The French singer Edith Piaf owes much of her iconic status to having endured and triumphed despite her brutal upbringing – abandoned by her mother, raised in a brothel – and terrible losses throughout her short life. She transmuted her pain and strength into her music, creating a cathartic passage through heartache and beyond.
The chaos, oppression and violence that have engulfed Venezuela in recent years sadly make this an ideal time for a pair of Venezuelan artists to translate Piaf’s life to the stage. When the singer and actress Maraica Semprún premiered Piaf, a biographical musical written by fellow Venezuelan Leonardo Padrón, one of Latin America’s leading writers and popular intellectuals, in Caracas last fall, it was a hit. Despite the collapse of normal life there, some 15,000 people flocked to 32 performances over last October and March.
“I believe the success of the piece came out of these very dark, painful moments that we’re living,” said Semprún in Spanish last week, shortly after a rehearsal of Piaf at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre, where Piaf will make its U.S. debut on Thursday. “Cultural spaces are necessary, places where we can find beauty and escape for a couple of hours. I think Venezuelans need art in order to keep fighting and not go crazy, because the situation is terrible.”
Born in Paris in 1915, Piaf was abandoned by her mother as an infant, and raised mostly by her paternal grandmother, a brothel owner, and by prostitutes. She began singing in the streets at 14, and had a daughter at 17. Unfamiliar with motherhood and stability, Piaf lost her daughter to the girl’s father, and she died at age two. Piaf struggled up through cabarets, and eventually become famous for songs such as La Vie en rose and Non, je ne regrette rien, but she was unlucky in love and dogged for much of her life by rumors and underworld associations. Debilitated by alcoholism and struggles with morphine addiction and other drugs, she died in 1963 at only 47.
“Her story is very dramatic – very hard, very painful,” says Semprún. “Death was close to her all the time. Despite this she turned her music into her greatest refuge. She converted all her pain and shortcomings into her songs.”
The show comes to Miami – and its fast-growing community of Venezuelan expatriates – thanks to Venezuelan-raised Michel Hausmann, artistic director of Miami New Drama, the dynamic new troupe behind The Golem of Havana and Terror, which is now charged with managing the Colony Theatre. Semprún worked regularly with Hausmann’s Caracas troupe Palos de Agua in the 2000’s, performing in musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar. The implicit criticism of the government in those productions, as well as the presentations of Jewish and gay-themed shows, led to threats and attacks on the company, and Hausmann fled Venezuela at the end of the decade. When he heard Semprún was seeking a U.S. venue for Piaf, he immediately offered the Colony.
Hausmann believes the story of a famous figure battling misfortune should appeal to both Anglo and Hispanic audiences, and particularly to Miami’s growing population of educated emigres driven here by turmoil at home, not only from Venezuela, but from countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Peru. The response to Piaf was so enthusiastic that the run was extended by a week.
“There’s an important constituency in this city of highly educated, recently arrived Latin American immigrants who see what’s happening in their country, and nobody is talking to them,” says Hausmann. “When we do the response is overwhelming.”
Piaf’s legend, which had faded in recent decades, was partially revived in the United States by the 2007 Oscar winning film La vie en rose. But in Latin America, the singer’s passion and theatricality, like that of adored divas such as La Lupe (the subject of another bio-musical Semprún originated) and Chavela Vargas, has helped keep Piaf’s star bright.
“She had many fans in Venezuela,” says Semprún. “What people told me is they came to the show because their mother or grandmother always listened to Piaf’s music. Her music has passed from generation to generation.”
Semprún studied French, and Piaf’s music, for two years to prepare for the show, which is Padron’s first theater piece. Fortunately, as Semprún’s boyfriend of eight years, it wasn’t hard to persuade him to try a new medium. The pair have also worked together frequently on telenovelas, where he was the writer and she an actress.
The run at the Colony marks a new chapter for the couple, who’ve been driven by the crisis in Venezuela to live in Miami. They are hoping to eventually bring Piaf to New York. To prepare for that possibility, Semprún will do the show in English in three of the nine Miami performances – an intimidating first for her.
Inhabiting Piaf’s tortured soul, however, is the biggest challenge.
“It’s a difficult experience,” Semprún says. “At the same time it’s motivating to see the power of resisting adversity.”
“In some ways I identify with her, because despite the pain and chaos she took refuge in music and art.”
Piaf is at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, from July 20 to August 6. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $50 – $60 at colonymb.org/piaf.