He burst upon the Paris music hall scene in the lean days following World War II, armed only with an umbrella, a stool and that special kind of Gallic insouciance expressed by the hat cocked precariously over one eye. For 20 years he rivaled Maurice Chevalier as the king of chanteurs populaires, but he left the stage more than a decade ago. “The music hall is hell,” he declared at the time. “It is like a monster that must be fed every night. Someone says to you, ‘Give the best of yourself.’ And the rest? What’s left?”
Enough, thankfully, to bring off one of the most triumphant French comebacks since Charles de Gaulle’s defiant stroll down the Champs Elysées after the liberation of Paris in 1944. Yves Montand’s spectacular three-month show at Paris’ Olympia music hall began last October and was followed by a spring tour of the provinces. This summer he completed another sellout three-week engagement at the Olympia. Finally last month, at 60, Montand began an 11-week, 14-city musical jaunt through the Americas and Japan—his first extensive tour since 1961—highlighted by a six-day run in New York at no less a boîte than the Metropolitan Opera House.
“In principle, I shouldn’t be doing this—I got myself trapped,” shrugs Montand, who put together his new act after rediscovering some verse given him 15 years ago by his favorite poetlyricist, Jacques Prévert. Already excited by the success of an album he recorded just to stretch his vocal cords, he was further galvanized by the interest of his wife Simone Signoret’s 12-year-old grandson in seeing his legendary step-grandpère perform. “I said, ‘Montand, if you’re going to go back onstage, it’s now or never,’ ” he recalls. “So I said, ‘We do it.’ How can I not have stage fright—I’m excited but afraid. It’s moving, exalting, anything you want—but very tiring and tough.”
Onstage, however, Montand seems entirely at ease, with almost weightless grace, though the broad-shouldered physique has filled out, his receding hair has turned steel-gray and his romantic brown eyes betray his fatigue. His face creased by a broad smile, hands dancing in air, he breezes through a draining, nearly two-hour nonstop repertoire of three English and 26 French songs, including his popular Autumn Leaves and A Paris. (“Americans think, ‘You’re French, sing French,’ ” he says. “They don’t need to understand the words.”) Other selections include love songs, political protest ballads and paeans to life’s underdogs: thieves, lonesome cowboys, over-the-hill fighters. Each reflects a side of Montand’s character. First, the sex symbol nonpareil, lover of Edith Piaf and Marilyn Monroe, and husband and companion of actress Simone Signoret for the past 30 years. Second, the activist who once flirted with Communism and was denied an American visa for eight years during the 1950s. And finally, the hard-edged outsider, toughened by his working-class immigrant upbringing in the sleazy port of Marseilles.
“It was a time of real misery,” says Montand of his childhood. Born yvo Livi in 1921 in a northern Italian mountain village near Florence, he and his family followed his socialist father, who fled to France to escape Mussolini’s fascists. Quitting school at 11, young Yvo toiled first in a spaghetti factory and then as a sandwich vendor, steelworker and hairdresser. At 17, having discovered jazz, Harlem, tap dancing and the Wild West—all thanks to Hollywood movies—he began singing at intermission in cinemas and then in Marseilles music halls. In 1944 he traveled to Paris, where Piaf, the celebrated chanteuse, put him in her act at the Moulin Rouge. During their three-year love affair, he abandoned his imitation-cowboy style and she introduced him to songwriters who would write such vintage Montand classics as Luna Park and Battling Joe.
In 1949, two years after he and Piaf split, Montand met and later married Signoret. Together they plunged into the politics of the French left. They protested the Algerian war and the execution of the Rosenbergs, and appeared together in both a stage and a screen version of Arthur Miller’s anti-McCarthy allegory The Crucible in the mid-’50s. Montand had made his movie debut in 1945 in Etoile Sans Lumière, and his film career flourished over the next 37 years, with starring roles in such films as La Guerre Est Finie, Z and State of Siege. Though his marriage was shaken by his 1960 fling with Marilyn Monroe (then married to Arthur Miller) on the set of Let’s Make Love, the union with Signoret survived. “I can’t live without her,” Montand has said. “She’s an exceptional woman.”
Montand remains politically active, though he is no knee-jerk leftist. In public statements and in song, he has lashed out at oppression in Poland and Afghanistan as well as in Chile. He still wears a Solidarity button that Lech Walesa gave him when the Polish labor leader came to his Paris one-man show last fall. “I’ll wear it until the Polish people are free,” he says. “It’s not a question of courage. It’s principle. I want to be a reminder to people of what Walesa stands for.” His singing career may seem a more frivolous obligation, but to him it is equally real—an expression of life. “It’s exhausting,” admits Montand, “but we must swim until the end.”