionally mustering the energy to rail or theorize or eulogize or diagnose or plan or marvel or worry aloud or curse or console someone. When the day started I couldn’t imagine moving a muscle, possibly for days. But I had committed myself to seeing someone’s show weeks ago, and having had to postpone a couple of times, and this being the last night of the run, I dragged my butt to the club to see it.
As it happens (as she informed us halfway through the set) the performer was in the same boat; in shock and had to drag her ass there. Of course she was. It’s not commonly known, but that’s just about the hardest thing a performer has to do: rise to the occasion, put her heart into it, even when (for whatever reason) she doesn’t feel like it. People think show folks have it easy, but that is one area where they don’t. When you’re sick as a dog — you go on. When you’re in the middle of a breakup — you go on. When a loved one has died — you go on. Last night at Pangea, with America in ashes at our feet, Gay Marshall went on.
And if I had to see a show that night, this was a good one to see. Not just because Gay’s a highly professional singer with a winning personality (we’ll get to that) but because of the show’s content. One is tempted to call her a Woman Without a Country, but really she’s a Woman with Two Countries. And I’m glad the other one is France. There’s only a couple of nation-sized shoulders out there America can REALLY cry on, and one of them is France’s. Lafayette? Franklin and Jefferson and Adams in Paris? The Statue of Liberty? The World Wars? “Je Suis Charlie”? We’ve bled and cried and been there for each other many a time. And the people of Paris understand the concept of a liberty loving nation being taken over by hostile Right Wing Forces. Yesterday, my friend Alyssa Simon shared this famous photo of “The Weeping Frenchman”, taken in 1940 as the French army was being disbanded at Marseilles and the Nazis were marching in. This is how many of us are feeling:
So, if anything, I had a fear of being overwhelmed by TOO much feeling, a sort of “La Marseillaise”-in-Casablanca moment and it would be unbearable. But, nah, the show was touching and romantic and moving and light and even irreverent. She loves her adopted second country, but not blindly. She has enough detachment to kvetch about the homesickness she had for America while she was there, and her exasperation at Parisian snobbery. And, ya know how it is: I’m mourning my country at the moment, but I’m not exactly crazy about it right now either. So this was kind of perfect.
Gay’s backstory is that she’s a Cleveland native who had been singing a French repertoire for a while (Edith Piaf a specialty) and she went over to Paris to study the language, fell in love (with a man and with the city) and just stayed. She starred in the French production of Cats, playing Grizabella (the one who sings “Memories”, the Betty Buckley role, which is funny, because unbidden, I would have volunteered that Gay reminds me a bit of Betty Buckley even if I didn’t know that). And it seems like she has sung everywhere else in Paris: from L’Olympia to the Folies Bergère to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to events in the Louvre to a sidewalk on a bridge over the Seine (just so she could say she did). And her show is presented as a travelogue. She has little wooden toy Eiffel Towers and Notre Dame Cathedrals etc and takes us on a musical tour of the city, interspersed with funny, vivid anecdotes about her experiences there.
Like many a French entertainer, she sports a cocked chapeau, a gesture that reminds us of what Americans are inclined to forget (if most of them even ever knew): despite our stereotype of the French as serious and sad intellectuals, as I wrote in both No Applause and Chain of Fools not only are they capable of having fun — as far as western culture is concerned they kind of INVENTED it. (Vaudeville, burlesque, cabaret — the very WORDS we use for show biz are French, because that is where show biz COMES from). So, though some of her numbers are sentimental and melancholy, some are just funny. She opens her set with one of these; “Another Song About Paris” by Dave Frishberg, the only totally English language song in her set. (Most of her numbers are French songs, half of which she’ll sing in the original, completing the song in her own English translations — a wonderfully vaudevillian technique, it makes the material accessible for those of us who love the culture but don’t have the language. It’s just good horse sense to meet us halfway).
Of the half dozen or so singers I’ve seen at Pangea over the past year of so, Marshall is the most technically accomplished, I think, negotiating some pretty tricky ground with seeming effortlessness. At times it was as though she were pouring herself out to us like table wine. Numbers in the set included the boogie-woogie flavored “Les Grands Boulevards” (a number she first copped off an old Yves Montand record — phonetically — when she was ten years old); the funny “J’Suis Snob” by Jimmy Walter and Boris Vian; the patriotic medley “Les Grognards/La Colombe/Sons Of”, and ending her set on the heartfelt and timely plea for love “Quand On n’a Que L’amour” by Jacquel Brel, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman (it shouldn’t surprise you to know there were several Jacques Brel songs in the set). Then for an encore, the much more upbeat “Mon manège à moi”, also associated with Piaf, by Norbert Glanzberg and Jean Constanin.
Sadly the present run is done, but I’m told a new show is coming up in the spring, and when it does, I’ll spread the word. As for my little vacation in the City of Light last night: je ne regrette rien.