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Byron Shire
June 1, 2023

Songs for a 19th Century Party Girl

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If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, or La Traviatta, perhaps it left you wondering about Marie Duplessis, the glamorous courtesan who lives for love, champagne and parties, but tragically dies.

Well the real story is even more interesting. In creating Songs for the Fallen, Sheridan Harbridge (who plays Marie) researched the real story and found it was much more fascinating than anything depicted in opera or musical.

‘She was so much more outrageous and inspiring – I thought why aren’t they telling this story? Marie goes from poverty to fame in a short amount of time, at a time when women had no power and no education, hers is a story of wit and determination!’

Sheridan reflected on how Marie’s 19th century Parisian story reflected popular culture of today.

‘She’s ultimately a Lindsay Lohan, these girls who get to the top in these outrageous ways and people are watching them full of jealousy but they can’t wait for them to fall, and it was like that for Marie, Paris was obsessed with her, when she did die there was a quote by Charles Dickens who was in Paris at the time, he said, ‘It was like a queen had died.’

So who was this outrageous girl who died at 23?

‘Marie was born in dire poverty in Normandy and from the age of 12 her father started to sell her to the aristocracy, she fled from that at around 14 and found herself in Paris (around this time she contracted TB), working as a laundress and then found her first boyfriend, a merchant who set her up in a middle class apartment and gave her a middle class existence for a year, every girl had to have a man, it was the only way she could survive, a poor girl with a man was a grisette, to be a companion to a king was a la grande horizontale – the system for women was so bad they had to attach themselves to a man, they couldn’t own property – it was the only way!

‘While Marie was with this merchant she went on a mission to improve herself, changed her accent and made herself so she could pass off in society and started attending events and meeting Lords. This is how she became the courtesan to the aristocracy, the woman everyone wanted to have on their arm.

‘Marie had a couple of loves but ultimately with the life she had to live she couldn’t survive, there were men who were genuinely devoted to her but they couldn’t keep her in the manner she needed to live. She had three great loves, one whose father made him get rid of her otherwise he’d be disinherited, Damas who at the time was an unpublished author who had no money, he couldn’t handle the other men she had to see to keep her life afloat, they ran away to the country but couldn’t do it (he eventually made his fortune writing about her), but the man she considered the great love of her life was Franz Liszt the composer, she met him six months before she passed, they had three months together before he went back on tour. There is a quote from her, ‘You can’t have a heart to live in this world’. She realised to follow her heart was to live in peril.’

What was it about Marie that really made her such an icon?

‘I think she was an outsider in her time, it was a lot to do with not understanding money, she gets the money and you go, this is when she could have been free, but she had a lack of being able to think about the future, she would get money and just throw it away, she would just give it to prostitutes on the street, she was famous for that, she gave a lot of money to the church – probably from guilt. She was this infamous party girl, she numbs herself out, she would party to all hours, and we have based the show on her lifestyle, the show is a tribute to the big party she didn’t get to have, she gets so ill from TB she has to go to bed for four months at a time, so she loses everything: no friends, goes from deathly ill to peaks and troughs – she was just 23 when she died.’

Working with a cast of two actors, Simon Corfield and Garth Holcombe, musical director and composer Basil Hogios created a unique sound for the show.

‘We found this baroque pop sound where we mixed sumptuous classical with electro beats to make it more party world – it’s a musical. The two other actors play about ten people to fill out the players of her life. It’s an all singing, all dancing, all acting, romp!’

Just back from the New York Theatre Festival where Songs for the Fallen picked up Best Musical and Best Lead Actress, this is a show not to be missed.

Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 6pm at the Byron Community Centre, Tickets: 6685 6807 or byroncentre.com.au.

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