Leslie Fitzwater as Edith Piaf
Fitzwater beats cancer and returns to the stage as the tragic, heroic French singing star.
Time stopped when Leslie Fitzwater sang “Pirate Jenny” in a Skylight production of Threepenny Opera. That was way back in 1988. I will never forget how the audience, cowed by the cold fury in Fitzwater’s rendering of this most bitter song, held its collective breath and was too paralyzed to even applaud at the end. Before we could recover, the stage went black and the singer was gone.
That intensity has served Fitzwater well throughout her distinguished career in Milwaukee musical theater, much of it at the Skylight. It has served her especially in the many times, over 25 years, that she has portrayed Edith Piaf, the tiny French chanteuse whose burning presence made her the highest paid female performer in the world and a goddess of 20th-century French culture. Friday through Feb. 10, Fitzwater will star as Piaf in the Skylight Music Theatre’s Edith Piaf On Stage.
“All the tests are coming up clear, and I feel magnificent,” Fitzwater said Monday (Jan. 21) . “I hadn’t realized how much the cancer had affected me. The treatment affects the nerves, and I have some tingling in my toes. My fingers feel as if I’ve been playing the guitar, though I haven’t. But I’ll take that over not feeling anything.”
She completed her chemo regimen last February, about the time she was to open this one-woman show last season. Trouper that she is, Fitzwater was determined to rehearse and go on right through chemotherapy. Bill Theisen, the Skylight’s artistic director, put a stop to that. Theisen hastily scheduled a revival of the Gershwin and Friends revue and gave Fitzwater a full year to recover and get ready for the imminent Piaf — which she says will be her last as a full production.
“I was going to end it in 2008,” Fitzwater said. “But Bill offered the main stage in the Cabot Theatre, and that was too enticing. But I want to end it while I can still do it well.”
Fitzwater, 59, referred to a problem quite apart from the cancer. She’s been diagnosed with irreversible damage to the sheathing of a nerve that controls muscles around the vocal cords. The cords on one side of the larynx get weak electrical signals and don’t respond as they should, leading to overcompensation on the other side. Fitzwater believes that her days as a professional singer — and a great one, in my estimation — are numbered.
“My whole career I’ve wondered how my voice will function now,” she said. “I started as a high soprano.”
I met her 30 years ago, as she was transitioning from an operetta ingenue soprano into the chesty alto she has cultivated since then. Without that change, she would not have become Piaf.
Colin Cabot, arts patron and Skylight managing director in the 1980s and through the mid 1990s, saw Piaf in Fitzwater. He cast her in a French revue and assigned her some Piaf songs during a summer run concurrent with 1987 Bastille Days, back when the Skylight was in the tiny Jefferson Street theatre on Cathedral Square. She was a hit. For the 1988 Bastille Days, Cabot cast Fitzwater in her first Piaf solo show. Fitzwater researched and wrote the show with some help from Cabot, who directed. James Valcq was pianist and music director.
“We still had the old rheostats to run the lights,” Fitzwater said. “Piaf sold so well that it paid for the Skylight’s first computerized light board. That board was my pride and joy.”
At least it was until next summer. She was four months pregnant with her first child when she reprised Piaf in 1989.
Since then, Fitzwater has done Piaf in various versions and in all sorts of venues, all of them intimate.
“I was concerned about that,” she said. “How would it work in a bigger house? Rick Rasmussen came up with a great set design, and with Holly’s (Blomquist’s) lights, it works like gangbusters.”
Jim Butchart, Fitzwater’s husband, is directing, and helping her to realize her idea of “starting as a small person and ending as close as possible to the audience, to end on a big note.”
Pianist Paula Foley Tillen will play and direct a band comprising accordion, bass and Ding Lorenz’s vast array of percussion. Tillen, also the show’s arranger, is a comforting presence to Fitzwater.
“Paula and I did the first ever post-show cabaret in the Skylight bar in 1992,” Fitzwater said. “We did Cabaret Divas, songs made famous by Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich and Piaf. We still get requests to do that show.”
For all her money and fame, Edith Piaf (1915-1963) had a hard and short life. She grew up partly in a brothel, then made her way as a street singer. She was accused of killing the Paris club owner who gave her a real singing job. Piaf’s stormy love life was the stuff of scandal. She drank too much and abused drugs. During the war, she was accused of collaboration. Her love life scandalized and titillated Europe. Boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, the love of her life, died in a plane crash. She suffered terribly in her later years from injuries suffered in three car accidents.
Fitzwater would both honor Piaf and put a capstone on her own career with Edith Piaf Onstage. She’s added two songs and wrote a new monologue to make it special.
“I play a somewhat older Piaf, now,” Fitzwater said. “She’s in a timeless place. She awakes, as if from a nightmare. The band is there, ready to rehearse. She tells them her stories, but then opens it up to encompass the audience. The songs don’t really tell those stories, but they fit emotionally. Over 200 songs were written by or for her. She would tell her composers a story or relate something she’d seen or heard or about and sometimes lock them in a room until they came out with a song.
“There’s a lot about her that I get. She appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 17 times. I watched her do ‘Milord.’ At the end, Sullivan gestured for her to come to him to share the applause. She was so uncomfortable and in such a hurry to get off. I was never one to milk applause, either. For me, it’s ‘Glad you liked it. Now it’s over. Goodbye.'”
Edith Piaf Onstage opens Friday, Jan. 25, and runs through Feb. 10 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, 148 N. Broadway. For a full schedule of performances and to buy tickets online, visit the Skylight website or call the BTC box office, 414 291-7800.