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

Pasatiempo - - CON­TENTS - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

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.

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