French connection 

An original musical based in 1940s France debuts in the Bitterroot

Laurence Markarian had never written a song until recently, let alone a musical. She grew up learning classical piano and ballet in the central commune of Bourges, France, but she wasn’t exactly an aspiring Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Instead, she got her business degree in the northeast town of Troyes, met her future husband at a conference in Los Angeles, and subsequently moved to the Bitterroot, where she’s lived for the past 14 years. Two years ago, however, she began to write a musical—one she says had been simmering in her thoughts for years—based on the 1940s occupation of France by the Germans. After composing 12 songs on piano and sending them off to a Scottish studio to be recorded, weaving together three acts of a fictional story based on historical events, hiring an award-winning—and local—costume designer, and casting Montanans from every corner of Ravalli County, Markarian is finally set to stage her original musical this weekend.

The show, titled Philippe, is a mish-mash of French clichés (the can-can, accordions, sidewalk cafes) and traditional music, but Markarian says it basically adheres to the time period.

“I have some extremely classical songs,” she says. “I have one that is a brass march, one that is very much like a chamber orchestra, one that is totally cartoonish and circus-y.”

Philippe takes place in Royan, which was on the fringe of the occupation. And though the Germans occupied this seaside town, Markarian says that it had a more relaxed atmosphere in many ways because the Germans wanted to keep the resort atmosphere of it. The story follows a young boy named Philippe—played by Markarian’s 14-year-old son, West—who is separated from his family and left to fend for himself on the street. It spans the time of the occupation, and ends with France’s liberation.

The occupation of France isn’t just a random theme plucked from the air—Markarian says that she and her husband are World War II history buffs. In fact, her husband, Terry, refurbishes vintage cars from that era for a living, sending them off to museums and private collectors. For her part, Markarian says she loves reading about the events of that time.

“The people who lived the history of the 1940s, some are still alive today and they have some great stories,” she says. “Some of them are happy even though it was about sad times.”

She has been collecting stories through the years and confirming facts from people who lived through the occupation in order to make her set and story as accurate as possible. Philippe’s first act, for instance, is based on her mother’s childhood, when she was sent to Royan—just like Philippe—because her parents didn’t want to leave their business in Paris behind, despite the German’s grip on the capitol city.

While Markarian followed some of her family’s true storylines, she mostly let the Philippe character take on a new life. And even with the music, accuracy was not always the goal for Markarian.

“Philippe is a little bit over the line sometimes, especially in one song when I use the lyrics ‘We are ready to kick some butts!’ But I needed to modernize it to reach out to the younger generation,” she says. “Even in the script we have some times that we say, ‘Okay’. [That’s] not something you would have said in this time and place...But overall, the flavor is really the flavor of the ’40s and we make a few exceptions here and there.”

Markarian never intended to cast her son in the title role—and she appears sheepish about it. But finding a 14-year-old boy who isn’t afraid of singing and can tap dance was a tall order. In addition to Philippe, there are four other main roles, each cast over a year ago, and Markarian spent time customizing songs for them.

“I wanted the songs to be in their range,” she says. “I had to transpose a lot of the music so it’s exactly what they need for their specific vocal range.”

Original productions, as one might imagine, can be hit or miss. Markarian speaks almost too casually about the ease of which this musical came about. She had trouble with the notation software for the music, but beyond that she says she never really had doubts.

“I wanted it to be exactly what I had pictured from the beginning,” she says. “And it was big from the beginning so I couldn’t compromise. I just knew that it was in me and I needed to get it out.”

She and her husband sunk a lot of money into the production—she won’t divulge how much—but according to costume designer Gretchen Spiess it’s Markarian’s devotion to the project that is most remarkable. Spiess—who has been nominated for numerous costume awards and won the Drama Critics Award for A Doll House—sewed 87 costumes for the play.

“I’ve done a lot of original productions and I love them, because it’s uncharted seas,” Spiess says. “[Markarian] is highly organized so that’s been marvelous and we do have an exceptional cast—and I’m not just saying that. I’ve been in theater for 37 years and there’s numerous casts I would never work with again.” She adds, “We’re kind of shocked at how good it is. It’s not your typical musical, and it’s really an exceptional piece of work.”

Markarian comes off as an eternal optimist. But she’s aware of where Philippe’s story diverges from many accounts of the occupation, including her mother’s. While the musical ends on a happy note, her grandmother died of tuberculosis before Markarian’s mother ever got to see her family again. And while she’s sensitive to her mother’s story, Markarian wants a musical that provides both history and entertainment.

“There is a place for proper entertainment, that go back to older values,” she says. “I think that people need to be entertained. They need to feel a sense of happiness…What I want them to do when they leave the show is to hum the last tune, the theme. If they do that, my goal will be fulfilled.”

Philippe debuts at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center, 327 Fairgrounds Road, Friday, June 20, at 7:30 PM, and continues through Sunday, June 22 and again Friday, June 27–Sunday, June 29. Sunday matinees at 2 PM. $15/$10 children under 12. Call 558-9719 for more info.
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