Qui es-tu, Marie-Jeanne?

Or, what happens when an actor gets a little bit too wound up in her character.

I’m gearing up to write a conference paper. It’s about a distinctly odd French rock opera called Starmania, a dystopian tale of kidnapping, terrorism, celebrity, globalisation and – judging by the production designs – bondage outfits and really scary hair. The show happens to be one of my geeky obsessions – there are (gulp) six different recordings of it on my iPod (there was a concept album in 1978, and there have been three major Paris stagings since then, two of which have been recorded twice); although it is, in some ways a somewhat crude piece of theatre (the plot, particularly in the first version, is messy to the point of incoherence), it touches on a number of hot-button social issues, and it’s an interesting cultural phenomenon. It’s sold something like 35 million records, but it’s almost unknown outside the French-speaking world. There was an English-language concept album with lyrics by Tim Rice under the title Tycoon, but it wasn’t a stunning success, perhaps partly because it contains most of the worst lyrics Tim Rice ever wrote. It yielded a minor hit for Cyndi Lauper – The World is Stone – but otherwise, as far as the English-speaking world is concerned, it’s sunk without trace, which is a shame because a lot of the music is terrific.

In sifting through the material I have for this paper, though, I’ve come across a few entertaining digressions. I’ve seen two productions of the show – the second and third major French stagings. The first time I saw it was in about 1990; I was in France on a student exchange, and my host family brought me to Paris for a few days. The show – which was then playing at the Théâtre Marigny – was one of the places they took me; the next day, I went to Fnac and bought the album (on cassette! God, that makes me feel old, I haven’t bought music on cassette in 20 years). There was one performance on the album I bought that really stood out – and, unfortunately, it was from the one person in the original cast (the production had opened the previous year at the Théâtre de Paris) who had been replaced. There’s a story there, but I didn’t find out what it was until much later.

The thing is, this show, more than most of the best-known rock musicals of the English-speaking world, has its roots in the music industry, rather than in the theatre. That accounts for a lot of things, including the fact that the plot is all over the place, but what it mostly means is that the casts of the various major productions have mostly been drawn from the recording industry. This is a show that puts pop singers, rather than actors, in most of the leads.

And here’s the tale. The performance that stood out for me on the recording I bought was by the Belgian pop and jazz singer Maurane (that’s a stage name, her real name is Claudine Luypaerts), in the female leading role of Marie-Jeanne. Marie-Jeanne is a depressed, downtrodden waitress/barmaid in an underground café who finds herself on the fringes of the show’s plot of terrorism and intrigue (partly because the protagonists meet in the bar where she works, and partly via her friendship/unrequited love for a bisexual DJ called Ziggy who dumps her to go and play a party for a megalomaniac businessman who wants to be President of the Occidental World, in a nightclub called Naziland, on the night when terrorists have planted a bomb in the place in the hope of taking out said megalomaniac businessman. I told you the plot was all over the place). Marie-Jeanne narrates a lot of the plot; she’s not a happy character, and she gets to sing a lot of depressing songs. Even the titles of her songs are depressing: La Complainte de la Serveuse Automate, Un Garçon Pas Comme Les Autres, Duo D’Adieu, Les Uns Contre Les Autres, Le Monde est Stone. The actress I saw in the show – just about the only person in it who was an actress, rather than a singer – was a lady named Réjane Perry (her performance was recorded later; I do have that recording now as well), and she was fine – lovely voice, and she wrung all the appropriate emotion out of her series of big, depressing pop ballads and, presumably, managed to remain sane doing so (sadly, Ms. Perry died of cancer in 2003, aged 43). A good performance – a really good performance – but not one that pinned me back in my seat.

Maurane, however, was clearly something else. She’s a great, great pop singer, with a strong, clear voice that can be both extremely soft and incredibly powerful at the same time. Marie-Jeanne’s songs in Starmania, by the time Maurane went into rehearsal with the show, were French pop-culture monuments; she hurled herself into them, giving a performance that, on the cast recording she made, is absolutely astonishing – raw, anguished and, by the final refrain of Le Monde est Stone, profoundly bleak. As I said, she’s a great, great singer. Over the years, that Starmania recording has cost me a great deal of money – the cost of tracking down Maurane’s albums via international mail order. What’s so spectacular about her? Judge for yourself. None of her cast album performances from the show are online, but this live concert performance of Le Monde est Stone is, and it’s a splendid performance, although the song itself is essentially a suicide note set to music:

Le Monde est Stone

What she is not, however, is an actress – not in terms of talent, but in terms of technique. After seven months of hurling herself, every night, into this string of depressing pop ballads, something snapped. Maurane abruptly quit the show; Réjane Perry had already been hired to replace her at the end of her contract, but had not started rehearsals, and had to learn the largest role in the show in two days. Maurane, meanwhile, went and had a long lie-down, and then started writing lyrics.

The result is a magnificently dolorous song called “Qui es-tu, Marie-Jeanne?”, whose lyrics explore the agony she felt at being trapped inside a miserable character every night on stage:

Qui es-tu, Marie-Jeanne?

(Ignore the awful visuals, this is the only video of the song up at the moment)

It’s an odd, striking subject for a song. The first verse starts bleak, and it doesn’t let up. “Tell me where I leave, where the lights bring me every evening. I play your history, even when I sleep, I live through you, I still resemble you. I no longer know where I am, where our lives are going, you’re me, I’m you. You’re in the decor, you cast a spell, so I can never escape. You enribbon me. Who are you, Marie-Jeanne? Even if things are fine, you’re an evil star in my skin.” Clearly this is not a lady who could leave her character at the stage door! Her vocal, here, is just as spectacularly despairing as her vocals in the show itself had been.

She does not, fortunately, just sing music-to-slash-your-wrists-by, though you could be forgiven for getting that impression from some of her earlier pop albums, which tend towards the ballad-heavy. Here she is with something completely different – Armstrong, her cover of Claude Nougaro’s paean to Louis Armstrong. This, too, is wonderful, and it won’t make you want to lie down and weep: