Alive and Moving

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris The Cabaret at the Charles Playhouse in Boston Through May 19

RECENT WORD has it that the Belgian-born composer Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris--quietly. He doesn't like to give concerts and he's avoided trips to the United States because of his feelings about American involvement in Southeast Asia. Fortunately, though, his music is more accessible to us than he is. Brel is a master of the lyrical song. He is a good poet and a good composer but his true genius lies in his ability to integrate his lyrics and his music into an inviolable whole. After you listen to a Brel song you don't walk away humming it--you really sing it, words and all. The tune just can't be separated from the lyric content of the song.

I'd heard the record of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris so many times that I didn't think a trip to the production at the Cabaret would add much to my appreciation of the songs. But I was wrong. The cast of four actor-singers manages, with the help of a small band, to make the songs more moving and more biting than the record does--a demanding job. The songs range from quiet lullabies to rowdy music hall ballads, and they demand everything from controlled introspection to furious bitterness from the singers. The songs follow a pattern, each one starting off with an expression of hope or contentment, and ending with a bitter ironic twist or defiant indictment of life.

The production is a revue of Jacques Brel songs arranged and translated by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. I'm not sure whether the strength of the lyrics is more properly attributed to their translation or to Brel himself. Perhaps both. A strand of bitterness runs through the songs, and a singer tells us, "Jacques Brel is bitter, but that's because he's in rapport with the world as it is."

The songs convey a bitterness about almost anything a person could be bitter about--death, frustrated sex, lost lovers, futile dreams, old age. The songs show us lonely, defeated people who have been hurt so many times by others that all they can do is dream inefficacious dreams and retreat into old age.

But the songs are not all pathos and bitterness. They are funny and boisterous too. The same Brel who can make you want to cry for sad old people can turn around, tongue-in-cheek, and say of timid people, "If you leave the world to them, they'll crochet it the color of gooseshit."

Judy Lander is the strongest of the performers and has some of Brel's best songs to sing. In "Old Folks" she sings with the slow pace and gentle hesitations that mark elderly people's speech patterns, and at the same time captures the ticking rhythm of the clock that is measuring their final hours. In "Carousel" her voice turns into a whirling machine moving at a furiously accelerating pace. Like the machine, the voice comes towards us and then recedes as it goes round and round. The voice becomes the cycle of fate that condemns people to relive the failures of their lives again and again.

Brel's lyrics are so good and his use of music is so brilliant that by the end of the show we are ready to respect anything he tells us. The small size of the Cabaret, the low ceilings, and the nightclub atmosphere have helped to create a good audience-performer rapport, and the singers have sung as if they were confiding in us and letting us share their frustrations. So when Brel's tone shifts from despair to hope in the final song, and the performers walk on stage holding hands and quietly singing "If We Only Had Love," we're completely taken in by the sentiment. Suddenly there is an antidote for all of the pain.

It is a measure of Brel's talent and the excellent performance by the Cabaret cast that this song makes a moving climax to the show. It can't be dismissed as an old, overly optimistic folksong of the Sixties. We have seen the bitter side of Brel and come to admire his insights, so when he hopes, we are willing to hope with him.