America could use a musical Larousse—luckily, we have Yvonne Constant’s new club act, La Différence. How did “My Way,” Sinatra’s perky anthem, spring from Claude François’s “Comme d’habitude,” a song about a character who, as Constant explains, “did absolutely nothing his way”? What about “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?,” a melancholy chronicle of lost love and youth, which caramelized into “I Wish You Love”? Constant remarks wistfully, “Americans hope for the future…the French prefer the past. I also prefer the past.”
Constant has every right to compare and prefer. In 1959, the Parisian singer-actress won a special Tony Award (given to the entire cast) for La Plume de Ma Tante, a revue which introduced what became the Durante standard “One of Those Songs” and launched a transatlantic career, hopping from Maurice Chevalier to Johnny Carson. Constant’s beaded mini-skirt, platinum hair and miraculously preserved legs may embalm the past, but her arresting delivery of lyrics could not be more immediate. At once she manages to be the gamine of Vikki Carr’s hit “It Must Be Him,” and to sing Gilbert Bécaud’s original version, “Seul sur son étoile,” more movingly than the man himself.
In English and French, Constant flutters through each song in wry parlando typical of the chanson française, whose true practitioners have all but gone. Politics, also never far from the Gallic spirit, appear when Constant compares Madame Mitterand, who asked her husband’s mistress to stand beside her at his funeral, to Hillary Clinton, who stood by as her husband apologized for his misconduct. “Ca c’est la différence,” Constant quips, “…or perhaps indifference.”