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Friday, 31 March, 2000, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Aznavour's tall order
Aznavour and Lautrec's stars
Aznavour (R) celebrates Lautrec's arrival in London with the show's stars
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

Legendary French singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour is on a mission - to polish up the tarnished character of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

His musical about the pint-sized 19th century French poster-painter - Lautrec - opens in London's West End on 6 April. And Aznavour - in Britain to promote the show - is confident it will banish the myth that he was a corrupt and marginalised freak.

He was somebody who experienced life to the full, living his 37 years like most people live 90 - always very lively and happy

Charles Aznavour on Toulouse-Lautrec
"When we have seen Lautrec portrayed in TV programmes or films such as Moulin Rouge with Jose Ferrer, his character was deeply depressing. But this simply was not true," Aznavour states with conviction.

"On the contrary, he was somebody who experienced life to the full, living his 37 years like most people live 90 - always very lively and happy."

Image change

Aznavour, 75, has written all the music and lyrics to Lautrec - adding its 18 songs to the 600-plus catalogue he has built up over 44 years as a composer.

Through these new works, he depicts the aristocrat as a man driven to defy his family and seek out the seedy cafes-concerts of the Paris region of Montmartre, not by perversion, but by a thirst for energy and truth.

Aznavour has long been a fan of Toulouse-Lautrec
Aznavour's Toulouse-Lautrec is also gentle, loving and devoted to the beautiful, working class Suzanne Valadon - who loves him equally in return.

With more than 100 million record sales under his belt and in constant worldwide demand to perform, Aznavour had no need to commit himself to such a mammoth project.

But, aside from being a fan of the artist's work, Aznavour, who is of Armenian decent, says the tale of conflict and desire that imbued Toulouse-Lautrec's life struck a personal chord.

Nothing has really changed from that turn of the century to the one we have now. We have the same sexual liberation and advances in technology - it's all about excess and innovation

Charles Aznavour
"I have always written songs like that - about life and truth, love, communication and misunderstanding. I guess it came from my background.

"My parents escaped from the genocide in Turkey to Paris and I saw despair, unhappiness and difficulties around me. First, it was with the Armenians, then the Russians who fled during the revolution, later it was the Jews who came from Germany and Poland in the late 1930s."

Life of extremes

Toulouse-Lautrec's life was short but extremely intense. When, in 1901, he succumbed to the effects of alcoholism, syphilis and furious llving, he had known huge professional success and witnessed exhibitionism in the extreme.

Lautrec's producers have by no means skimped on the outrageous details of Paris life in the 1890s.

Their show is flamboyant and colourful. Loose women, predatory men, drunkenness and general debauchery crowd every scene. In one of the most memorable, La Goulue - the infamous dancer of the Moulin Rouge - rapes a man before a jubilant crowd.
The women of Montmartre
No inhibitions: The women of Montmartre
But despite reports of some women in Plymouth - where the show did a West End prerun - walking out in disgust, Aznavour believes most audiences will find the shock value refreshing.

"When I saw the show people were cheering to see women being so strong. We could have gone further - can can dancers didn't usually wear anything under their skirts.

"But nothing has really changed from that turn of the century to the one we have now. We have the same sexual liberation and advances in technology - it's all about excess and innovation."

A confirmed Anglophile, Aznavour has chosen to debut his show in Britain rather than his native France where, he says, writers and audiences are only just cottoning on to the idea of musical comedies.

En vogue

Conversely, in the West End, musicals with a French flavour are very much in vogue as Lautrec joins the ranks of Les Miserables, Martin Guerre and Notre Dame de Paris.

But for all that, Aznavour has always written his lyrics in French and then had them adapted into English.
Armenian actor Sevan Stephan t
Armenian actor Sevan Stephan takes the lead
Good job too, many would say. How else would Aznavour classics such She and In The Old Fashioned Way have been covered by the likes of Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Ray Charles and, most recently, Elvis Costello?

Aznavour has no problem with others having hits with his creations. "Once I write a song it is finished and I move on to the next," he professes.

His next step will be to go on tour again in France. After that, he intends to slow down, but not retire. And, he says, another musical is in the offing.

Whether or not it will be based on a French story is, he teases, anyone's guess.

"The French have great stories, is it true, but they exist everywhere - it is just that people are too lazy to look close to home. The Portrait of Dorian Gray, for example - isn't that wonderful? You only have to search and you will find."

Lautrec opens at the London's Shaftesbury Theatre on 6 April.

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