Were Jacques Brel truly alive and well and living in Paris, he'd be 77 next month - at the barricades, no doubt, writing songs, righting wrongs, generally fighting The Good Fight.
Unfortunately, the Flemish icon who sang and wrote songs primarily in French died of lung cancer October 9, 1978, at age 49, and is buried in the cemetery of Atuona on the Tahitian isle of Hiva-Oa, where he spent most of his last years. But - as is the way of art - his melodies and his messages linger on. Arguably his most popular legacy - a revue called now, as then, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris - is going into a long-overdue reprise this month at the Zipper Theatre; the last time it played Off-Broadway, back in the late 60's/early 70's, it ran for 1,847 performances, so brace yourself for a long spin.
Those four years swinging on the Village Gate did much to fan Brel's international rep as a poet, musician, storyteller and social-protester. He had a habit of setting harsh reality to three-quarter time, wrapping savage imagery in the swirl of an exquisitely circular waltz (a la "Sons of" and "Carousel"), but he was no less adept at slipping his slices-of-life and anti-war diatribes into tangos, boleros, ballads and rock. Much of the power of his dark, often bitter romanticism was specifically pinned to his particular skills as a performer, but some American friends/fans stepped in and deconstructed his work with intelligently in-tune TLC, assuring that its essence traveled well to these shores, like good wine.
A Whitman's sampler of Brel songs, two-dozen strong (a quarter of his lifelong output), was assembled. Eric Blau translated and shaped the handpicked 24 into a revue, while Mort Shuman ("Save the Last Dance for Me") supplied the definitive rhyming lyrics and performed them with a superb cast that included Mrs. Blau (Elly Stone), Shawn Elliott and Alice Whitfield. The long-playing result was the "jukebox musical" of its generation. The fact that Gordon Greenberg, who directed and reshaped this revival, was born smack dab in the middle of the show's original marathon run could account for a lot. Last spring at the Paper Mill Playhouse, he staged a successful resurrection of Stephen Schwartz's The Baker's Wife, and just recently at Miami's Actors' Playhouse, he directed a Neil Sedaka songalong, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Clearly, he's a man of eclectic musical tastes, but his heart belongs to Brel, having encountered him at an impressionable age at Stagedoor Manor, the musical-comedy summer camp for teenage wannabe-out-theres that was featured in the film "Camp." "It was the first show I ever did."
Last July, when the camp marked its 30th year, he joined the famous alums (Jon Cryer, Mandy Moore, Todd Graff, Jonathan Marc Sherman, Josh Charles, et al.) returning to the scene of their happy accidents. To his amazement, he found four words carved in the proscenium arch: Gordon Greenberg/Jacques Brel. "I did that when I was 13, and it was still there. This is the show that I grew up on, so it's especially close to my heart."
To the world outside the camp, it might seem a little ludicrous to find youngsters with little life experience trudging heavily through Brel's brothel dirge, "Next," but inside that world such an introduction to theatre can, and did, strike divine sparks. Instead of dividing the songs up four ways, this production shared the wealth among 50 students. Greenberg lucked out with two numbers ("Jackie" and "The Middle Class"). "This is where I was exposed to the show and got to fall in love with it. The insane Cuban man who ran our camp taught us his own version of it, but, more than anything, he taught us a respect for the music and lyrics and storytelling, which is what makes Brel so powerful."
Seconding that motion, Greenberg grew up in a family of Francophiles. "Both of my parents loved Brel," he says. "His music was always playing - in French - on the stereo, so I got to know it in French as well as in English. Not only did I love the show, I loved the passion in Brel's performance style. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard. He was a consummate character actor. In every one of his songs, he created a new character, a new persona. Each song is written from a different point of view. Each song has its own story. Basically, he was the Bob Dylan of France, and I wanted to pay tribute to that fact.
“There was almost no book, but we are restructuring what book there was and looking at other songs that were not in the original version. [The current production includes 27 songs.] Elly Stone literally pulled out of her trunk a new batch of translations no one knew existed. We are finding things like Eric Blau’s translation for ‘A Song for Old Lovers,’ which is beautiful. And we’re thinking of weaving some Frenchness in with the English words.”
Robert Cuccioli, the Tony-nominated Jekyll & Hyde, heads the cast of four, along with Gay Marshall, who worked with Greenberg in The Baker's Wife. Natascia Diaz and Rodney Hicks will play the younger couple. "The interesting thing about theatricalizing this show is thinking about who these four characters are. We've almost discovered archetypes that each is representing and how each story resonates and affects the next one, almost like La Ronde. One song, like a set of dominos, affects the next and makes the next inevitable.
In Jacques Brel, there is sort of a rich, red wine-soaked French cabaret feel that's delicious and dramatic and humorous and very honest. In many ways, it's the antithesis of a big Broadway show. Here, it's all about the actors putting their hearts on the line."