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From Eva to Edith

Argentine actress and London theater star Elena Roger talks about her journey from Eva Peron to Edith Piaf. logo
Elena Roger in Piaf
(© Johan Persson)
Two years after making her West End debut playing Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Evita, Argentine firecracker Elena Roger is back on the London stage playing another 20th-century icon, Edith Piaf, in the 30th anniversary revival of Pam Gems' award-winning bio-play Piaf, now at the Donmar Warehouse. The star recently spoke to Terri Paddock of about these two seminal shows and her plans for the future.

TERRI PADDOCK: How significant was Evita for you?
ELENA ROGER: It was important because I was playing an Argentinean role, a role about my country. And for me as a musical actress, having the opportunity to be in the West End was incredible. I never thought I could do it as my English is not so good. I brought a lot of my culture to the production and everyone was open-minded -- they really liked me being in it and we had very good reviews. It was great to be able to work with Michael Grandage and his associate Jamie Lloyd -- who's now directing me in Piaf -- and Philip Quast and Matt Rawle. All were very kind.

TP: What do Eva and Edith have in common?
ER: They both came from a very low place in society. They were very poor when they were kids and then they had the opportunity to touch the sky with their hands. They both went to the top of something: Eva Peron had power as the wife of the president of our nation, and Edith Piaf was a big singer. In the best years of her career, Piaf was the third highest paid singer in the world. The other thing they had in common is that they were fighters. It didn't matter what problems they had, they just kicked them out and got on with their lives.

TP: What have you learned about Piaf in researching the role?
She was discovered by the owner of a great bar who invited her to sing there. Because she was so poor, she didn't have a dress so she needed to make one, but she didn't have time to finish both arms so the first time she performed was with just one sleeve. The other was a handkerchief or something. She had a tough life. She had many lovers and two of them died, she was a drug addict and an alcoholic and she died very young. But she was also happy and funny all the time, she loved life and as she said "I don't regret anything."

TP: How's your French?
ER: We've decided not to have everybody speaking in a French accent. The only thing is, I am going to sing the songs in French. That is difficult because I don't speak French, so I went to Paris to have some lessons and to feel the spirit of the French people. But I am not an imitation of Piaf. The important thing is that people feel the soul of her person and her story.

TP: Do you have a favorite Edith Piaf song?
ER: I like "Mon Dieu" and "Non, je ne regrette rien." I think her songs became classics because she had writers who wrote for her and they wrote about the sad things that happened to her so the words went direct to her soul. That is why the interpretation is so good. I think she could interpret any song, but because all her songs were about her life, she really understood and felt them deeply.

TP: What are you best known for in Argentina?
ER: A show called Mina, che cosa sei about an Italian singer. It's not her life, but I sang all the songs of her repertoire and made a story. It's a lovely staging, with musicians on stage, and it's quite romantic. That was the biggest thing as I devised it with a friend, I won the award for the best actress in a musical and we won the award for best musical. I would like to do it in London but I don't know how it could work. I play it in Italian. In Buenos Aires we have a lot of Italians -- my ancestors came from Italy and everyone has an Italian in their family -- so they can understand a little bit of the words and the language is quite similar. I wouldn't translate it. I don't think it is good to translate it. But maybe we could do it for a few weeks in London in Italian.

TP: What are your other plans for the future?
ER: I went to Australia a few weeks ago with a cabaret tango show called Querido Tango, and I would like to do that in London. I also have this new album called Vientos del sur, which means "wind from the South." We have some tango and some Argentinean folk music and then we have three or four songs in English but with Argentinean rhythms. It was a way to join my two worlds: my English life with my Argentinean. To try and unite my souls in two places. It's just out on our own label, I produce it. Maybe after Piaf, I would really like to do something in Buenos Aires as the last thing I did there was two years ago, but of course I want to keep working in London too. I don't know what other roles I would like. Life will tell me what I will play next. Life takes you and gives you everything, you just need to be awake to realize what to do.


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