‘Songs for Scarlet Women’ – Jazz at George IV, Thursday 4 April

Image above: Simon Wallace and Sarah Moule

A show about femmes fatales, their history retold as her story in jazz songs, by Sarah Moule and Simon Wallace

What do Cleopatra, Salome, Mata Hari and Eve (as in the Garden of Eden) have to do with jazz, or for that matter, with each other?

Sarah Moule has woven together a show, the theme of which is wronged women – “they’ve had their sexuality used against them to undermine their credibility”.

“I promise you it’s a lot of fun” she says quickly, aware that this might not sound like crowd-pleasing material.

“I struggle to describe it without making it sound heavy, but there are a lot of laughs.”

Not just Sarah, but one of the early critics of her show ‘Songs for Scarlet Women‘ described it as ‘funny and provocative’. She has performed it 40 times outside London, but Jazz at George IV on Thursday 4 April will be the first time in London.

Sarah is considered one of the best jazz singers in Britain, and she performs the show with Simon Wallace, who wrote a lot of the songs she sings in the show, with the late, great American songwriter Fran Landesman.

Image above: Mata Hari

Mata Hari – unjustly shot as a spy

What is the show exactly? How did it come about?  Unsure where to start, we start with Mata Hari.

“It was Barb Jungr who suggested I do a show about femmes fatales. Film noir seemed like an obvious place to start – it’s the first thing which pops up when you start to research them.”

When she first performed the show, she called it ‘Femmes Fatales’, but since that phrase seems to mean different things to different people, she changed it to ‘Scarlet Women‘, which makes it easier for audiences to grasp, but loses some of the subtlety.

Femmes fatales are dangerous. They lure men to disaster, but always because of their irresistible good looks and sexual magnetism. I don’t think it really works if you’re considered a plain Jane, rather chaste and a little on the dumpy side. Hence the short leap to ‘Scarlet women’.

So, Mata Hari?  No obvious connections with jazz or film noire, but the very definition of a femme fatale.

“She was framed” Sarah asserts. She was accused by both the French and the Germans of spying during the First World War, and shot by a French firing squad, “but there was no evidence she did spy. The French military just needed a scapegoat,” she says.

A Dutch woman, who divorced her husband after an unhappy marriage and the deaths of their children, she reinvented herself in Paris as an exotic dancer, and presenting herself as an Indian temple dancer, she met with overnight success, but it did not last.

“Things went south and she became more of a high-class hooker”, says Sarah. “The song I chose to represent her in the show is Don’t fall in love with me. She was not a woman it would have been advisable to fall in love with.”

Don’t fall in love with me is one of the many songs in the show by Landesman and Wallace, so it’s worth a quick detour at this point to examine their oeuvre.

Fran Landesman

Fran Landesman was a New Yorker, born in 1927, who wound up in St Louis after she married her husband in 1950. They opened what was to become one of the hippest night spots in the Midwest, the legendary Crystal Palace in Gaslight Square.

She soon started writing songs with the piano player Tommy Wolf, which were taken up by other musicians and played at the New York cabaret spot The Blue Angel, amongst others. Their song Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most became a jazz standard, covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand.

They moved to London in sixties and continued to work with musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, her career taking a bit of backseat as she raised her son, only to take off again when she met British composer and pianist Simon Wallace in 1994.

They launched into a burst of creative activity which produced more than 350 new songs, several collections of poetry and a musical. Their songs have been included in shows and revues on both sides of the Atlantic. Imelda Staunton sang one in her New York Cabaret debut at The Firebird; Sheila Hancock performed one at the Lyric in Hammersmith.

In May 2010, when she was 83, the Southbank Centre London presented A Night Out with Fran Landesman, introduced by poet Lemn Sissay, with Simon Wallace, singers Sarah Moule and Gwyneth Herbert, and actors Imelda Staunton and Phil Daniels. Sarah Moule has produced five albums of Fran Landesman and Simon Wallace’s songs.

With such a prolific body of work, there is a song for every mood and occasion. ‘Songs for Scarlet Women‘ are not songs about the women whose stories Sarah tells in the show, but songs she feels somehow represent them.

Image above: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the Twntieth Century Fox film Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra – consummate politician and polymath

“Cleopatra was the consummate politician. She spoke eight languages and was incredibly erudite – a polymath, yet Cicero cast her as a seductress. She was 21 and Julius Caesar was 52, yet she was the seductress.

“What we understand of her has come to us from Roman texts – from Cicero to Plutarch and Shakespeare – and they made it all about her love life. Arabic texts weren’t like that. They talked about her as a goddess and a queen. The Romans couldn’t stand hearing about a powerful woman.”

Her song in the show? Nothing like you by Bob Dorough and Fran Landesman.

“The Sirens existed to lure men on to the rocks”, says Sarah, warming to her theme. Their song? Men who love Mermaids by Fran and Simon. Of course!

Image above: Judith beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio

Judith – murderer of Holofernes and saviour of Bethulia

Judith from the Old Testament saved her besieged city Bethulia from the Assyrian general Holofernes by stealing into his tent when he was drunk and cutting off his head. An act of heroism, you would think, at least to the people of Bethulia, depicted in a famous painting by Caravaggio.

Judith and the Head of Holofernes – Gustav Klimt

“By the time Gustav Klimt paints her, she’s become a prostitute” exclaims Sarh indignantly.

Her song? Loves Eyes.

‘Love comes along with sweet death in her eyes,
Leading you down through a tunnel of sighs,
Whispering secrets and old alibis,
With death in her eyes.’

Sarah Moule and Simon Wallace present Songs for Scarlet Women at George IV on Thursday 4 April.

A history of the portrayal of women by men, reimagined through jazz songs.

Expect to be entertained and informed – maybe be a little reprogrammed as you revist some of your preconceptions.

Tickets here: Eventbrite.co.uk


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