Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living at Cinnabar Theater! by Sandy Riccardi

Jacques Brel ensemble singers
Jacques Brel ensemble singers
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living at Cinnabar Theater!
Well, Paris actually. But you know what I meant.
Cinnabar is currently doing an admirable, solid job of a very odd, rather dated piece. 
Which I’ve been wanting to see my whole life. The set, the lights, THE BAND!!, the 
singing, the acting, the costumes, THE BAND!!, and the choreography were all top-notch. Singer/actors Michael Van Why, Valentina Osinski, Kevin Singer and Julia 
Hathaway gave earnest, heart-rending performances. Those familiar with Brel's music
from their youth will adore this. For those who have never heard Brel, this is a rare 
opportunity to see this revue, and you should jump on it if you’ve ever been interested.
That said, I left Saturday night’s performance with conflicted feelings about the piece
itself. I was born in 1965, and was too young to notice the popularity of Jacques Brel
as it was happening. I grew up in the 70’s with some pretty edgy musicals like Hair, 
Cabaret, A Chorus Line, Jesus Christ Superstar and anything by Sondheim. Therefore,
while watching Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, I found it difficult to 
imagine the incredible impact his songs clearly had on the youth of the 60’s, because the 
words did not shock, stun or impassion me the way they did the hoards of people who
bought the albums and went to the THOUSANDS of performances that ran in NYC in 
1968-72. As a matter of fact, even with the unwavering emotional commitment and vocal 
talent of the actor/singers, the songs felt bland to me (with the possible exceptions of 
“Sons of..”, “Matilde”, “Timid Frieda” and “Marieke”, out of 24 songs).
Since I left the show longing to understand the context of Brel’s songs, and what hole 
his songs were filling at the time, what mass thirst he was quenching, I’m going to do 
something very different here. It is only a blog, after all. Instead of a Review of the 
Revue, I’m going to share with you a discussion I had late this past Saturday night with a 
very erudite, yet rowdy, insomniacal group of old musical lovers with whom I associate
in a facebook group. It is a fascinating group. Many of the members were not only around 
to see the old Broadway shows, but some of them were IN the old Broadways shows. 
Many of them saw the original “Jacques Brel” musical revue Off-Broadway in 1968 in 
Greenwich Village. So, without proper words of my own, I gift you with highlights of our 
discussion now. These are comments from nine different people:
 “To understand Brel’s appeal, you also have to understand the background of the 
America of the time. Those of us who were young when Brel’s songs came out were 
facing an entirely different world, where we saw injustice in the form of segregation 
for the first time (I don't mean it didn't exist, I mean it hadn't been an issue for us) and 
we were also seeing friends of ours (our own age!) die in Vietnam...our minds were 
somewhere completely different from Oh, What A Beautiful Morning. It wasn't a 
beautiful morning at all, and the music we loved reflected that.”
“It ran off-Broadway for literally thousands of performances: the songs and the intimate 
setting in which they were performed spoke of their time (it's as much late 50s as it is 
60s) to lots and lots of passionate viewers and critics, too. I think Brel's songs commented 
on social and political issues in a manner which was fresh and, at that time, radical. It 
represented a kind of departure from what most musical revues looked and sounded like 
at the time and had a darker, cynical air to it.”
 “The rue and pain mingled with intense joy and idealism felt sophisticated to us then, 
and to me they still do. It is very European—“
”In particular, his was a new, original voice. We had never heard songs that covered these 
subjects before, songs about la vie boheme moderne.”
“What was novel about Brel is mainly, perhaps, his songs dealing with adult themes - 
death, drink and disillusion - but I think also the attitude displayed by the singer - satire 
and cynicism but at the same time openhearted pain and longing.”
Not all positive opinions: “At the time it happened (1969-1970) there was a freshness 
and a real theatricality to the songs, and the production was very hip and counter-culture-y. The whole thing worked. I don't think it works anymore. It was very strictly of its time 
and place. “
“Outside of the revue, other singers such as Judy Collins, Karen Akers, Joan Baez, Neil 
Diamond, Rod McKuen, John Denver, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, and Frank Sinatra, 
among many others, performed the songs of Jacques Brel.”
“But bear in mind too you're not really hearing pure Brel with that show; you're hearing 
lyrics that are not merely translated but adapted. Adaptation happens in song from one 
language to another anyway or you could never accommodate rhyme, scansion and 
culture-equivalent idiom, but in terms of sensibility and content, you're getting as much 
of Blau and Shuman as you are of Brel. The translated lyrics tend to follow a solid 
dramatic construction, but in terms of craft and technique, they're very clumsy — lots 
of false rhymes, misaccents, unnatural rhyme placement — and often sound "translated" 
rather than fluidly colloquial” *
*(my comment here is that the moment soprano Julia Hathaway started singing 
“Marieke” in Flemish, it came to life more for me. Also when Michael Van Why sang in 
There were many comments about how European the show is, and the names Brecht and 
Weill and Blitzstein were bandied about as Brel’s spiritual fathers. (The music is much 
simpler than Weill’s though. More dramatic folk-rockish.)
In closing, I felt that a socio-musicological discussion like this would have enlightened 
the show for me more, so now you have it. Seeing the show has made me want to 
investigate hearing Brel in French and Flemish, and has shed light on a period of time
in history where my biggest problem was eating paste. And having Gilligan’s Island 
interrupted by the Watergate scandal. And watching my mother cry every time a planeful 
of soldiers came home from Vietnam without her little brother on it. Maybe there’s 
something to this Brel guy.
Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is running through January 19th
3333 Petaluma Blvd. north
Petaluma CA 94952

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