Norway’s mixture of Lucille Ball and Shirley McLaine has been on stage for the last 43 years and finally believes she’s just about qualified to call herself an entertainer.
Ask Scandinavians or German-speaking people about Wenche Myhre (50) and you’re sure to get a response. Since her debut in 1954, the relationship between Wenche and her public has been mutually enthusiastic.
She is a born entertainer, but after 700 recordings and a career in six countries in heaven knows how many genres and disciplines, Wenche Myhre still has a humble approach to her profession, and not least to her audience. She has grown with them, and the cliché that they have, in many ways, created her holds true.
She moves on the most slippery of all stages; a female vocalist who sings other people’s songs and lyrics. It’s a tough life. As an interpreter or, more pretentiously, an artist, you have to be of a very special calibre to survive the traditional five or six-year star cycle. You are left to the wolves and your own devices and cannot hide behind any alibi but quality when performing other people’s creations. If you are also a woman in a male chauvinist industry, you have to be pleasing not only to the ears but to the eyes. From a superficial point of view, you might also consider which products that were viable forty years ago have not been replaced or improved. When you come to flesh and blood products of Wenche Myhre’s ilk, you must just have been born that way.
In their youth, women of the same age probably discussed the relative merits of Paul or John, George or Ringo, while Wenche Myhre’s sovereignty was more or less undisputed. Wenche’s fan club received 800 letters a day in little Norway, she sometimes had four singles in the top ten at the same time, and everything she did immediately became a fashion. Wenche might have had a brief period as a child prodigy or been another firefly in the pop firmament. Instead, she became the Norwegian “teenager”, the new, noisy type of person who had her own tastes and highly personal opinions. She not only rose to the top of the charts like a whirlwind, she also defined herself as an all-round artist at an early stage. Before she reached the age of eighteen, she had had eight top ten hits, starred in three movies, played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and opened a children’s hospital in her own name in war-torn Gaza – and her international career had not yet begun.
She had a sound musical background. From the age of seven, she performed with her brother and father at as many as eight gigs a day in the peak season. That is how the need and desire to develop the star role into something more than pure idol worship was awakened. Wenche Myhre didn’t change the state of the nation, but it will be difficult to write Norwegian cultural history without devoting a few paragraphs to her, the ones concerning the 1960s in Norway.
She sang in Norwegian in a “new” musical language; a strange symbiosis of Phil Spector technique, German hit marches and popular Scandinavian dance music. She was fresh and self-confident with song titles such as La meg være ung (Let me be Young), and Jeg vet hva jeg vil (I Know what I Want), and a dreamy young girl in titles like Jeg går på skole (I Go to School) and Gi meg en cowboy til mann (Give me a Cowboy for a Husband). Although the pop productions were somewhat tinny by today’s standards, they also appealed to the parent generation. Wenche was teetotal, bought a house for Mum and Dad and really wanted to be a paediatrician. A recipe for success.
So far there is something naive and well-meaning about the story of the little girl with the big dream of being on stage. Naiveté is not the quality most in demand on the world’s second largest record market, i.e. Germany. In summer 1966, Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night was pushed from first place on the German charts by the happy little Norwegian girl with her hair in plaits. The noisy Beisst nicht gleich in jeden Apfel became one of the big hits of the year, her German signature tune for ever, and an illustration for the whole world of the differences in taste between the Nordic countries and the European continent. German precision and thoroughness were apparent here too, because they can make stars! She became the feted “die Wencke”.
Die Wencke did not ration her talents. In the course of time, she appeared in all the media and all the genres, including operetta. Germany offered opportunities and variation which are difficult to achieve in a smaller country. Her natural talent was changed into a finely crafted art and a perspiring professionalism. From that point of view, being a star is a profession, and you have to be the best or you will be forgotten. As a star constantly in demand, you must possess talent, professionalism and humanity in equal doses. When Wenche Myhre’s career was really at its peak, offers began to flow in from the English language markets and only imagination limited the dreams of stardom, the star herself called a halt. She became a dentist’s wife, gave birth to three children in four years, and was never in any doubt about her priorities. Her fourth child was the result of her second marriage, to the late German TV director Michael Pfleghar. (In 1995 she married the Norwegian businessman Arthur Buchardt.) The fact that nature runs its course has traditionally been impossible to unite with the afore-mentioned male chauvinist entertainment industry, and Frau Wencke was forecast an artistic death in anonymity. That didn’t happen.
Wenche Myhre and the 25-year older Swedish artist Povel Ramel make an odd couple. Like a Scandinavian Tom Lehrer-meets-jazz-meets-Danny Kaye, Ramel is still an active, much loved artist. His lyrics are complicated, witty and extremely musical. The cooperation between Myhre and Ramel that began in 1969 has resulted in some of the most demanding and at the same time best loved performances that Norwegian showbiz can offer. Linguistic gymnastics that originally sound meaningless become poetry, rhythmical contrasts which sound arrhythmic become suggestive, and they experimented so much with their art that they even performed a nine-minute rap – in 1970. On stage, the two artists find each other in material which requires military discipline and is at the same time dependent upon improvisational fun and games. Try it if you dare; it’s not easy.
Wenche Myhre has lived a public life. She is the most discussed person in the country after the Royal Family and certain prime ministers. In a role like that, you never get praise all of the time. Part of Myhre’s dilemma has been due to the differences in her markets. With a few exceptions, it is impossible to perform the same repertoire in Scandinavia and Germany. Call it differences in taste or culture, no-one understands the phenomenon until they test it, which Wenche Myhre has done with varying success. There may also be a high price to pay when it is difficult to combine your natural genre with your audiences’ expectations. Furthermore, current trends are not exactly on the performer’s side. Why should you need theatrical artistry when you can get the edited highlights in your own living room on a computer screen? And as if that were not enough, the entertainer, or celebrity, is always fighting the lonely, invisible battle to draw the line between professional and private life. Where does one begin and the other end? Does confusion make it better or worse?
The little girl with the big dream saw Sweet Charity in London at the age of 16. She went home and said she had found her dream role. Fine, said the producer, well you’d better live a little and get old enough. At 42 she was old enough and took the first dance lessons that led her straight into Bob Fosse’s original choreography. As the dance machine Charity Hope Valentine, she had only seven minutes off stage and was five pounds lighter at the end of each performance. Sweet Charity is also chock full of everything that can’t be learned but must be lived. OK, I know that is the entertainer’s profession and the thing that distinguishes the good from the bad. In Wenche Myhre’s case, the dream became reality and eliminated the line between professional and private life. It is at moments like these that the barrier between stage and audience disappears and the enrichment you feel can be called art.
Art is not the label normally used for entertainment. But Wenche Myhre has become more daring in recent years and now calls herself an artist. And about time too. Of all the labels, charisma is perhaps the most impossible to define. Is it when the message is so strong and the person and the message so indivisible that the recipient, i.e. the audience, feels included? Or is it when the entertainer hides her professional secrets so well that the audience never realises the tireless effort involved? Wenche Myhre’s art is certainly based on one invariable principle: the show must go on.
Wenche Myhre’s show has been going on for 43 years. She has generously shared her joys and sorrows, life and career with a public that has learned to read her like a book. Wenche Myhre is complicated and wise, two adjectives that fit just as well as humble and strong. So well that the star herself believes they are all equally important and still does not feel she has fully learned her trade.