Who is Jacques Brel?
"I had never heard of him and knew nothing," says Halee Towne, who stars in "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" at the Fine Arts Center. "I assumed he was French. And that was all I had."
She's not alone. The name probably doesn't ring many bells today, but during a chunk of the 20th century, the Belgian-born singer-songwriter, actor and director was a household name throughout Europe.
"The more I find out about him, and get into the songs we're doing, it's incredible how relevant his music is to today," Towne says. "He talks a lot about war and the human condition, and how we never asked to be where we are. How a lot of what we have has been given to us, and then what do we do with what we've been given. It's very thought provoking and dark, but it's not despair. There's hope and little pieces of light."
The show opens Friday and runs through June 30 at the Fine Arts Center.
A Brel concert was known for two things: His dramatic, emotional presentation, complete with abundant arm flourishes, and the sweat dripping down his face by the end.
"I've summed him up as a French Bob Dylan," says Max Ferguson, who also stars in the center's production. "He's not necessarily a hippie in his look - he's more European in his look - but he's a strong sort of storyteller, and as a performer, he was shouting as much as he was singing."
Born right before the Great Depression, Brel lived through World War II, and incorporated those gritty subjects into many of his songs. He arrived in Paris in the early 1950s, and began his climb to fame. He passed away from lung cancer at the age of 49 in 1978. He sold more than 25 million records worldwide, according to online accounts, and is the third bestselling Belgian recording artist of all time.
"It's so interesting that he was so successful at this time, being an artist in Belgium," says Nathan Halvorson, in his directorial debut at the Fine Arts Center. "His dad ran a cardboard factory, and he becomes the guy who sings the thoughts of his generation. But even with all his success, he was plagued with self-doubt and was very unhappy, even though he was considered to be this master showman. A lot shows up in his music. He's a fascinating man, a pretty intense man."
It was after Brel's performance at New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1965, that composer Mort Shuman and author Eric Blau were inspired to create a musical revue of his songs. "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well" opened off-Broadway in 1968, and ran for four years, going on to a short run on Broadway in 1972. A movie of the same name was filmed in 1975. Brel had no part in the original stage production, but did make a guest appearance in the film.
The show isn't a typical musical, but a cabaret-style revue. The cast is four people strong (two men, two women), and they sing and dance their way through 25 of Brel's hits. His French lyrics have been translated into English.
"The show lets the music speak for itself," Ferguson says. "You get a sense of the effect the war had on him, and on many of his contemporaries. He sings about it a fair amount, but not as often as he sings about women. There are songs about love and his own mortality - another song thread."
The revue was a pivotal moment in musical theater history, Halvorson says.
"We'd been doing revues or 'Guys and Dolls,' and then there was this play in a downtown theater that was really speaking to the times, the difficulties of the world and of being a human being outside of wartime," he says. "It's a heavy show, but also very light. We're combining joy and pathos at the same time. The duality of those things interests me."
And though the music of Brel has endured in some circles, Halvorson acknowledges that's not always the case.
"People nowadays probably don't know his music," he says. "But it's really rich and complex and funny, and then it turns on you and it's really tragic. We don't have music like this anymore."
Jennifer Mulson can be reached at 636-0270.