PATRICIA DUFF, July 15, 2013
I remember the first time I heard Jacques Brel’s music.
I was living in Chicago, plying my trade as a theater actor, while working in Le Cochonnet, a little French bistro on the north side. It was the owners of the restaurant who introduced me to Brel and Edith Piaf. They were a sophisticated couple, two guys, bankers who traveled the world, and one who was a lover of all things French. Brel and Piaf were both on the loop of songs that played on the soundtrack in that tiny, excellent dining room. I learned about French food, French wine and French music all in the course of my time at “The Little Pig.”
Fast forward 24 years to now when I’m getting ready to see my first ever production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” It opens at OutCast’s Black Box Theater in Langley on Friday, July 19.
Considering that I’ve been an active thespian for all that quarter of century, those bankers would be appalled that it took me this long to see this play; and that it took Martha Furey’s “The Songbird of Paris,” with Joni Takanikos as Edith Piaf in 2011, to introduce me to the incredible story behind the “Little Sparrow.” From what research I’ve done on Brel, he seems like the male counterpart to Piaf. They were singers who were both hugely emotional in their performances, the inventors of the modern French chanson. Their messages to the world came from a deep place; and both, I’ve learned, had an intense effect on their audiences.
“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” is a musical revue created by composer Mort Schuman and poet Eric Blau. It features 25 songs by Brel translated into English. I’m looking forward to seeing what director K. Sandy O’Brien does with the three singers here, Ned Farley, Ken Martinez and Katie Woodzick, accompanied by the live band.
Sheila Weidendorf, who plays the piano and accordion in the show told me that when she thinks of Jacques Brel, she thinks: Edit Piaf meets Leonard Cohen.
“His music is not musically complex,” Weidendorf said.
“His music is about experience, and feeling. He sings about tragedy and loss, both personally and socially, as well as of tenderness and grace, and all those elements of being thoroughly, utterly human in community.”
That’s along the same lines of what O’Brien told me; that “the show is about life.” She’s seen at least six productions of “Jacques Brel,” including the original, which first opened in 1968 in a Greenwich Village theater.
“I’ve never been uncomfortable that it didn’t have a plot,” she said.
The challenge for her as director, she said, is to make it flow; to strive for seamless transitions, as all directors set out to do. But musical revues are different than plays with books. Still, O’Brien said, because the way Brel wrote with such clarity of emotion having no script doesn’t matter.
“Brel realized the cycle of life vividly and put those feelings into his lyrics. It is raw and clear and funny and poetic and sometimes scary,” she said.
I found out that there’s actually a thing in his music called the “Brelian Crescendo.” It refers to the defiance in Brel’s music and lyrics, and has something to do with the explosive manner in which he ended many of his songs.
Brel’s career was most active between 1953 and 1978, a period that included also his work as an actor and director. By 1959, Brel had recorded four albums and one of the main attractions in his music was that people began to recognize themselves in his songs; the characters in his music were real; they reflected the people who were in the audience. I think of Bruce Springsteen in 1980s America; the workingman’s minstrel. Although the Belgian born Brel was born into an upper class life, he was bored with the bourgeoisie, and he said by the time he was living in Paris as a young man, his life had deepened. Living in Paris was significant for him and he became profoundly offended by capitalism, war, social injustice and the threat of dictatorships. Brel was “Everyman” onstage, hands outstretched, reaching for the audience, wet with sweat and tears.
It was a 1965 appearance by Brel at Carnegie Hall in New York City that inspired the musical revue by Schuman and Blau, which ran for five years in New York and then went around the world.
“I think the show is really a reflection of Brel’s experience of being in the world,” Ned Farley said.
“As an existentialist myself I think this compilation of his music really reflects the existential themes of life and death, isolation and connection, meaning and meaninglessness, freedom and responsibility,” Farley said.
“At the least, Brel gives us a glimpse into his view of the world, and he takes no prisoners in his commentary on life and how we, as human beings, deal with living in it.”
Musical direction is by percussionist Scott Small and the band also includes Richard Hughes (guitar/mandolin), Jonathan Small (bass), and Weidendorf (piano/accordion). Woodzick is the vocal coach; O’Brien did the sets; Marlene Nakamura is the costume designer; Farley designed the lights; and Jeff Fisher is the sound designer.
A CD being released in conjunction with the show is titled “Fifty Shades of Brel,” and was recorded by Robbie Cribbs at Sound Trap Studio in Langley and features the band, Rhythmodique, and the cast under the direction of Small. The album was recorded live, with no overdubs or studio magic; just the real sound of the instruments and voices. Pick up “Fifty Shades of Brel” at the theater for $15.
The show runs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, July 19, 20, 26, 27, Aug. 2, 3; and at 2 p.m. Sundays, July 21 and 28. The Black Box Theater at the Fairgrounds is at 819 Camano Ave. in Langley.
General seating tickets are $14 for students/seniors and $18 for adults. Get tickets at Brown Paper Tickets (for credit card purchases) or tickets can be reserved directly with OutCast by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reserved tickets can be picked up at the door and paid for by cash or check.
Visit OutCast Productions’ new website here.
Du fond du mon coeur,
Patricia Duff is a freelance writer and the editor of this magazine. If you like what you see, consider supporting WLM by becoming a member or buying ad.