Michel Fugain is an entertainer. For a man who has been singing to the public for over half a century, that goes without saying, but Fugain has entertaining in his blood. The evergreen 80-year-old French singer is back, four years after his previous visit to these shores, to play Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv this evening (8:30 p.m.).
The show forms part of the annual fête de la musique global celebration of French culture, and having Fugain over here to front the local festivities is quite a scoop.
The octogenarian made his big breakthrough in the early 1970s, when he conceived and starred in Le Big Bazar (The Big Bazaar) television revue show, which had audiences around the world jumping for joy, singing out loud and grooving.
Yet, it might never have happened. Fugain started out on his musical path by providing the requisite raw material for his celebrated professional colleagues to do the business to their adoring public.
“I started singing by accident,” he notes, “I was presenting a song for [well-known 1960s-70s chanteuse] Marie Laforêt. I was making songs for others at that time. And the artistic director of Marie Laforêt offered to make me a record.”
Fugain has always been willing just to jump right in at the deep end. “My answer was why not. I didn’t know what that would lead to. It led to the following, until now,” he adds with a chuckle.
“My answer was why not. I didn’t know what that would lead to. It led to the following, until now.”Michel Fugain
Even then it took a while before the then-twentysomething budding vocalist cottoned on that his life was about to change, forever. “I never realized that I was going to turn professional. I wanted to see myself as a song craftsman. But an apprentice craftsman.”
Then the TV show began to materialize and things just took off. “The real change started with The Big Bazaar,” Fugain explains. “I learned everything with The Big Bazaar. I learned to perform, to catch people – that is to say, to keep their interest. For me, it is essential that people never get bored during a show. Because when you can’t enjoy the words, the musical atmospheres, you can get bored very quickly.”
It is difficult to imagine anyone not getting caught up in Fugain’s irresistible sense of joie de vivre. But, even after the show’s success, he still needed a little more convincing that he’d made it. “After The Big Bazaar I took a pause for five years. I met people who weren’t in show business and I then realized that I was an artist.”
He got that, and also some of the bigger communal picture. “I understood what an artist was in a society and its importance. This is something that I would defend all the time because it is essential. The day a country no longer has artists, it dies. And that’s when I realized, during these five years, that an artist has more duties than privileges.”
COMMUNICATING with Fugain for just a short while, you can’t help but conclude that the man believes he has been enjoying a charmed existence from the word go. He even puts his smash hit show down to Lady Luck.
“[The Big Bazaar] was born from an accidental meeting. I had done something called Un enfant dans la ville with a singer called Marie Rose. It was a musical comedy show. She had invited me to one of the shows in Germany. And in one of her shows, while I was backstage, I saw a German troupe pass by who had stopped. I looked at them and thought they had incredible energy. And I thought to myself, this is what I want to do.”
Maybe serendipity did intervene on Fugain’s behalf from time to time, but you’ve got to be keen enough to grab the opportunity with both hands. “The next day, I go to the office, and I said to my manager, ‘Rolande, I want to make a troupe.’ She was like, ‘Okay, why not!’. And there, we started the auditions and the rest.”
That may have set Fugain on the road to stardom, but he never let the bright lights dazzle him. “It is the [hit song] ‘Beau Roman’ that allowed us to begin. Suddenly, The Big Bazaar becomes something apart. Moreover, the concert on June 21 is called ‘Michel fait Bandapart’. The Bandapart is our group. And why is it called that? Because we realized that from the beginning, I have been a band apart. I’ve never been in showbiz, it wasn’t my thing. I think I’m a real mountebank.” If he’s a sham, he’s been doing a pretty good job of that for a long time.
For Fugain, it has always been about connecting with people. “What I love about shows is the human side. We are human beings who are there to entertain, to distract. We pull people out of their lives for two hours, even if the next day they go back to work.”
Unlike late compatriot megastar Johnny Halliday – aka the French Elvis – Fugain never tried his hand at directly tapping the English-speaking market. He says he has always remained true to his cultural identity, even though he did briefly pop over the linguistic border to the east.
“I did it in Italian, it’s a bit more my identity. But no, I am a French singer. I convey a piece of French culture and I prefer to imagine that people come saying, ‘I am going to attend a piece of French culture, we are going to take a little trip.’
“Sing in English because it’s universal? No. I am a French artist without being the ‘typical Frenchman’ and I like both the French language and sharing it. When French is beautiful, the idea is beautiful. I prefer the cultural exchange to the kind of ‘universal porridge.’”
MULTICULTURAL guacamole or no, Fugain says he is always delighted to bring his hits and personality to the Israeli stage. He says he gets as good as he gives.
“Each time I have been to Israel it is always a shock for infinite reasons. It is a very special country, it is a country that is only 70 years old. Around you are many bad guys. Each time, I am struck by this incredible vitality, the organization of life, of youth and the maturity of children. There is no laziness. It is a tonic country.”
There will be plenty of the familiar, and the less so, on offer for the Heichal Hatarbut crowd this evening. “[I will sing] the dozens of hit songs that everybody love to hear and is expecting, but also a few songs, less known, that make sense. For example, ‘Les cerises de Monsieur Clément’ (‘Mr. Clément’s Cherries’). I go through a piece of history, in 1871, when Israel did not even exist.” The latter references a turbulent passage in French history.
Above all, the irrepressible Mr. Fugain simply wants to bond. “We will be seven on stage, but the audience is always definitively playing a key role in all our performances. It will be a real meeting and a real sharing of experiences.”
For tickets and more information: *8780, https://www.leaan.co.il, (03) 966-4108 and https://livestage.show.