Monday, February 21, 2011

Jacques Brel is dead; long may he live!

“Sons of true love or sons of regret
All of the sons you cannot forget
Some built the roads, some wrote the poems
Some went to war, some never came home
Sons of your sons or sons passing by
Children we lost in lullabies...”

When I first heard those lyrics I wondered if I was one of the “sons of” that Brel was referring to.  Forty years later I wonder if my own children are among those “lost in lullabies.”

In January 1968 the songwriter Jacques Brel was in fact alive and well and living in Paris. I was a teenager and just beginning to discover the world outside my safe suburban neighborhood. I don’t remember which revelation came first, the power of mass non-violent demonstration or the power of art, but when I saw Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in New York something deep within me made the connection. The production showcased Brel’s testimonial style of songwriting with its themes of love and loss, betrayal and regret, war and death, redemption and hope. Like Brel, I was coming of age in a time of war and turmoil. When the show opened off-Broadway, the Tet Offensive also marked the high point and perhaps the beginning of the end of the war in Vietnam. Idealism confronted realism—on college campuses, on the Mall in Washington, on the nightly news. And Jacques Brel… expressed it all in words, melodies, and dramatic passion.

By 1972 I had seen the show several times and, as a student, worked on the crew for a campus production. Although my wife had never seen it, she heard the songs from the original cast recording played with innumerable repetition over the years. So when I heard that the Skylight Opera Theater in Milwaukee was reviving Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris… well, we just had to go.

I must admit that I went with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How could it speak to me today, after all that has transpired in the intervening decades? I had changed; the world had changed. Brel himself wasn’t even alive and well anymore! Was my fondness for the show too linked with my personal history?

I needn’t have worried. “Sons of” was just one example of how Brel’s songs proved their staying power for an older, grayer generation. The updated production also brought out their universal qualities. Some of the lyrics, as translated by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau for the original production, have the potential to sound like cloying cliché, but not only do their layered ambiguities rescue them, the intensity of the performances both then and now made them transcendent and archetypal instead. A few of the songs even seem more relevant today than they must have to the adolescent who heard them before:

“My death waits like a bible truth
At the funeral of my youth;
Weep loud for that and the passing time…”

While I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I did miss the edginess of the original. One of my favorite songs, The Bulls, an allegory about bullfighting and war, was dropped from the program, probably because it hadn’t shied from the controversy raging around the Vietnam War. And much as I’d like to think the world has changed for the better since 1968, we are again at war. Too bad the Skylight ducked the chance to marry Brel with the current conflicts. Here is the last stanza of The Bulls:

“And when finally they fell
Did not the bulls dream of some hell
Where men and worn-out matadors still burn.
Or perhaps with their last breaths
Would not they pardon us their deaths
Knowing what we did at
Stalingrad—olé!--Iwo Jima--olé!--Hiroshima--olé!--Saigon!”

That could easily have been updated to end with “Baghdad”?

Perhaps I’m being petty. The Skylight production, whether wisely or timidly, chose a selection and arrangement that, while safer, made the whole more integrated. The transitions were fluid and the pacing allowed the audience to breathe between emotional outbursts. It is a show that demands much of the four-member cast and most of the time they were magnificent. The climax, a song called Carousel, was simply spectacular. Starting out at a delicately slow pace, it gradually built into the most frenetic whirlwind of song imaginable in order to express the feeling of being on “a crazy carousel…a wheel within a wheel…and the whole world madly turning…”

Carousel was so good it almost overwhelmed the concluding anthem, If we only have love…, which exclaims that “If we only have love then…death has no shadow, there are no foreign lands…,” a denouement that enabled us to go back out into the unseasonably warm February night thinking of Cairo instead of Baghdad – or perhaps simply the person we were with.

If I wiped away tears after many of the songs, it very well may have been lingering nostalgia for “the funeral of my youth.” But my theater companions enjoyed it as much as I did without bringing along the emotional baggage.  Kudos to the Skylight! Long live Jacques Brel!

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