Songs of angst and optimism Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
IN January 1968, when the show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was first mounted, at the Village Gate in New York City, The New York Times’ critic Dan Sullivan was not overly impressed. He admitted that his previous exposure to Brel’s songs was limited to an LP record, The Poetic World of Jacques Brel. “The record,” Sullivan wrote, “suggests that much of Mr. Brel’s reputation as a composer is based on his magnetism as a performer — that his tunes, with their scrappy repetitive phrases, would grow tedious without his emotion-charged voice to give them excitement; that his lyrics, with their often banal imagery, need the man’s presence to give them life.” The production annoyed him; he felt the performers did not boost the material above “the somewhat lugubrious world view” of Brel’s songs: “We dance, but life is sad, very sad. Even when love lights it up, love will die. Women are faithless creatures who love to see men jump through hoops. What does anyone have to look forward to? Death in Saigon, bourgeois life in Paris. Life is sad; we dance. This, in paraphrase, is the message of the evening.” Performance Santa Fe presents its version of the show on Friday, Oct. 9, and Saturday, Oct. 10, at the Scottish Rite Center.
Sullivan concluded by suggesting what might save this revue of 25 Brel songs: “There is a report that the singer is coming here in a few weeks to see this show. If he could be prevailed upon to take it over at that time, there would be no complaint from this quarter. Let’s get him alive and well in New York.” In fact, Brel was better known to New York audiences than Sullivan let on. By that time he had been world famous for several years, and he had been greeted rapturously by New York audiences when he gave recitals at Carnegie Hall in 1965 and again in 1967. But even without his participation, that first production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in
Paris would play in its off-Broadway venue for more than four years. Within a dozen years of its creation, the show received multiple productions around the United States (in Cleveland it was scheduled for two weeks and ended up running for two years), as well as in Toronto, Johannesburg, Sydney, Paris, Dublin, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen.
Although the New York Times review proved flawed when it came to prognostication, much of what it said seems on target. So great was Brel’s presence as a performer that it would have been perfectly logical at that time to view his musically uncomplicated songs as practically “uncoverable,” to suppose as Sullivan did that they could not survive the transition to other performers. Brel was indeed a unique character. Born in a suburb of Brussels in 1929, he grew up under the shadow of the Depression, then of World War II, then of military service (he enlisted in 1948), then of the French wars in Algeria and Indochina (which led to Vietnam), then of the social unrest of the ’60s. His family resisted his inclinations toward the theater, and notwithstanding his earnest efforts as a singer and songwriter, their doubts seemed well founded. At a Grand Prix de la Chanson competition he took part in at the Belgian seaside town of Knokke-le-Zoute in 1954, he came in 27th out of 28 competitors. He persevered all the same and finally began to make his mark. In 1957, he produced his hit single “Quand on n’a que l’amour” (it would become known in English as “If We Only Have Love”), and it won him the Grand Prix de l’Académie Charles Cros, roughly the French equivalent of a Grammy. The next year he scored a
success at the Olympia, a prestigious Parisian music hall, when he was booked at the last minute to replace an ailing Marlene Dietrich. He entered the new decade of the ’60s as a star, touring internationally, astonishing audiences with an intensity of performance that inspired the American press to dub him “The Magnetic Hurricane.”
He tended to start his songs almost lieder-like, as a well-behaved baritone, and unreel his passion inch by inch into a take-no-prisoners climax that was nothing short of a cri de coeur. The method was so predictable that it became widely referred to as the “Brelian crescendo,” but as often as he used it, it seems never to have lost its impact. His was a sincerity writ large, but it was sincerity nonetheless, not unrelated to the defiant emotionalism of such mid-century singers as Édith Piaf or Judy Garland.
Among the Americans swept up in Brel’s magic was Eric Blau, who co-produced the show that would open at the Village Gate. He enlisted Mort Shuman (a composer mostly involved in rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll) to help work through the corpus of Brel songs, organize things into a vague storyline, and translate everything into dramatic, idiomatic English. The two had not collaborated previously, but they were brought together by a mutual acquaintance, music publisher Nat Shapiro, who came up with the title for the theater piece. Blau would later recall the moment of epiphany, during a transatlantic flight, when the spirit of the show came into focus in his mind: “The coolness of memory and distance merged with the cry and passion of Brel. … Clarities and depths of lights. Darknesses never totally black. Weighted, flowing. Suddenly descending; rising again. … A mobile in which the text was the songs. The subtext everything else. And the words of Brel culled from unused songs and interviews as a fleeting run of lines to break tensions.”
Notwithstanding a guarded critical reception — the New York Times review was not atypical — the show generated word-of-mouth enthusiasm. Indeed Brel did travel in to see it, although not until 1969, and he told Blau: “You have really done it. You have separated me from the work. The songs have a life of their own. I really enjoyed them.” His work was by then nearing its end. He had just come off appearances in the starring role of the French version of Man of La Mancha, which he translated and directed, and was turning his attention to films, appearing in three before he received a diagnosis of lung cancer in 1974. He moved to a remote island of the Marquesas in French Polynesia, and that is where he was buried in 1978, in the same cemetery as the painter Paul Gauguin. Four singers make up the cast of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and
Living in Paris. Twenty-two different performers appeared in those roles by the time the initial run ended, and countless others have joined their ranks since then. Brel’s songs proved entirely capable of taking flight even beyond their creator, which music must always do if it is to survive in the repertoire. Sullivan was not off-base in his characterization of the songs, which do often center on disillusionment. And yet, the show remains popular decades after it was created not because of its cynicism, but because its cynicism is so firmly tied to hopefulness, because it displays both the pessimistic and the optimistic sides of the coin of humanity. Gauloises and black berets have given way to e-cigarettes and nose rings, but the show has managed to stay alive and well through it all by focusing on what never really changes in the hopes and dreams and disappointments of generations.
Gauloises and black berets have given way to e-cigarettes and nose rings, but the show has managed to stay alive and well through it all by focusing on what never really changes.