Pam Gems' successful tribute to legendary star Marlene Dietrich was one the hits of London's last theatrical season. The musical, simply called Marlene, starring Sian Phillips and directed by Sean Mathias, depicted backstage and onstage, one of the last concerts that Dietrich gave in Paris, back in 1973.
Sian Phillips will reprise her role in Paris for a limited engagement, Apr. 15 to 29 at the Espace Pierre Cardin. Playbill On-Line spoke to Miss Phillips, prior to her Paris run. Asked about the genesis of the show, Phillips said "I commissioned it, in fact, because I did Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey in London in 1981, and it seems that, at the time, a lot of critics said 'she looks like Marlene and she sounds like Marlene' so my agent said 'you must do a show about her'. And I said 'Yeah', I didn't think about it at all. Then, many years later, in 1993, I was working with Pam Gems, the author, and my agent rang me up and said 'Why don't you ask Pam to write a play about Marlene ?' and I did. And she said 'I'll think about it' and then she produced the play."
Sian Phillips has vivid memories when recalling her various Dietrich experiences. "I saw Marlene in concert in 1975, in Wimbledon, and I was completely captivated by her. I had never seen anyone with such control of an audience. And she couldn't have been young then, but she was incredible. And I thought that her performances as an actress in her concerts were much better because the material of some of her movies were not very good, but the songs she sang-- she acted each song perfectly, I thought. So that was my idea of her, it was based on this incredible icon that I have seen in Wimbledon." About twenty years later, Phillips got the chance to portray Marlene. "My best memory is the very first time we tried to do this show, at the studio of the National Theatre. It was before we did A Little Night Music. We all went into this big studio and we gave a promenade performance, very different from what it is today. We walked [around the stage] and the audience had no seats. They stood, and walked with me from place to place; when I sat on the bed, they sat on the bed, we didn't know what to expect, we hardly knew what we were doing (...) About 50 people came and stood for this and at the end of it, they wouldn't go away. And we all knew we had something extraordinary, we didn't know what it was, we knew it would have to be rewritten, re-rehearsed and changed completely in fact. But we knew something magical had happened that night."
Asked about her relationship with the character, Phillips said "Everyone says to you 'Be very careful' when you do a one-person show, because if you don't like the person, then travelling with this person can be a terrible experience. And I've not found that with Marlene, it's been good. I think we portray a very talented woman, with enormous self-discipline and a good deal of courage. So I think those are the main characteristics that stay with me from the play."
Mounting this show in Paris will definitely be a very special event, not only because Dietrich used to live a few blocks away from where Marlene is going to be performed, but also because the Paris concert depicted in the musical originally took place at the Espace Pierre Cardin. Phillips, in the legendary Dietrich gown, will get the chance to perform the role on the real stage where the action is supposed to be located, which makes this realistic tribute to the star even more thrilling. "I'm very nervous (...) I went to the theatre, I met Dominique who runs [it], I met Mr. Cardin, we walked through the theatre on the stage where Marlene went. They told me a lot of things about her. I'm thrilled to be doing it, because it's very exciting that Mr. Cardin should offer that I come and do it because he presented [Marlene Dietrich] many years ago. But at the same time, I'm really quite nervous. Of course, I'm doing it in English too, which has put me at a slight disadvantage, but I just hope that we crash the language barrier somehow." After her Paris engagement, Phillips has several projects, including bringing the show to the United States. "We will certainly start on the road in America and eventually, we will go to New York" said Phillips. "It's difficult to see beyond [Marlene]. I'm writing a book now, but it's very difficult to find the time, but I am writing. I'm also working on a cabaret with Thierry Harcourt, who is the assistant director for Marlene here in Paris. He is directing me in a cabaret which we have been invited to do abroad. We have been invited to take Marlene to a lot of countries as well, so I have to finish that."
For tickets and informations on Marlene at the Espace Pierre Cardin, call 331 42 65 27 35. Runs Apr. 15-29.
-- By Stephane Ly-Cuong