Long before Les Miserables and Irma La Douce, French musical theatre did exist. Still under the influence of operetta but openening a new door towards modern musical theatre, Henri Christine and Albert Willemetz wrote to successful musicals, Phi-Phi in 1918 and Dede in 1921. A new production of Dede starring Philippe Ermelier will run at the prestigious Opera Comique (where Bizet's Carmen had its world premiere), Feb 4-10.
When Dede opened at the Theatre des Bouffes Parisiens on Nov. 10, 1921, it is said that George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Douglas Fairbanks were in the audience. The show became a star-vehicle for Maurice Chevalier whose song in the show -- "Dans la vie faut pas s'en faire" -- became an instant hit and a signature number for Chevalier. Christine and Willementz's musicals inspired many French composers, and Maurice Yvain (who is especially known abroad for having written "My Man") successfully followed the path opened by Phi-Phi and Dede.
Philippe Ermelier, who plays the title role, has extensive theatre credits, switching from operas, operettas to musical theatre (including the French productions of Cats and Les Miserables in which he portrayed Javert). "The year I entered the Paris Opera School, I heard about auditions for Cats and I was taken. So during the day, I was singing in a lyrical style while in the evening, I was belting out in a musical. That gave me several possibilities of vocal expressions" says Ermelier about his abilities to switch from one genre to another.
About his character in Dede, Ermelier says "Dede is a bourgeois who meets a married wife. He buys a shoe store to be able to see her and turns it into his bordello ! It's 'boulevard theatre,' like a play by Labiche or Feydeau. Vocally, I play the role as if I was playing a role in Les Miserables or Crazy For You. Duparc [the director] is crazy about musicals and have modernized Dede to make it sound more like a musical and not like a dusty operetta. It appeals a lot to young audiences."
After Dede, Ermelier has several projects in the opera, operetta and musical theatre fields. "From Mar. 3 to Apr. 12, I will direct and play the title-role in Phi-Phi at the Theatre du Tambour Royal. I'm the director of the Festival of Vocal Art in Bourgogne and already did this show there. Dede and Phi-Phi are made with the same mold but while Dede is set in Paris, in the 20's, Phi-Phi takes place in a delirous, anachronistic and saucy vision of ancient Greece. Then, in April, I will play in Man of La Mancha at the Opera Royal de Wallonie, in Liege, in a production starring Jose Van Dam. I play the Barber, which is a small part but I have an aria and a duet with Van Dam. Then, we will do it in Brussels next year and possibly in Paris. We will make a recording too. And then, I will direct and play in a revue-like show of Broadway songs, called I love musicals (and I can't help it) at the Theatre du Renard, May 19-23. It's only five days but next year, we will do it during a month." Dede starring Philippe Ermelier is directed by Jacques Duparc, who also plays the role of Robert and who has designed the lighting. Choreography is by Laurence Fanon, sets by Christope Vallaux, costumes by Dominique Burte and musical direction by Jerome Pillement. Other performers starring in this production are Cecile Galois (Odette), Nelly-Anne Rabas (Odette), Rene Camoin (Robert) and Jean-Paul Journot (Chausson).
For tickets and information on Dede at the Opera Comique, call 331 42 44 45 46. Performances on Feb. 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 at 7:30 PM and Feb. 8 at 3 PM.
-- By Stephane Ly-Cuong