‘La vie en rose’, the classic written and made famous by Edith Piaf, is the opening musical number in Noches de Casablanca (Henri Decoin, Spain/France, 1964). Sara Montiel sings it in her leisurely suggestive way (see clip below), so easily imitable by drag queens across the Spanish speaking world, in a camp staging that’s a low-budget hodge-podge of the ‘Stairway to Paradise’ number in An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and every MGM musical that had any staircases, candelabras and semi-clad women, which is to say quite a few, many by Minnelli, and sometimes even surrealistically deployed by him like in The Band Wagon so that the semi-clad women *are* the candelabras.
The number led me to wonder if there is an international repertoire that ‘Gay Divas’ share. And I write this both as a statement and as a question. Do you know of any more? Off the top of my head, aside from Sara Montiel, La vie en rose is sung by Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, the superb version by Grace Jones. Eartha Kitt covered it. Donna Summer, who was one, was bumped off her throne by the time she made her version, which is not particularly good, due to homophobia. Peggy Lee does a lovely duet with Aznavour. Madonna and Bette Midler have performed it in concert. I’m not sure if Celine Dion qualifies as a gay diva but she sang it also..and well. Audrey Hepburn who is everybody’s icon, sang it in Sabrina (Billy Wilder, USA, 1954). It’s a staple of cabaret and theatre divas such as Ute Lemper. And in the forthcoming A Star is Born Bradley Cooper finds Lady Gaga singing ‘La vie en rose’ in a drag bar. See how a case builds?
‘La vie en rose’ was a big hit then and now. Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for playing Piaf in the film of her life called La vie en rose (Olivier Dahan, France, 2007). Ostensibly, according to wiki, there were seven versions of the song that made the 1950 Billboard charts. Now neither Bing Crosby, Tony Martin, Paul Weston, Louis Armstrong etc. are gay divas. So we can’t say everyone who sings this song is one. And likewise, we can’t say that if it’s not in their repertoires they’re not gay divas as lots of other gay divas have, as far as I know, not done a version: Garland, Minnelli, Cher, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Britney. Niente!
Andy Medhurst told me that ‘Some landmark diva-songs seem welded very strongly to me to one particular diva (‘The Man That Got Away for Garland’, ‘People’ for Streisand etc etc) so much that other versions are overshadowed. Even though your ‘Vie En Rose’ list shows the opposite, for me it will always belong to Piaf.’ To this Kevin Stenson has also added Doris Day and ‘Secret Love’ also seem welded whilst noting that songs like ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Broadway Baby, both by Sondheim, are part of a shared repertoire amongst the ‘more mature divas’.’
All this I agree with, so we’re talking about intersections rather than absolutes. But isn’t it interesting that whilst each diva has songs that are entirely associated with them, and that are part of an appeal/address to a gay audience, so many also tend to add to their own unique repertoire by gravitating to particular songs that help constitute a shared one? Can you think of other covers of this song by gay divas. Are there other songs that seem a particular magnet to gay divas and and whose performance might constitute part of their appeal and address to a gay male audience, in turn helping consolidate the place these performers occupy in gay male cultures?
Is there a shared or intersecting repertoire? Do please let me know your thoughts.
Enquiring minds want to know.
You can look at some of the versions below:
Marlene Dietrich sang it in Hitchcock’s ‘Stage Fright’ (and I’ll post a clip from the film in due time):
Eartha Kitt did a growly cover:
Grace Jones classic dance version was the closing song of the first gay bar I went to.
Donna Summer in Tribute to Edith Piaf album:
Chrstos Tsirbas directed me to this lovely version by Bette Midler:
Adrian Garvey directed me to this version by Madonna in concert:
Peggy Lee with Charles Aznavour:
Celine Dion. Is she really a gay diva. Qua importa? She sings it well.
Matthew Motyka has pointed out to me that ‘Iggy Pop’s also covered it, and his sexually subversive persona I would argue, makes him qualify for queer cult if not full fledged icon status’. In my view he’s got a greater claim than Celine. But what do I know.
K.D. Lang duets with Tony Bennett on it here:
It’s a staple for Cabaret and Theatre divas like Ute Lemper:
.and, Kevin Stenson tells me that calling Gracie Fields a ‘Gay icon is pushing it but her records especially the comic ones were used by drag queens and played by DJ in gay pubs in lighter moments’.
Other versions include:
(Thanks, thus far, to Adrian Garvey, Andy Medhurst, Gary Needham, Kevin Stenson, Christos Tsirbas , and Phil Ulyatt for their input)