JACQUES BREL, in a production got together by the Charles Street Playhouse, managed to live through 12 weeks of Boston summer, admittedly no easy task. So when it came time for the Charles to open its regular season, rather than force the successful Jacques to walk the streets, the Somerset Hotel, a respected but nonetheless dying Back Bay establishment, hastily renamed one of its drafty old ballrooms "The Somerset Cabaret" and invited Jacques over to entertain for a spell. And is the dear boy still doing well, you ask. That, it seems, is debatable. The opening night audience couldn't have been more appreciative. ("Those songs just knock me out," one lady was so moved to confess.) But there's a world of difference between the gilded gold of the Somerset's Louis Quatorze ballroom and the smoky post-war cabaret in which, one suspects, Brel's songs would be most at home. Whatever merits the original Charles production might have possessed, there's no doubt but they've been lost in the move cross-town.
Jacques Brel, a long-running hit off-Broadway, is a musical review, on the surface all sophistication and brightness, under its skin just a touch of pathos. Jacques Brel-yeah, no kidding, they're really not fooling-is a 40-year-old Franco-Belgian troubadour. He wrote the songs on which the show is based-all twenty-five of them. A cast of four (out of a rotating pool of seven) performs nightly; not only do they sing, but also they provide, thanks to director Moni Yakim, a bit of mime and dance.
Problem number one, however: At the Somerset Cabaret everyone sits around tables that seat six to eight; you order drinks and chat until the performance begins. The stage, almost like an old burlesque runway, projects into the midst of the room. Consequently, separation between cast and audience is lacking-alas, the evening's theatricality demands such a distance. Up close, the players' presence is somewhat embarrassing. It's as if the guest of honor has gotten rowdily drunk at just the exact moment when everyone else in the room has suddenly sobered up. Uncomfortable. If the Somerset could offer a real "cabaret" atmosphere, that, of course, wouldn't matter-everyone in the room would be equally drunk or at least warmly receptive. But at the Somerset the smoke rises twenty feet before it begins to collect and not even the most spendthrift of boozehounds could compensate for the room's disarming amount of light.
Problem two: Only one of the four performers that handled the opening show proved to be in tune with the moods of Brel's material. George Ball and Bob Jeffries, the male half of the quartet, lacked any of the sense of hurt or loss that underlies Brel. Their dress, the inevitable tentative mod, their hair, just a touch of long, their manners, frightfully winning, the two looked less like Brel's sailors and soldiers and cast-off lovers, rather more like two Red Sox players in an off-season gig, or, worse yet, the male models in a Sears Roebuck catalogue. Annette Pirrone, in the smaller female role, came across as merely pleasant. As a result, all three were easily eclipsed by Denise Le Brun. A protege of Edith Piaf (the program quotes Piaf as saying, "She's the only one who could replace me without being ridiculous."), Le Brun looks like a dumpy, dumped-on Dietrich. In voice and accent she is often quite heart-wrenching, and although her biggest numbers occasionally shade off into the histrionic, she generally manages to combine strength and force with a telling sensitivity.
IN FACT, at times one almost felt her too good for the material, Brel-at least the Brel who filters through the English translations-is generally heralded as "a poet," "a poet and a philosopher," "an ironies of cynical maturity," and "a man low on hope but high on love" (to quote the bedazzled Boston press). Brel, they would have us believe, is a realistic romantic and a tempered cynic. But what comes through his songs-at least those chosen for this show-is not so much romantic as sentimental, the songs of a man less a cynic, more a weak-kneed fatalist.
Jacques Brel opens with a number called "Marathon" that traces five decades of modern European history and decides man is trapped on an ever-accelerating, never-ending treadmill; in a later song, "Carousel," the same theme is repeated. Of course, Burt Bacharach had Dionne Warwick say, the same thing in his theme song for Valley of the Dolls, and, for me at least, just as persuasively, but then of course Bacharach can't be ranked a "poet" alongside Mr. Brel. (And although I would hate to live through a night of Burt Bacharach Is Alive and Well and Living in the Hollywood Hills, I did begin to care some for the man as I sat through two dozen of Brel's songs. Brel never fools around with key and time changes, and, after Bacharach, popular music that relies on conventional construction and stanza development has to work hard not to sound tedious.)
But perhaps you're waiting for a taste of that real "cynical maturity"? In a number called "Sons Of" (now that's got possibilities!) we are told "Sons of the great or sons unknown... sons of tycoons or sons of the farms... sons of the thief or sons of the saint... all were children like your own." And, to buttress that good-feeling that's slowly beginning to spread through your burnt-out heart, the whole production ends with an overly serious and rousing piece, "If We Only Have Love":
If we only have love
We can melt all the guns
And then give the new world
To our daughters and sons.
At least when the Beatles told us love was all we needed, there was the chancy possibility that they were kidding their own naivete. But Brel Americanized is a Poet and that means you'd better take him seriously. And so you end up with a song that "knocks you over."
To be sure, Brel does occasionally sound like an apprentice Browning-which isn't necessarily bad. In "Next" he has a bitter man protest how he lost his virginity in an army whore house:
Naked as sin, an army towel
Covering my belly,
Some of us blush, some howl,
Knees turning to jelly.
And then Brel expands the metaphor to include all the many little rapes that a totalitarian world performs on the innocents who wander through it. The victim admits that, as much as he hates the system's inevitability, he must count himself among its damned:
I swear on the wet head
Of my first case of gonorrhea,
It is [the sergeant's] ugly voice
That I forever hear,
Gonorrhea, now that's one word the kids in Hair wouldn't dare sing of! But it isn't poetry, either. A case could be made, I believe, that popular music rarely incorporates real honest-to-God poetry-even John Lennon's surrealistic verse depends heavily on the accompanying orchestration before exploding within us into patterns of subjective association-but in Brel's case I don't think the argument really has to be developed.
IT IS OF some interest, however, that in France Brel appeals to a younger, more student-oriented age group. The very fact that Jacques Brel played all summer despite the Charles' solid price range means his American audience is quite different. It's quite possible that his fatalism-in a song called "The Bulls," for example, he consoles those animals that weekly face two-bit matadors with the thought that men treat each other equally wretchedly, citing Waterloo, Verdun, Stalingrad, Hiroshima and Saigon as proof-strikes a richer chord in the European mind. It's also possible that once you know the whole body of his work, its individual parts behave quite differently.
Since I'm not at all against poetry and chanteurs getting together, I hope so. I would only suggest that if such is the case, Jacques Brel write a very sad, but, please, also angry, song about what America has done to Jacques Brel.