ON THE RECORD: High Button Shoes, Seventeen and Brel of La Mancha

By Steven Suskin
01 May 2005

Belgian-born singer-songwriter Jacques Brel was reportedly underwhelmed when he came to town to see Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the 1967 Off-Broadway songbook revue adapted from his catalogue. What struck his fancy, though, was the super hit Man of La Mancha. Brel had a personal connection with the character; the novel was a longtime favorite of his, and Le Figaro called Brel "the Don Quixote of Chanson." (Brel's outspoken songs regularly jousted at the conventions of society.)

Contemporary Broadway musicals were not popular in Europe at the time, and La Mancha seemed an unlikely candidate for transfer; but Brel was a major entertainment figure, and his name alone was enough to make it so. L'Homme de La Mancha opened in October 1968 at Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, before moving on to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The run was cut short by the star's illness; we are told in the liner notes that things ended badly, with Brel being sued for non-appearance. We are also told in the notes that the star, and the production, were remarkable; while this is commonplace copy to find in liner notes, I tend to suspect that the reporting is accurate.

Certainly, Brel was one artiste incroyable. In our recent review of the anthology album Brel Infiniment [DRG 5578], we commented that "the emotion is absolutely searing, on song after song; those of us with little or no French might have no idea what he's singing about, but no matter. The power comes through, almost startlingly so." Here on La Mancha, we know what he is singing about; again, the singing is supported by layers of acting and believing.

Brel quickly lined up an Aldonza, but the Paris rights came with a price — the participation of the American director's American wife, as Brel's costar. Seeing as how this was Joan Diener, who originated the role, this made a certain amount of sense. Diener was a highly mannered performer, so much so that she sometimes bordered on caricature; but I don't suppose her Aldonza has ever been equaled. When she sang those kitchen-slut songs, they were sung. To someone who knows her English-language performance well, Diener's French rendition is comparable but surprisingly unmannered. Brel and Diener make an exciting pair, although the characters don't exactly sing any duets together.

Musically, the French playing sounds remarkably similar to what was heard on Broadway (although the instruments are crisper here). "Pourqui Fait-il Toutes Ces Choses?" is given a significantly slower tempo than "What Does He Want of Me?" This might well have been for the purpose of accommodating a more introspective lyric; otherwise, Paris sounds very much like New York. (The billing page of the CD credits musical director Francois Rauber with the orchestrations, but this might simply be an error in translation; they certainly sound like Neil Warner's fine originals.) This CD differs from the Broadway cast album in that it includes the "Knight of the Mirrors" sequence, while omitting the overture. Yet another Diener La Mancha is soon expected on CD; the complete, two-LP London cast recording, in which the lady shared the stage with Keith Michell.

Brel used a free hand in translating the lyrics, and the above-mentioned notes tell us that he vastly improved them. This is harder to judge, at least by someone with sophomore French; but considering the overall quality of Joe Darion's originals and the overwhelming power of Brel's other songwriting work, my guess is that Brel wins the contest. As the CD moved on to its end, I found myself eagerly awaiting to hear what Brel would do with Darion's "giblets of my toes." Helas, "A Little Gossip" is omitted from the Brel of La Mancha cast album.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.