Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris – Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording 1968
The musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is performed in hundreds of productions every year. This has been the case since the show’s original production appeared at the Village Gate, opening January 22, 1968, in the heart of Greenwich Village. Any singer/actor who is interested in theatre has eventually found themselves looking for, listening to and investigating the work of Jacques Brel. Who was Jacques Brel? Well, at the time that this show first appeared off-Broadway, he was, indeed, alive and well and living in Paris (although few people knew he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, nor could they imagine he would die ten years later). Brel was born in Belgium. Growing up in Brussels, he taught himself to play the guitar at an early age. He was thrown out of school and worked for his father for a while, and spent a brief time in the military before deciding to go to Paris to fulfill his musical dreams. Success came quickly in France, and word of this singer-composer-poet-balladeer started to spread. People have said and written that to see Jacques Brel perform live was an extraordinary experience. That it was indescribable. Eric Blau, one of the original producers, as well as creator and co-author of the English translated lyrics, says that Brel was one of the best performers he had ever seen or heard: “A great, great performer.” His performances would make an audience go wild. And Mr. Blau proudly claims, “Al Jolson would have had a problem following Brel!” This can only make us smile and wish we could have seen him. What was it exactly about Brel that could have this effect on audiences? Apparently, it didn’t even matter whether you understood his French lyrics or not. The music cast its spell and the truth of his performance took you somewhere. Songs with themes of love, cities, streets, smells, drugs, war, loss, death, broken dreams . . . all with raw human emotion. Songs with stories, wit, pathos, tragedy – and always, the human condition . . . but never forgetting that life, with all its complexities, shows us much humor. The Original Cast Recording of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was first issued as a double LP in a box set. The recording was produced by Edward Kleban, who would go on to write the lyrics for A Chorus Line and posthumously inspired a musical which appeared on Broadway in 2001, called A Class Act. The associate producer of the recording was Nat Shapiro, who first took Eric Blau to see Brel perform. This historic CD reissue has an additional song from the original recording sessions which was not included on the LPs, due to timing limits on the vinyl. The song is The Middle Class (Les bourgeois). And although there were a few other songs performed in the stage show, they never got recorded, so this is the only track available that was previously unreleased. How did this show come to be? People in America had barely, if ever, heard of Jacques Brel. Well, that wasn’t true of the artistic community or other songwriters, composers or lyricists. Rod McKuen had begun to tackle some of Brel’s songs, translating them into English. Recording artists such as Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, Damita Jo and the Kingston Trio recorded versions of Brel songs and did well with them. But it was the meetings between Eric Blau and Mort Shuman that changed everything. It seems these two men understood each other right from the start and had found the magic formula that could convey (in English) the passion that was Brel. Blau had introduced American audiences to Brel, in his Village Gate presentation O, Oysters! Elly Stone, a dazzling New York singer and actress, appeared in that show and had been acclaimed in other theatre pieces, as well as for her nightclub and concert work. It seemed that she too had an understanding for Brel’s material. Quite independent of Blau and Stone (who have been married for forty years and still make New York their home) was a guy named Mort Shuman. Mort already had a thriving music career and was part of the rock & roll movement, teaming up with Doc Pomus and having stars from Andy Williams to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley (“Viva Las Vegas”) and The Drifters (“Save The Last Dance For Me”) record their work, selling millions of records. Brel and Shuman met in Paris and Shuman’s life was changed forever. Brel had been unhappy with the success of some of the translations of his songs in America. He put himself in the hands of Shuman to have a go at them. At the same time, Nat Shapiro and Eric Blau were thinking how interesting it would be to put an evening of Brel songs together. They decided it would be good to meet with Mort. The rest, as they say, is history. Jacques Brel knew of Blau, from reading his published work in the French poetry and literary press. And he adored and trusted Mort Shuman. During the backer’s auditions for the show, it was decided that Mort Shuman, who had been playing the piano for these presentations, would perform in the show, making his stage debut. So now there’s Eric Blau and Mort Shuman – a dynamite team – Elly Stone, an amazing performer, a director named Moni Yakim, who was an Israeli actor-director and celebrated mime, and two additional singer/actors, Shawn Elliott and Alice Whitfield. Previews at the Village Gate were sold out. Word of mouth was fantastic and everyone was starting to hear about this show. A bookless musical. An evening of powerfully performed songs by an amazing cast. The songs spoke for themselves. They were there for you to interpret. None of the creators liked to stick around the theatre and have to explain what things meant. Elly Stone talks about how draining the show was to perform, and how her days were spent resting in order to have enough energy to do justice to the material. And Brel himself, so pleased. They were all stunned by the success the show was enjoying. Then, opening night. Rave reviews. Except from The New York Times. Apparently, a stringer was sent to review the show instead of Clive Barnes. The review was not good. Columbia Records even considered not releasing the double LP. Shortly after that, Clive Barnes attended a performance and loved the show. He reviewed it on radio station WQXR. He even conjured up references to Kurt Weill and Lennon and McCartney. He recommended it “wholeheartedly.” The creative team then put their money together and paid for an ad consisting of a reprint of Barnes’s review. It did the trick. So marketing savvy was born long ago, it seems. The sales of the Original Cast recording were huge, and record executive Bruce Lundvall (who was at Columbia at the time) told me that the in-theatre sales topped 25,000 copies during the run of 1,847 performances . . . amazing! Everyone came to see the show. Elly Stone recalls seeing the faces of Melina Mercouri (in tears), Donald Pleasence (who was appearing in The Man in the Glass Booth), on his Sunday nights off, sitting over a drink (and crying), Liza Minnelli, and on and on. She also remembers that Dustin Hoffman came to a matinee – when she wasn’t on. On being compared to Edith Piaf, she hated it – not Piaf, but the comparison. She didn’t see herself as anything like the little songbird! After the production at the Village Gate opened, people were starting to discover who Jacques Brel was and why his work was so special. He influenced many performers, like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, and his songs supplied Top 40 hits for many artists in English-speaking countries. Dionne Warwick recorded and entered the charts with “If We Only Have Love.” That song and many of the others seem to resonate just as strongly today as they did in the late ’60s, in the midst of a war, the sexual revolution and rock musicals like Hair (which, ironically, Eric Blau had the rights to and told Rado and Ragni to go ahead and take the offer at The Public Theater because he had to put his time and energy into Jacques Brel . . .). Jacques Brel stayed away from America. He had a political dislike for the U.S. Even when he played Carnegie Hall to a cheering crowd, he was upset. Why? The audience was made up of mostly French people. “Where were the Americans?” he would ask. He wanted to be judged by Americans. And, eventually, he was. Brilliantly! Brel acted in films, recorded, witnessed the success of Brel in England and in France (where, oddly enough, it was performed in English and heralded!), and saw the film version of his show get produced. The film version, made for American Film Theatre, had only three performers (Stone, Shuman and Joe Masiell). It was done in a style that surely could be considered a precursor to MTV or even Moulin Rouge. Jacques Brel himself appears in the film to perform a song at intermission time. Brel, now ailing, went for rest to the Marquesas Islands, but returned to France in 1977 to receive treatment for his cancer. He also recorded an album entitled Brel. His first album in ten years, it was hugely successful, selling over 2 million copies. He died in October of 1978, at the age of forty-nine. Even though Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was an off-Broadway hit, it is a part of Broadway legend and that pleases everyone who was originally involved. I asked Eric Blau if he remembered what he felt when he received the news of Brel’s death. He said, warmly, “I remember feeling very cold . . . I remember that there was not a thought in my head.” Eric and Mort had remained great friends. I then asked him if he remembered what he felt when he learned that Mort Shuman (who had been living in England) had passed away at age fifty-two from cancer. “I cried,” Eric said, “He was like my kid brother.” One of the songs Brel wrote is titled “My Death” (“La mort”). When it came to words and music, no one was like Brel. This recording is a testament to him, his English language translators, the original performers and singers and actors everywhere, for all time.
– Richard Jay-Alexander
Elly Stone Mort Shuman Shawn Elliott Alice Whitfield Music and Lyrics: Jacques Brel Consultant: Nat Shapiro Production Conception, English Lyrics and Additional Material: Eric Blau and Mort Shuman Music Arranged and Conducted: Wolfgang Knittel Director: Moni Yakim Musical Direction: Mort Shuman Production Supervisor: Eric Blau