Have You Heard Of Henri Christine’s “Phi-Phi” (1918)?

Kurt Gänzl
Glitter and be Gay: Die authentische Operette und ihre schwulen Verehrer
1 August, 2007

Do you know Phi-Phi? Unless you are French or Hungarian and over 90 years of age, you won’t ever have seen it in all its original glory. I haven’t either. But I have read its original text and I have played and sung my way though the entire score (all of the parts, ingénue to basse comique). It is one of the funniest, liveliest, sexiest – not to mention most tuneful – pieces of theatre ever written.

Sheet music cover for "Phi-Phi".

Sheet music cover for “Phi-Phi”.

When I first read it, lying on my bed on a hot summer’s day in St Paul de Vence, I laughed until I literally ached myself into something worse than an asthma attack When I listened to the one good modern recording, made in the 1950s by Pathé, with the incomparable vocal comedian Bourvil in the title role of the ancient Greek (but very contemporary Parisian) sculptor, I simply melted into the mattress. I giggled (no, I don’t giggle, let’s say chortled), I hummed and sang snatches, for days and weeks after. I fear I may even have whistled.

This pieces is one of the greats, as the little coven of modern opérette lovers, world-wide, who have discovered its witty, wicked charms know well. Yet, after its first record breaking run, it barely travelled outside France. Oh, it was produced in Britain, America, Germany and places beyond, but it failed. Why? Because it was deodorised. The plot, the lyrics, even the music, were de-sexed for the ears of ‘decent’ twixt the wars foreign audiences, and the world never saw the magnificent Phi-Phi with all his parts intact.

So, when, in 1989 I heard that there was to be a revival of the show in Paris, I headed straight for the French capital. France, the birthplace of the most brilliant of comic Opérettes of the 19th and 20th centuries, could surely be relied on to give us the real thing. Imagine, for example that glorious waltz duet ‘Ah! Tais-toi’, between the randy tenorious Ardémidon and the vaguely-protesting wife of the sculptor, given as it was written. As they strip each other to the buff ready for a little adultery. Or the tenor’s ‘model’ audition before the celebrated sculptor for a place in his new creation. Well, its an ancient Greek statue, so… Enough said. I mean, it’s not that I’m a voyeur or anything.

And let’s face it, many operettic singers are not exactly a feast for the eyes, even with their clothes on.

But to make this wonderfully liberated (and the 1918 pun is intended) piece work to its unsurpassed utmost, the nudity is necessary. And, anyway, nice. And I wanted to see the show in all its glory, not just some of it.

Alas, France 1989 proved to be less liberated than France 1918, and what I saw was not at all what I had expected and longed for. The piece had seemingly been ‘adapted’ on its way to the modern stage, and for me it was underacted, undersung and .. well .. under- practically everything. And the nudity? Mme Phidias got her blouse off and that just about said it all. The production was one of the great disappointments of my theatre-going life. Not to mention the waste of an air ticket.

But Phi-phi still remains one of my great opérette moments. A moment I can only compare to solo sex.

The moment came on my bed in St Paul, drawn from a book of words and a ring of vinyl. And it was played out on the best and most magical stage in the world. That stage where everything is perfect. The one inside my head.

There is one comment

  1. geerd heinsen

    of course I have heard of phi-phi (and its not a dogs name…), there is even an old ortf recording under gressier (?)… nice and frothy and charming…