It was the stuff a public relations man’s dreams are made of: the first rock opera ever to be written in French and the first Franco-Canadian collaboration on a musical extravaganza. In fact, the $1.7-million production of Starmania, currently playing Paris and scheduled to travel to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium June 29, was so awash in firsts that it almost missed the most important one—its own first night.
After four years of preparation, the complex co-production, written by 33-year-old Quebec lyricist Luc Plamondon and composed by Michel Berger, the 30-year-old whiz-kid of the French pop charts, was still lumbering uncertainly about Paris’s Palais des Congrès rehearsal hall a day before
it was scheduled to open this month. Director Tom O’Horgan, who had been flown in from New York trailing the heady promise of his Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar successes, took one look at the last run-through, spied a
show buried somewhere beneath the tangled cast of 70 actors, singers, dancers, musicians and the equipmentboggling technical effects, and begged more time. “We just weren’t ready,” shrugs Plamondon. “We’d waited four years for this; we figured we could wait another day.”
When the show finally did hit the boards after a frantic re-arrangement of tickets, the rough edges were still showing but that scarcely threatened to dim its glitz: it was already half sold-out. Despite a meandering plotline and an ending that trails off in questionable taste, Starmania is an amusing confection that the French critics found irresistible, dubbing it, with good-natured indulgence, a spectacle à l'américain. Not only were they referring to the O’Horgan touch, but the fact that its three Quebec leads, Diane
Dufresne, Fabienne Thibeault and Nanette Workman, stole the show from under the noses of French co-stars, Daniel Balavoine and France Gall.
Set in some mythical city of the future called Monopolis, Starmania's history goes back to 1975 and an overseas phone call. Michel Berger called Quebec on a whim and asked Plamondon if he would like to write a rock opera with him. For Plamondon the timing couldn’t have been better: “I was getting bored with singers phoning me up in desperation saying, Luc, I’ve just got to have a new song. I’d always
dreamed of writing a whole show.” His flirtation with the future in Starmania may have more than a little to do with the fact that he was born in the village of St. Raymond de Portneuf, outside Quebec City, the son of an illiterate wild-horse tamer who signed his birth certificate with an X. “It really was another century,” says Plamondon. “I was born in the middle ages.” At 12 he was packed off to a Quebec City seminary to study for the priesthood, a plunge into a French classical education which he likes to say “brought me up to the 19th century.” A year into university in Montreal, he dropped out and took to the road to catch up on the rest of his personal time warp.
During his travels, Plamondon had secretly been writing songs for his own amusement. Back in Quebec, he met musician André Gagnon who challenged him to write the words to a new tune. He did it in one night producing the hit of that summer in Quebec.
Plamondon’s fame, however, came through the songs he wrote with Quebec musician François Cousineau for Diane Dufresne, whom he still calls “the best interpreter in the French-speaking world. She provokes me to go farther. All my fantasies she’s ready to perform.” Some of those fantasies are incorporated into Starmania, along with a liberal helping of basic psychology, wit and the thoughts of Andy Warhol who decreed that in today’s world everybody would be a star for 15 minutes. There are aimless kids who make their mark as terrorists, TV stars who have everything but love, and fading sex symbols who lend their sputtering allure to tycoons’ political campaigns.
It took six months for the Plamondon-Berger collaboration to produce their first singable song, but then Starmania began to sprout, swelling from a nice little cabaret concept into its current colossal size. By last year, the potential budget had grown to such proportions that it became clear the only way to get it produced would be to follow the lead of Jesus Christ Superstar and turn out a cast album first. A record company put up the $200,000 cost— already amply repaid: by last month, the Starmania album had sold 125,000 copies in France, 85,000 copies in Quebec and produced a half-dozen hits for individual performers.
O’Horgan was lured into the project by a French producer despite the fact that he spoke not a word of the language. By the week before opening, his official translator had lost her voice, but he was still buoyantly bobbing about the rehearsal hall like some 54year-old overblown leprechaun, exhorting blank francophone faces, “Now, children, now, sweethearts ...” and insisting that “theatre language is universal.” He talks of taking Starmania to Broadway in English and Warner Brothers has already expressed interest in turning it into an English-language album and film. That future will depend in part upon how Quebec audiences take to it this summer. The major difficulty rests on the question of whether it’s translatable or not.
For Plamondon, however, there’s little chance that Starmania will turn him into a star on the Great White Way. He intends to bow out of any translated versions despite his multilingual talents. “I’ve already spent two years doing the lyrics in French,” he says. “Why take four years to do them in English?” With files from Wayne Grigsby
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