A Musical Revue

Music by Jacques Brel
Lyrics by Brel (original French), Eric Blau, Mort Shuman

INFO:

Opened at the Village Gate Theatre   January 22, 1968   Over a 4 year run, over 1,800 performances
Original Director: Moni Yakim
Original Choreographer: None listed
Original Producer: Eric Blau
Original Leads: Elly Stone, Mort Shuman, Shawn Elliot, Alice Whitfield
Cast Size: Male: 2    Female: 2    Ensemble: 0, or as many as you want    Total Cast Size: minimum about 4, but the show can get as large as you like.
Orchestra: Often done with 4 musicians, including Piano (doubles celeste which can be on a keyboard), Electric Guitar (doubles mandolin, acoustic guitar, Bass (doubles electric bass), Percussion. I’d go two keyboards, guitar/mandolin, percussion, bass/electric bass.
Published Script: Dramatist Play Service
Production Rights: Dramatist Play Service
Recordings: Several. The original off-Broadway is very intense and fine. No recording has all the songs, as the songs used change from production to production.
Film: A mediocre film was made in 1974, and starred Brel himself singing a number, as well as Elly Stone and Mort Shuman. It is worth a look if you’re considering this show, but you should develop your own approach if you do the show.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

Brel’s songs are unique. No one composes songs like him. They have their distinctly French feel about them (he was born in Belgium, wrote ion French), but what they talk about is as universal as it gets. This is a revue, and it contains no dialogue. It is simply a string of Brel’s songs, so your performers must sing very, very well in terms of theatrical and some older pop styles. They must really get a lyric across. The must be very strong singing actors capable of compelling musical expression.

This show will work very well for Colleges and High Schools. It’s great for Little Theatre. It will work very well for stock companies and regional houses looking for a small, inexpensive show to squeeze into a season, as its technical demands are minor. Dinner Theater companies might consider it, but it’s intense. Though I think shaping each act to end upbeat would make it work easily, and very well, for a Dinner Theatre. I don’t believe it can play Broadway, or in large professional houses, though if you consider the approach I will offer below, that could change.

Be Warned:

The songs are emotionally charged, and often, they are about things we don’t want to think about much, such as aging and death. Many of the songs are funny (sometimes, very funny), this is an evening of extreme emotions.

The material is too intense for childen’s groups and most High Schools. The songs require fairly mature voices to sing them well, clear and strong. They require actors willing to go out on a limb emotionally, even willing to make fools of themselves.

THE STORY:

There is no story. Roughly 25-28 of the numbers master songwriter Jacques Brel composed are performed in a dramatic context, each one presented as it’s own story, it’s own moment. I’ve heard of as many as 35 songs being used, but I think that is excessive, and would limit the night to 25-28. These are usually performed by two men and two women, so you can imagine what a challenge this show is for the performers.

The order the songs are placed in changes from production to production. That said, there are certain numbers that are so strong, they really need to be placed at or near the end of an act, because not much can safely follow them. These would include “Carousel”, “The Funeral Tango”, and “If We Only Have Love”, with which the show almost always ends.

The show presents an overall picture of humanity as seen through the eyes of one man with a caustic and wild wit, a deeply felt pain for our suffering, and an unerring sense of melody.

THE SONGS:

“Marathon (Les flamandes)”, “Alone (Seul)”, “Madeleine”, “I Loved (J’aimais)”, “Mathilde”,”Bachelor’s Dance (La bourrée du célibataire)”, “Timid Frieda (Les timides)””My Death (La mort)”, “The Girls And The Dogs (Les filles et les chiens)”, “Jackie (La chanson de Jacky)”, “The Statue”, “Desperate Ones (Les désespérés)”, “Sons of… (Fils de…)”, “Amsterdam”, “The Bulls (Les taureaux)”, “Old Folks (Les vieux), “Marieke”, “Brussels (Bruxelles), “Fanette (La fanette)”, “Funeral Tango (Le tango funèbre), “The Middle Class (Les bourgeois)”, “You’re Not Alone (Jef)”, “Next (Au suivant)”, “Carousel (La valse à mille temps)”, “If We Only Have Love (Quand on n’a que l’amour)”, “If You Go Away” (Ne Me Quitte Pas), “Le Diable (Ça Va)”, “Brussels”, “Song For Old Lovers (La Chanson Des Vieux Amants)”, “The Last Supper (Le Dernier Repas)”, “My Childhood (Mon Enfance)”, “The Taxi Cab (Le Gaz)”

Hits include: “Carousel”, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, “If We Only Have Love”, but many of the other songs had a commercial life, and many are so wildly intense that they potentially overwhelm the audience. Please note, almost all of the material is sung in English.

MY OPINIONS:

You may, as always, ignore or skip my opinions and rating.   Fine, be that way.  BUT if you go away…on this summer day…then you might as well take the sun away…(sob).

Jacques Brel, songwriter, singer and actor, unfortunately passed away in 1978, at age 49.

But his songs are alive and well, and hopefully will be for decades to come, in large part thanks to this remarkable show. The concept seems simple. A large number of Brel’s best songs are performed by a group of singing actors, and each song is presented as a universe unto itself, a mini-play as it were. Which actor sings which song is determined by each production. The order of the songs is determined by each production, essentially, as are the songs used. Many of the songs are “musts”, and are always used. These pretty much include” Marathon (Les flamandes)”, “Alone (Seul)”,“Mathilde”,“Timid Frieda (Les timides)””My Death (La mort)”, “Jackie (La chanson de Jacky)”,“Desperate Ones (Les désespérés)”, “Sons of… (Fils de…)”, “Amsterdam”, “The Bulls (Les taureaux)”, “Old Folks (Les vieux), “Marieke”, “Brussels (Bruxelles)”, “Funeral Tango” (Le tango funèbre),“You’re Not Alone (Jef)”, “Next (Au suivant)”, “Carousel (La valse à mille temps)”, “If We Only Have Love (Quand on n’a que l’amour)”, and “If You Go Away” (Ne Me Quitte Pas). These 18 songs are rarely cut. The other 10 or so are up to you, and there are interesting choices to make.

Don’t be terrified by all the French titles, the show is 95% in English, with a small amount of French to be learned.

The songs are beautiful, powerful. The group has many chances to sing together, and the opportunity to create harmonic magic is abundant.

The show is about generating an atmosphere where deep emotions can be shared. It is not dated, as Brel wrote about things that will always move us. He wrote about love and sex, family and war, loneliness and joy, life and death. I think the show works best when the production creates some sort of French world around the songs, perhaps placing the songs in a French bar of sorts where people drink and share their lives. But it’s usually simply presentational, a song, a black-out, another song, another black-out. I believe there’s a better way to do it. I thin k each black-out, though it marks the end of the song clearly, allows the audience to withdraw from the show. The end of a song can be indicated by the performers, by subtle changes in lighting, through choreography, and even as a singer returns to his seat and his drink.

Performing the piece in a small bar allows the musicians to share the stage with the actors! They can be around a piano or keyboard, or a few of them, like the bass and guitar, could be in bar seats, drinking with everyone else.

What’s more, this approach taken in a black box theatre or dinner theatre allows the actors to sit in and amongst the audience! They could perform seated at a table with audience members, especially if the entire theatre and house are set up to be the bar.

It is a sublimely small show, a great strength that makes it very producible. But it could easily be a larger show, depending on casting and resources. There’s no absolute that says this has to be done with four performers. Why not 5? Why not 8, or 12, or even 20, all seated in a bar, sharing their lives? In this way, the songs could be further divided up, making the roles far easier to learn and do, essential when time in constrained to put the show together, or when you have a lot of performers in your company who each want their turn.

A bigger cast will allow for more splash, bigger and better harmonies and sounds, more dance, or at least movement. I think it opens up options that could make this show feel new. I also think that each new body, each new voice offers a chance to create atmosphere, to make each number look and sound and feel unique, different from all the other numbers, which is a real challenge with a small cast. As always, each number should be conceptualized to exist as its own small play. This becomes easier when you have lots of actors to create a war scene, or an old age home, or a bullfight. It also makes the show more visually compelling.

Do I dislike the small, normally-produced version of this show? Oh, no! I did a production in which I directed, accompanied, choreographed and was one of the four performers. It was more fun and a greater challenge than I can say here without using big and colorful words. I love the show as is, but I think its size can be elastic, and to its benefit. I think it could be performed by a cast size of anywhere from 4-100. And I think this view of the show will provide it a longer shelf life, which it deserves.

In producing Alive & Well, I would not try to “modernize” any of the songs. They were composed when they were composed, and they reflect the musical tastes of an era gone by. The difference between Brel’s songs and other songs of the period are that Brel’s are terribly intense, clever, and about subjects that never grow old. They will move an audience willing to give them a chance 100 years from now.

There are not many worthwhile Musical revues. They often date quickly, either because they are “topical”, meaning they’re timely and political, with ideas and songs that quickly become passe. But I am presenting three revues on this site that I think can be presented in new ways, and that are worthy of this sort of attention. This is one, the other two are Berlin To Broadway With Kurt Weill, and Ain’t Misbehavin’. In each case, a very small but successful show can be rethought, and possibly made larger. But all three shows contain extraordinarily great songwriting, and remarkable opportunities for talented casts and creative Directors and Designers. And that is what makes them worthy of consideration.

 MY RATING: ** (An excellent show, well worth considering)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

Brel’s music is rich, but it is not hard to teach or learn. Tempos can really move along, so your players must be pretty decent. And it is a lot of music, almost like working on an opera, as the piece is sung through. Your Musical Director should start work early, before formal rehearsals, teaching the more difficult numbers. There are many solos, but there are also plenty of group numbers which will eat up time at the start of your rehearsals. So get the solos out of the way before starting rehearsals, if at all possible. And remember, you won;’t be able to have any kind of table read until the music is taught.

In looking for cast, you’re going to start with their singing skills, but for this show, their voice cannot be isolated from their emotions and acting skills. Ranges should, of course, vary, and you should cast with specific songs in mind. The more difficult pieces, such as “Carousel” (which could be a group piece with tight harmonies, and really grow into magnificence!), “If You Go Away”, “Sons Of”, “You’re Not Alone”, “Funeral Tango” and “My Death” should be targeted – you’ll need to find performers capable of these specific pieces. You may wish to find a singer who knows enough French for “Marike”. You also may wish to find one or two performers who can accompany themselves on piano or guitar, and let them do so to some extent, again changing up the look and sound of the show. In fact, if you have many people who play instruments in the case, compose orchestral parts for them and let them add to the aural feel of the show, and the look. An accordion seems an easy fit.

Your cast will need to harmonize well. The smaller the cast, the more important this is. Four voices leaves no one anywhere to hide when harmonizing. Larger casts can afford some performers who do not harmonize brilliantly, though I do believe that this show, like the two other selected revues, offer a chance to create the sort of tight, magical harmonies we rarely get to enjoy in theaters. The kinds of sounds that buzz and penetrate and which generate awe. So plan on spending time on choral work. And develop your choral concepts in advance of rehearsals, as there is plenty of opportunity to show them off in this show.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Well, here’s an interesting aspect of this show. It can be done with almost no movement outside of the actor’s innate emotional expression, as is usually the case. This is fine, but gets visually flat. Or it could be a real dance show. And I’d vote for the latter.

Brel’s music is energetic. It moves along, even most of the ballads. And though you should never “choreograph” a number like “If You Go Away”, even some of the ballads could be conceptualized by a Director and Choreographer, and provided a world that contains motion.

Large and small numbers that could really benefit from fun stagings include Marathon (Les flamandes)”, “Madeleine”,“Bachelor’s Dance (La bourrée du célibataire)”, “Timid Frieda (Les timides)”, “The Girls And The Dogs (Les filles et les chiens)”, “Jackie (La chanson de Jacky)”, “The Statue”, “Sons of… (Fils de…)”, “Amsterdam”, “The Bulls (Les taureaux)”, “Old Folks (Les vieux), “Marieke”, “Brussels (Bruxelles), “Funeral Tango (Le tango funèbre), “The Middle Class (Les bourgeois)”, “You’re Not Alone (Jef)”, “Next (Au suivant)”, “Carousel (La valse à mille temps)”, “If We Only Have Love (Quand on n’a que l’amour)”, “Le Diable (Ça Va)”, “Brussels”, “Song For Old Lovers (La Chanson Des Vieux Amants)”, “The Last Supper (Le Dernier Repas)”, “My Childhood (Mon Enfance)”, “The Taxi Cab (Le Gaz)”.

That’s a lot of numbers. It would be up to the Director and Choreographer to determine what story is being told by each song. And then, what sort of characters could populate that story. And finally, in what dramatic ways could the characters populating these stories move, move together, move apart, to tell the story. Each song should almost be outlined, maybe even story-boarded, in a way. Tell clear, fully conceived, compelling stories, and use clear, fun, compelling movement to do so. In following this “formula,” you will help guarantee that each number is unique, that the evening moves along, and that the audience has a real opportunity to understand and be moved by each number.

There are fun, silly numbers which allow you to move into more Musical Comedy routine work, such as “Marathon”, “Brussels”, “Funeral Tango” and “Jackie”. But in most cases, the aggressive numbers are about something important, and the subject matter should move you away from movement for movement’s sake, into story-telling and emotion building. I would not shy away from a use of just about every dance form up to about 1970. All theater forms and ballet should be considered, where appropriate. The show can be a sort of tour-d-force for your performers, and your choreographer. So long as the dance is always, always in service of the number and what it’s trying to communicate.

And there are smaller numbers that will benefit from adding bodies. An example: “You’re Not Alone” could show a woman whose heart has been broken, and the singer trying to console her. And then, one buy one, other cast members enter in, possibly even sing (or not), and they embrace her, until she is surrounded in love. This would add immeasurably to an already powerful number. And developing relationships through the show between certain actors could be an adventure for the Director and cast that would increase the audience’s commitment as well. (And yes, this same approach to “You’re Not Alone” can be done with a cast of four.)

Another small number, “If You Go Away”, one of the truly most beautiful songs ever written, is sung usually by a man, and one assumes it’s intended for a woman leaving him. But why not a daughter leaving a father? A pet about to be put to sleep? It is an expression of grief, built around impending loss, and the scenario is almost wide open. And so are the interactions you could build into this number. It could even be turned into a group number, many couples parting, couple of different kinds, where one person sings to a partner, then someone else sings the next line across the stage, and so on, and in the release, where the melody soars, they all sing. How about a funeral, the man hovering over the grave as everyone else slowly leaves the proceedings? And by the way, the English version that was recorded by Rod McKuen has beautiful lyrics, and works very well for this show, if there is no rights issue.

You can see how small numbers could be built up, even leaving them as solos, with other actors to play off of and to physically move. Larger numbers practically scream for bodies and story-telling. “Amsterdam”, a painting of that city and it’s seamier qualities, could be shown entire, with enough actors and voices. And “Funeral Tango” is a prime candidate for choreographic fun. It’s a tango, sung by a dead man looking at all the ungrateful people at his funeral. Can they see him? Is he invisible? Do they react, and if so, how? Could be hysterical.

“Jackie” is about a man who would do anything to be like his idol, “Jackie”. A movie star? His best friend who gets the girls? Who knows. It’s fast, aggressive, and about a man who is not what he wants to be, who always loses. It cries out for movement and fun. We could see Jackie getting all the girls, the money, the jobs, while our singer, our loser, tries to imitate his idol and gets laughed at, gets pies in the face, you name it.

“Marathon”, often used to open the show, is about people who cannot stop singing and dancing. It suggests hitched, uncomfortable movements repeated in an increasingly disjointed manner. Show it, and make each cast member stuck in his/her own unique move, trying to get out of it, bravely smiling to the audience, yet experiencing increasing fear. It is symbolic of life.

“Next” is about war, and how there is always another act of violence, another death. In a broader sense, it is about the inevitability of the next action. It is dynamic, and has a story to be played out.

“Timid Frieda” tells the tale of an innocent stepping out into a world of degraded, dangerous people. There’s a powerful story to tell, and to show an audience.

A possible weakness of the show when done small is that it falls into “Tell, don’t show.” We are told what happened when a man died and saw his funeral, or about his past affairs, or what have you…but we are not shown very much of it. A larger cast opens up the ability to show, to dramatize and make real and funny and sad, the lives of the people singing to us. An atmosphere can be built through actors and lighting and music for each song, and the audience invited in.

Few shows are as under-exploited so far as movement is concerned, as Jacques Brel. Few shows offer the potential this show provides for powerful and diverse expression of emotion and experience, sound and movement.

A Choreographer will need to work very closely with the Director (unless the Director is the Choreographer, perhaps an ideal situation for this show) to conceptualize each number. That means there will be many pre-rehearsal meetings. Start early.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Each number must be sung with conviction and skill. Emotions should be bright and raw, Voices should be clear, powerful, capable. The audience should be assured that they are in good hands, as this show provides a rocky and emotional journey. The cast should be open to the audience, as we are all going to take this journey together. This show should feel like a Happening.

Cast for voices first, then emotional expression, dance, musicianship, and finally look. And do not go for just young performers if you can help it,. Or just beautiful performers, or any single race or ethnicity. The cast should resemble humanity. The audience should each be able to find someone up there who looks a little like them, if your cast is large enough.

A smaller cast should also be diversified, but a premium will need to be placed on the strength and survivability of their voices. With a larger group, even around eight, songs can be understudied, and the show will go on if someone contracts laryngitis. Not so much so, a small cast.

SETS:

I’ve made numerous suggestions. A bar, a street corner, an amusement park. I’m sure you’ll think of others. Go nuts with it, so long as the concept is agreed upon by your Director and Designers. Make it happen in a subway station. A “Miss America” pageant except it’s “Mr. and Mrs. Human Being.” Anywhere where there could be musicians and a lot of people.

Most important, I think, is to perform in a space that is a “unit” set, one that represents life and which you will not be changing number by number. It should provide enough space for larger dance numbers, if you are planning on having larger dance numbers.

I think the set should be placed as close to the audience, physically, as possible. Actors sitting within the audience, and the audience and house sitting within your set, could be very appealing. This show trades on intimacy. The set should provide it, while creating sufficient and versatile performing space.

COSTUMES:

I’d keep these simple, every day, human, easy to move in and breathe in for the performers. This becomes very important with a small cast, as they will have so much to do. Design the concept of your costumes with your Director. But as is true of all design elements for this show, it should be inexpensive and easy to execute. Start by having actors look through their own closets. It should not be much more complex than that.

And PLEASE don’t dress everyone the same, or in the same color or non-color, or something like that. Diversity within the human experience is what you’re trying to display, so go very individual.

PROPS:

There are likely to be quite a few props in a show like this. Perhaps almost every number will require it’s own set of props. This will be determined by the Director and the concept used. You will need to coordinate closely with the Director and Choreographer. Could be a real job. There is also likely to be expendables like confetti or balloons, so budget for it.

LIGHTING:

Every number will need its look. And within each number, the comedy or drama will grow, as each is like a small play. There will be cues inside of nearly all your numbers.

The more actors your production makes use of, the more the lighting will need to be crafted to isolate and direct the audience’s attention. The bigger the cast, the more instruments you’re probably going to need. This is the one technical area that will go up in budget with the cast size. You’ll want a computerized board for this show, there will be too many cues to do well manually.

MAKE-UP:

Simple, unobtrusive. They should all look like real people.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Choreographer, Musical Director, Lighting Designer, Set Designer, Cast.

MY THOUGHTS:

Few shows offer as much creative choice to a Director and his staff. You will be determining which songs get used, in what order, who will perform each song, what story each song is going to tell and how. Each song will require it’s own world, and you will create that world. The entire show requires some sort of framework, if you expand it beyond an essentially bare stage and four actors. (And it’s perfectly fine to do the show that way!) I like the French bar idea, but could be played on a street in France, with musicians playing, their hats out for change, that could be electrifying if the performers showed up one and two at a time, and suddenly committed. It could take place at an amusement park, where the park band is playing in front of a carousel. That would make the number “Carousel” central to the show, which it should be.

What I’m getting at is this is a Director’s show. It is wide open to interpretation and a creative approach. A Director could build a reputation on a show like this.

As for the producer, even a large cast presentation of this show will be pretty inexpensive, outside the cost of the cast itself. That is part of what makes this a great choice for Little Theaters, Colleges and Universities. And frankly, I would do this with a Dinner Theatre. You can place as many intermissions as you need to. And I’d end the acts with upbeat numbers, fun or uplifting pieces that will make desert and a drink palatable and enjoyable.