Stephanie Trudeau to Sing Chavela Vargas in 'THINK OF ME' at Pangea
"Chavela: Think Of Me," written and performed by Stephanie Trudeau, is more than just a musical cabaret based on the songs of legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. It is also a documentary theater project that traces the famed ranchera singer's artistic evolution and the key relationships of her life, including those with her musical mentor, Jose Alfredo Jimenez (the world's greatest composer of ranchera songs), the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the great Cuban courtesan Macorina, and the producers, notably Pedro Almodovar, who enabled her comeback at age 74 after a 15 year battle with alcoholism.
Trudeau will unveil the piece May 15 at Pangea Supper Club, 178 Second Ave. (East Village), accompanied by her arranger, David Lahm on piano and by Ben Lapidus on guitar and percussion.
The show will be a refreshing homage and celebration of the arts of Mexico at a time when our southern neighbor is the focus of stereotyping and right-wing disrespect in America today. Ms. Trudeau says, "I'm Puerto Rican, but I feel this Mexican singer in my bones." She adds, "What I love about her music is its primal power. It's heart-breaking, wrist-slitting, gut-wrenching. This music has 'tripas'--tripe, guts."
Stephanie Trudeau has been an actress and singer for over 40 years, performing in NYC cabaret, Off-Broadway and regional theater. Recently she had been developing a program of songs written by women, notably Spanish songs her Puerto Rican Mother Loved that were written by great Latina songwriters including Maria Grever, Maria Teresa Lara, Maria Teresa Vera and Consuelo Velazquez. In the course of this, she discovered Chavela Vargas. As her research on Vargas broadened and deepened, she decided to refocus the project into a program of Spanish songs focused exclusively on this artist. "Chavela: Think Of Me" emerged as part bioplay and part homage--a cabaret show enriched with biographical narrative and illustrated with multimedia.
Trudeau's other cabaret shows have included one on the body of work of June Christy, a noted jazz artist who sang in the late 40's, 50's and 60's and whom Trudeau studied as an archivist. This was followed by "Stephanie Trudeau Sings the American Songbook," a recurring attraction at Palmira's Restaurant in Brooklyn Heights and other venues. It was supported by grants from the Brooklyn Arts Council, The Puffin Foundation and NYC Councilman Ken Fisher. Her research into the Giglio Festival in Brooklyn led to her being selected for a nine-month residency in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar for cultural and musicological research connected to three saints' festivals. Her findings from that fellowship just might be reflected in her next show.
Trudeau was a founding member, actor and producer of New Directions Theatre Company (NYC). Her regional theater roles include Winnifred in "Once Upon a Mattress," Mrs. Webb in "Our Town," Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie" and Esther in "The Price." Her on-camera credits include "Law & Order" and various films.
Trudeau's varied experience as a performer, arts educator and scholar informs her cabaret works, in which she combines her warm, earthy alto singing voice with historical and musicological insights on the artists she explores. Her academic accomplishments include studies in Dramatic Arts at University of California Santa Barbara and a major academic paper on the American popular song movement and its canon, which she wrote under the tutelage of her mentor at CUNY, Jeffrey Taylor, Professor of Music at Brooklyn College.
"Chavela: Think Of Me" is characterized as a "docu-cabaret," because it combines stories about the iconic singer Chavela Vargas with performances of key songs of her career. The narration is all in English but Vargas' ranchera songs and Latin American pop hits are sung in Spanish with some translated lyrics. The show is illustrated in multimedia containing historical images of the principal characters and their social and artistic milieu. The show has been partly developed under the eye of director Deborah Wright Houston, who is best known for her work as Artistic Director of the critically-acclaimed Kings County Shakespeare Company (1983-2010).
Ranchera is the vocal form of traditional Mariachi music. It's an art form that didn't entirely cross over and make it north, but is distinguished in world music for its canon of potent torch songs of lust, longing, passion and despair. Its premiere composer was Jose Alfredo Jimenez (1926-1973), whose songs are considered an integral part of Mexico's musical heritage. His compositions comprise much of the show's song list. The evening also contains notable English adaptations of other ranchera songs. These include "Drinking Again," a version of Jimenez' "Tu Recuerdo Y Yo," which was made famous by Frank Sinatra in an adaptation by Johnny Mercer and Doris Tauber, and Lila Downs' English lyrics to Osvaldo Farres' "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas" (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps), a Cuban song of longing and frustration.
IF YOU GO:
Chavela: Think Of Me
written and performed by Stephanie Trudeau
Monday, May 15, 2017
Pangea Restaurant & Supper Club, 178 Second Ave. (betw. 11Th & 12th Streets), East Village
$20 cover (if purchased online in advance) or $25 cash at the door, plus $20 food/drink minimum.
Box office: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2928562 or 212-995-0900
Runs one hour. Reviewers are invited.
Artist's website: www.Stephanie-Trudeau.com
ABOUT CHAVELA VARGAS (adapted from the playscript by Stephanie Trudeau)
Chavela Vargas was born in 1919 in a small village just outside Costa Rica's capital city. Her mother ran off with a lover when Chavela was seven. Her father never believed she was his, so he kept his other children but sent her to live with an uncle and twelve cousins on a farm. She ran away to Mexico City when she was 14. This was the early 1930's, 15 years after the Mexican revolution, when Mexico City was emerging as the cultural capital of Latin America. She did odd jobs and found a room in the "Zona Roja" the red-light district, where she said, "I lived with prostitutes, bohemians, women who drank tequila and machos with big hearts."
She absorbed the culture and music, relating, "The first time I heard Mariachi music I almost fainted from emotion." She began singing on the streets and in bars and cantinas and the great ranchera songwriter/singer Jose Alfredo Jiménez was convinced to check her out. Traditionally, only men sang rancheras and Chavela was constantly booed for daring to sing these "men's songs." However, Jimenez took her under his wing and let her sing with him and even began writing songs for her. The petite "chica" from Costa Rica, a pretty teen-ager with long raven hair, was becoming the greatest interpreter of rancheras.
She was gay, but not openly. Many years later, when she was a world star, Chavela was hailed as the "Magnificent Lesbian Chanteuse," but not in Mexico of the 1930's and 40's. Chavela took on a Mexican costume -- the jorongo. She ditched the heels and put on huaraches -- peasant sandals. The transformation was to an "otherness." The other very different thing about Chavela was that she didn't sing rancheras with a typical Mariachi band. She pared down the accompaniment to just guitar, centering the performance on the lyrics and the stories.
Chavela fell into the social circle of the leading painters of her time, including the muralists Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, who painted the revolution and revealed to Mexican people who they had been and what they could be. Now in her late teens, she went to a Christmas party at "La Casa Azul," the home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Chavela said, "It was a wild party -- mariachi bands playing, women dancing the tango and Frida came in, carried on a stretcher" The party lasted all night but Chavela didn't go home in the morning. She ended up living with Rivera and Kahlo for a year and met their circle of poets, writers, artists, performers an even Leon Trotsky. During that year, Diego Rivera became her mentor and teacher and Frida Kahlo became her protector and dearest friend. Chavela said, "Frida painted her bitterness and pain and I sang it. She taught me how to live; how to be an artist." Clearly Chavela loved her, Frida was also smitten. In a letter to the poet Carlos Pellicer, Frida said, "Hoy conoscos a Chavela Vargas. Today I met Chavela Vargas. She is an extraordinary lesbian. I felt erotically attracted to her. I would not hesitate one second in undressing for her. Maybe she is a gift sent from heaven."
Kahlo died in 1954. Chavela was devastated, said her goodbyes to Frida -- "the love of her life" --and fled to Cuba. In Havana, Chavela was introduced to the famed Macorina, who was then an older woman who had been a very beautiful and famous courtesan. She was also something of a trailblazer -- the first woman to drive a car in Havana. And like Frida, she made an impact on Chavela's life. Chavela composed music to the words of a poem written to La Macorina, and "Ponme la Mano Aqui, Macorina" became her signature song.
About two years later, Chavela returned to Mexico, where she was still hugely popular, and became the darling of all Hollywood stars who went to Mexico for fun and divorces. She sang at Liz Taylor's wedding to Mike Todd -- a bang-up party that lasted three days with mariachi bands, hundreds of musicians playing and lots of tequila. Eventually, the high life caught up with Chavela and in the mid 1970's she disappeared for 15 years, from the mid 1970's to the late 1980's, battling severe alcoholism. But, she didn't just survive; she triumphed in her Second Act.
Chavela made a successful comeback at age 72, singing sober for the first time. Werner Herzog cast her in a movie and Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar introduced her to audiences in Spain and France. (Almodóvar said there were two things he wanted to be known for: making films and introducing Chavela Vargas to Spanish audiences. He adored Chavela and called her his "muse.") She continued singing into her eighties, with her love songs taking on deeper meanings and becoming more powerful as she sang of love remembered, a life lived, and the memories of a woman who said, "I never did anything halfway and I was always unlucky in love." She was called the "rough voice of tenderness." Chavela headlined concerts in Spain and France and performed throughout South America. For the first time she was singing in theaters, not bars. In 2002, she appeared and sang in "Frida," Julie Taymor's biopic on Frida Kahlo which starred Selma Hayek. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2003 at the age of 83 and was honored with a Latin Grammy in 2007 for lifetime achievement in music. She died in 2012 at age 93. Today, in Mexico there is a word coined for Chavela Vargas -- "chavelaza" -- which means to be consumed by emotion.
Downtown's intimate supper-club Pangea is the ultimate in alt, playing home to some of the best in alt cabaret. The New York Times recently called it "a bohemian oasis not unlike the fabled Max's Kansas City from days gone by.