IS ALIVE AND WELL
AND LIVING IN PARIS
background and analysis by Scott Miller
More than any other piece written for the musical stage, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris utterly defies description. It is an evening of independent songs, yet it is more than a revue. It doesn't have a plot or an immediately recognizable cast of characters, so it's not really a book musical. It has been called the world's first libretto-less musical. In reality, it is a one-man musical with a cast of four. Two women and two men portray one character: the real life folk singer-poet, Jacques Brel. The words are Brel's, the opinions, insights, and razor wit is Brel's. The underlying, sometimes nearly hidden optimism is Brel's. In a sense, the show is more a character study than anything else, but is it a character study of Jacques Brel the man or of western civilization at the end of the twentieth century? Eric Blau, one of the creators of the show, said that Brel writes about the way we live in a world we did not create.
Every rule in the theatre, no matter how hardcore, must eventually be broken. At one time, we thought every musical had to have a story, then along came Company and A Chorus Line, which had situation and characters, but no story. We once thought that when there was a story, it had to be told in chronological order, then along came Merrily We Roll Along, with a narrative that ran backwards. It had always been accepted (and still is today) that poetry makes rotten lyrics, and lyrics make rotten poetry. Poetry is words that make their own music, that require contemplation and reflection; one quick hearing of those words, complicated by music, makes it impossible to hear them and digest them completely. On the other hand, lyrics are written to be coupled with music, and when you read them on the printed page, the rhythm is often hard to discern, rhymes don't always make sense, and the simplicity that makes some songs so powerful (like "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'," or "Morning Glow") seems silly and unsophisticated. Even the best lyrics, like those of Stephen Sondheim, don't usually work half as well as spoken or written text. They were created to work with music and they are incomplete with it.
Yet the lyrics in Jacques Brel shatter the conventional wisdom. The words have all the complexity and beauty of poetry, and yet they work as lyrics. They are instantly comprehensible on one level, while later reflection still reveals even more depth under the surface. This anomaly may be due partly to the fact that these songs were not written as poetry or as theatre lyrics; they were written to be sung in clubs and coffee houses in France and Belgium. They are a strange hybrid of 18th and 19th century art songs coupled with 1960s protest songs. And like some art songs and protest songs, many of these songs are written so that syllables that would naturally be stressed fall on unstressed beats in the music, throwing the natural sound of the words off a bit, making the audience listen more closely, making it impossible to hear them passively. The song "Madeleine" is hilarious and also bittersweet on first hearing, and then terribly tragic on further reflection. The nature of each song changes the more you think about it. In a way, the performance is only the beginning of life of the songs, because they stay with you and their words echo in your mind over time, your understanding and their impact transforming and evolving over time.
Coming to America
Jacques Brel was born in Belgium in 1929 but moved to Paris as a young man to be a singer and songwriter. By the early 1960s, Brel had established a reputation as one of France's greatest writers and interpreters of modern songs. (In France, the writing of popular songs is much more respected than it is here in America, and serious poets and playwrights write pop lyrics.) Though Brel himself insisted his lyrics are not poetry, they have an intensity of images, uncommon rhythmic patterns, and a sophisticated structure that confirms his stature as a major artist. In 1957, the first American recording of Brel's songs was released with only moderate success.
In 1961, singer Elly Stone began singing two of Brel's songs, "Ne me quitte pas" ("Don't Leave Me") and "La Valse á mille temps," ("The Waltz in 1,000 Time") in an off-Broadway show called O, Oysters! Though the show did not run long, Stone continued to perform the Brel songs. In 1968, Eric Blau and Mort Schuman built an off-Broadway musical using twenty-six of Brel's songs, and they called it Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. It ended up running for five years. After its off-Broadway run, the show enjoyed a limited engagement of four weeks on Broadway, and several Broadway producers asked for an extended run, but the show's producers refused. Broadway was not the place for this show. It's been revived twice in New York and has been produced around the world. A film version was released in 1975, which included an appearance by Brel himself singing his best known song in France, "Ne me quitte pas" (a song not in the stage show). Since the show first opened, Brel’s songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Judy Collins, and Barry Manilow, and the show continues to be produced throughout the world. Brel died in 1978 at age 49 but they didn't change the title.
It's still accurate.
E Pluribus Unum
So if this is a show comprised of 26 separate, independent songs -- 26 one-act musicals -- what makes it hang together as an evening? Does it, in fact, hang together as an evening? First of all, as discussed above, this is one man's philosophy, Brel's thoughts about the world and about being alive, specifically about the struggle to survive in our modern world. It is a kind of character study, though not in the sense we're used to. It doesn't describe his life explicitly like Give 'Em Hell Harry, Tru, or other one-character plays do, although it does describe his life subtextually in "Brussels," "Jackie," and other songs. It's closer to Jane Wagner's one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, one person's two-hour riff on Life, the Universe, and Everything. We get to know Brel's personality, his politics, his fears, and what he cherishes. We get a glimpse of how much he misses the simplicity of his childhood in "Jackie" (it's not a coincidence he chose his own name for this song). We get a glimpse into his feelings about war and his fears of growing old. We see his (mostly negative) feelings about family in "Timid Frieda" and "Funeral Tango." These are not just Brel's random thoughts, though; every song is about our struggle to survive, either literally or spiritually. The show's creators chose these songs from the Brel canon because they do have that common thread among them; and that ever present survival subtext helps make the show a lot less dismal than it might appear on the surface.
But practically speaking, how does that make the show a compelling, unified evening of theatre? There are several small devices, including the way some of the songs are grouped thematically around topics like death ("Statue," "The Desperate Ones," and "Sons Of"), false or bad love ("Alone," "Madeleine," "I Loved," "Mathilde," and "Bachelor's Dance"), the way time turns the tables ("Brussels," "Fanette," "Funeral Tango," and "Middle Class"). There are also themes that connect non-consecutive songs over the course of the show, like growing old ("Alone," "Bachelor's Dance," "My Death," "Amsterdam," "Old Folks," and "Middle Class"), sex ("I Loved," "Timid Frieda," "My Death," "Girls and Dogs," "Jackie," "Amsterdam," "Fanette," "No Love, You're Not Alone," and "Next"), and war ("Marathon," "Alone," "Statue," "Sons Of," "The Bulls," "Brussels," "Next," and "If We Only Have Love").
Most importantly, there is an overall dramatic arc to this show. The central theme of the show is that no matter how overwhelming life can get – and it can get really overwhelming, Brel tells us -- we have a strength and a survival instinct that gets us through even the worst of it. The opening song, "Marathon," acts as an introduction to this idea and as a table of contents for the show's topics. The other songs catalog for us the things that make life overwhelming: war and death, drugs, family, money, love and marriage, and the relentlessness of time. At the end of the show, all these things explode in the insanity and chaos of the penultimate number, "Carousel." Then the conflict, the tension, is resolved in the last song, "If We Only Have Love." We not only come to understand what Brel thinks is wrong with the world, but also where he thinks the solution lies. Like any good satirist or commentator, he takes aim at himself along with the rest of us, and we get to know his philosophies, his sense of humor, and his unwavering faith in human nature to do good and come out on top.
Still, the show's structure doesn't make it easy to engage and hold an audience. The coherence of the evening isn't always apparent until "Carousel," the second-to-last song. Up until that moment, the show has to move like lightning to create the sense of overwhelmingness that the songs describe. Like Songs for a New World, this is a show that is not necessarily understood on a conscious level. Like Passion, it’s a show about relentlessness that must be relentless itself in order to make the audience feel what the characters feel. At intermission, an audience seeing Jacques Brel should be a bit dizzy, not quite sure what they've seen and where it's heading. By the end of Act II, it all becomes clear.
More than most pop songwriters, Brel uses triple time -- a waltz or variations of a waltz -- in a lot of his songs. "I Loved" is a triple-time lullaby, as is "Timid Frieda," in both cases as ironic commentary on the lyrics. "The Desperate Ones" is in the style of the gentle waltz-like piano pieces called gymnopédies that the turn-of-the-century French composer Erik Satie wrote. "Sons Of" starts out as a triple-time lullaby but transforms itself into a frightening grand waltz as it repeats over and over the list of young men who go to their deaths during wartime. "Amsterdam" is a sailor's sea shanty in 6/4 time, a variation of triple-time. "Old Folks" is a slow, endlessly repetitive triple-time lullaby, whose accompaniment ironically echoes Braham's lullaby, as it describes old people going to their final sleep. "Marieke" is in 12/8, a variation of triple-time. "Fantine" is a slow, sad waltz. "No Love, You're Not Alone" is a waltz that builds and grows like "Sons Of." And "Carousel" is a mad waltz gone out of control, spinning and speeding wildly as it gets faster and faster and finally explodes, bringing together all the waltzes that have gone before it. More than a third of the Jacques Brel score is in triple time -- which is extraordinarily rare for pop songs or theatre songs – and "Girls and Dogs" acts as a bridge between those songs and the rest of the score. "Girls and Dogs" is in 7/8, each measure counted as 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2, combining triple time and duple time in one song.
The show opens with "Marathon," a comic, absurdist tour of history that also acts as a kind of table of contents of the entire show, chronicling war, pop culture, social attitudes, political movements, and the remarkable ability of human beings to survive any obstacle throughout this century, all the topics that will be explored in greater depth in the rest of the show. It makes fun of the ridiculous, short-sighted, bull-headed way humankind stumbles through history, usually only choosing the right path by accident. Above all, this is a song about survival. No matter what horror presents itself – the mass murders of Hitler and Stalin, the catastrophes of stock markets crashes, wars – human beings survive. We go on, even with the knowledge that as we overcome one horror, another is surely looming in the distance.
"Marathon" is one of the songs in the show whose text has very little relation to the original French text. The song's original title was "Les Flamandes," and it was a scathing satire of the restrictive morality Brel’s native Belgium. It was a song so anti-establishment that the Belgian government denied Brel permission to perform the song at his concerts in Belgium. Of course he performed it anyway. Though the show's creators and translators, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, wrote an entirely new, unrelated lyric for this music, there are still two interesting connections between the French lyric and the English lyric. First, they share a structural device. "Les Flamandes" traces the girls' restrictive lives at ages 20, 30, 40, 50, until they're 100. Similarly, "Marathon" traces the progress of America in the twentieth century through the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, up to the millennium. Also, the chorus of "Les Flamandes" keeps returning to the idea that the girls dance every Sunday to attract a husband; and "Marathon" returns in each chorus to the phrase, "But we keep on dancing...," in this case referring to both our determination to survive and our tendency to ignore or dilute reality whenever we can.
In its English form, "Marathon" is a catalog of America in the twentieth century, an appropriate opening for the show that follows. The song's humor and its horror comes from the way the lyrics couple the mundane with the horrific – "Dempsey-Tunney, Sacco and Vanzetti," or "Breadlines, shanty towns, Frankenstein's Bride." The historical, cultural, and pop culture references pour out of this song in an unending stream, some obscure, some obvious, but all of them so fast, the listener barely has time to register the ones he knows before two more have already passed him by. So here is a quick guide to the references in "Marathon."
"The twenties roar" is a reference to the common label, "the roaring twenties." "Bath tub gin" was illegal homemade gin often made or kept in the bathtub during Prohibition in the 1920s. "The road to sin" is probably a reference to the slogans of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who were trying to stop the consumption of alcohol, as well as a pun on the popular 1927 Broadway play, The Road to Rome, by well-known playwright Robert Sherwood. "Charles A. Lindbergh" was the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic, in 1927. "Dempsey-Tunney" refers to the famous 1927 boxing match between former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and the current heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. "Sacco and Vanzetti" were the two anarchists falsely accused and arrested in 1920 of bank robbery and murder because of propagandist leaflets in their car, and they were prosecuted as "Reds." They were convicted and given the death sentence. Despite worldwide protests over lack of evidence, public demonstrations, the requests of 61 law professors, and the confession of another man clearing their names, they were still executed in 1927. In 1977, the governor of Massachusetts granted them posthumous pardons.
"Black, black Monday, and the market drops" refers to the great stock market crash of 1929. On Thursday and Friday, October 24 and 25, stock prices had dropped drastically, so the millionaires started buying everything up (partly in order to save some of the companies from going under). On Monday, everyone saw how much buying was happening and they, too, started buying at the low prices. At the end of the day on Monday, Oct. 28, the millionaires dumped everything they had bought – this was Black Monday. They turned a tidy profit, but when the market opened Tuesday morning, there was widespread panic and the market crashed. This lyric line, more than any other, encapsulates the whole idea of the song, of the endless, often repetitive parade of the mundane and horrific over time – because "Black Monday" also refers to October 19, 1987, the second time the stock market crashed, 20 years after this show was written.
"The thirties scream" is a reference to the rise of fascism and political extremism around the world, and the subsequent murder of millions of innocent people. "The horsemen ride," in addition to being a Biblical reference, is also a reference to "the four horsemen of the apocalypse," four players on Knute Rockne's champion college football team at Notre Dame University, the "Four Horsemen" label coming from the world-famous 1918 anti-war novel, and the 1921 film based on it.
"Orphan Annie" is of course the title character in the newspaper comic strip "Little Orphan Annie." A radio show, based on the comic strip (which began in 1924) debuted in 1931 on the NBC Blue Network, sponsored by Ovaltine. "Daddy Warbucks dies" refers to the demise in the 30s of the Robber Barons, the ruthless millionaire businessmen. In 1933, President Roosevelt signed into law the Glass-Steagall Act, which forbade banks to deal in stocks and bonds (which millionaire J.P. Morgan had been doing), and the National Industrial Recovery Act, which established "codes for fair competition," collective bargaining, shorter work hours, and fixed pricing.
"Breadlines, shanty towns" were the results (and symbols) of the Great Depression. "Frankenstein's Bride" appeared in the famous 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, a sequel to the extremely successful 1931 film Frankenstein, both from Universal Studios, which went on to make many more monster movies.
"Adolph Hitler and the Siegfried Follies" is a satiric reference to the German dictator, comparing his goose-stepping Nazi soldiers to the strutting showgirls of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. The "Siegfried Line" was a western German battle front in World War II. "Josef Stalin and a bag full of jollies" refers to the Communist dictator of the Soviet Union, who manufactured an artificial famine in the Ukraine in 1932 to starve out those who would not join him, exterminating 6.8 million people, from 1936 to 1938, in an effort to liquidate his enemies.
"Call your broker and buy marzipan" is a comic reference to the fact that money and stocks and bonds were no longer worth anything in the 1930s, so an investor would have been just as well off buying candy as stock. Marzipan is a candy made from sugar and almond paste.
"The forties burn because the trumpets blare" is a reference to the destruction of European cities during World War II. "The Yanks are coming, coming over there" is a reference to the United States joining World War II in 1941. The line is a lyric from the song "Over There," written in 1917 by George M. Cohan about World War I, and it's probably used here to again point out the repetitive nature of human history. "Auschwitz" was a Nazi concentration camp in World War II. "Edelweiss" is the national flower of Austria, the country which joined Hitler a bit too eagerly in World War II; and it’s a flower that grows only in the highest mountains of the Austrian Alps. This lyric was written after The Sound of Music had played on Broadway, so the writers knew the audience's association with this flower through the song "Edelweiss."
"Drang und sturm" is a reference to sturm und drang, a 19th century German literary movement, literally, "storm and stress," characterized by extreme nationalism, impetuousness, and an opposition to societal norms. The "Manhattan Project" was the U.S. government's project to develop the atom bomb. "Robert Oppenheim" (actually Robert Oppenheimer), was the leader of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb in 1945. "God makes mushrooms" is a reference to the mushroom shaped clouds of the atomic bombs, and maybe also to the use of mushrooms as a mood altering drug. "...Like a lollipop" is a reference to drugs like LSD which were ingested by licking them off a piece of paper or a lollipop. In other words, the lyric is saying that peace is not real; it's imaginary and it doesn't last. No matter how secure we may feel for the moment, the feeling (like being high on drugs) is an illusion and only temporary.
"The Eighties bang and the nineties whimper" is a reference to T.S. Eliot's 1925 poem The Hollow Men, part of which reads, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper." "The century hangs" is a reference to the Bible-based belief that the world will be destroyed at the end of the millennium.
Like "Marathon," the song "Alone" also acts as a kind of table of contents for the show, dealing with more specific issues than "Marathon" which is drawn in much broader strokes. In the first stanza, the singer's view of love as a game which is ended with lies, connects to the next song, "I Loved", which describes a once immature understanding of love. We don't treat love with the care and respect we should, these songs say. The second stanza of "Alone" refers to the thrills and speed of modern life that we all crave, a theme that will reappear in "Carousel" in Act II. Like the singers of "Fanette" and "Jackie," the third stanza describes our penchant for living – and hiding – in the past instead of dealing with the realities of the world around us. We enjoy too much wallowing in lost love at the expense of feeling real emotion, it says. Interestingly, the male singer of "Alone" shares all these things with the female singer of "I Loved;" but though she has grown up and faced her immaturities, he has not.
The next two stanzas of "Alone" talk about our tendency to solve problems with guns, to make snap decisions about complex issues of right and wrong, and then to storm into difficult situations, declaring ourselves on the moral high ground; all issues that are taken up again in "Statue" and "The Bulls." But this tendency of ours applies not only to war but to other situations as well. How often do our preachers mark one group or another as immoral, as dangerous to the American way of life? Once it was freed slaves, then Jews, then blacks again, then feminists, then gays; and each time, Bible verses are offered up to prove that this stand is a moral one. They acquire fame, money, and power, yet they know these gains are ill gotten. Echoing the themes in "Jackie," money and power do not bring peace of mind, do not bring real security, only more doubt and fear.
The result of this is articulated in the sixth stanza: we all end up confused about what is right and wrong. We find ourselves or our loved ones demonized by those who say they represent God and morality. And though the preachers fill their lives with various kinds of insurances – going to church and reading the Bible to insure they'll go to heaven, putting their millions in the bank to insure they can live comfortably – still, deep down, they're afraid that someone will steal their money or their cars, that their daily, secret indiscretions may be made public or may keep them out of heaven. So how do we react? We all stay locked in our houses, suspicious, rarely letting anyone in (physically or emotionally), keeping ourselves alone and isolated out of our fear and our conviction that it's every man for himself.
Ultimately, we grow old and find that no amount of money, power, or fame can fight back death. As Brel says in "My Death," in "Old Folks," and in "Sons Of," no one is safe from growing old and dying. And the only thing we can take with us is the good or evil we did while we walked this earth. If we've spent our life in the pursuit of only our own interests, when it comes time to cash in the chips, we will truly be alone.
The singer observes that though we know there are horrible things happening in the world, we most often stay at home in our cocoon, preferring not to get involved, not to risk our own safety or comfort in the interest of doing what's right. And when some of us get to be rich and famous, powerful and influential, it doesn't really matter because it's all been done for selfish reasons. At the end of the song, the singer asks what he has done to deserve this spiritual and emotional isolation and loneliness. His tragic flaw is precisely the fact that he doesn't know.
Ultimately, though, the message we get from this song is the exact opposite of its literal theme. Because the feelings the singer articulates in this song are universal, we really aren't alone; because we all feel this way at some point in our lives, that shared experience keeps us from really being alone. There are millions of other people in the world who feel exactly as we do, and this song reassures us that our fears and anxieties are shared ones. In fact, we are not alone, and neither is the guy singing this song. The act of singing it, the act of articulating what he feels, has connected him to the rest of us.
With "Madeleine," Brel sets up a cheery song about young love then methodically subverts every one of our expectations about what a love song should be. Like so many Brel songs, "Madeleine" is about the dark side of love, the pain and blind optimism of unrequited passion.
To introduce the idea of four actors playing one character (or one composite perhaps), all four sing this first person narrative. The lyric uses first person singular pronouns despite the four voices harmonizing. There is a rule that an audience will accept any device or artifice in a musical as long as it is introduced within the first ten minutes. This is one of the few rules the creators of Jacques Brel did follow. Four voices portray one person here, early in the show. This dramatic device is established and once its been done, we accept it for the rest of the show. Four actors singing this man's sad tale reminds us that Brel represents us all. We have all pursued, hoped for love that would not or could not be returned. In fact, as we watch two men and two women sing this song, we must consider the possibility that the narrator could be a woman, and the unrequited love could be a question of sexual orientation.
The narrator is in love with a woman named Madeleine, a woman he waits for every night, a woman who never comes. As the song begins, he tells us that he waits for her every night and of his romantic plans for the evening. At first we assume that he and Madeleine go out every night together, first to Joe's for french fries, then to the movies. In the second verse, we discover that it's getting late and yet Madeleine isn't there yet. It's also raining and our narrator hasn't the sense to come in out of the rain, for fear that he might miss Madeleine when she arrives. Eventually, he decides she's not coming tonight. So he decides to go home -- but he'll be back tomorrow night. And we realize that he's there every night and every night he gets stood up.
Madeleine doesn't love him. She’s not his girlfriend. She may not even know him. As the songs ends, we find we know this man better than we thought. His love is not real; it is obsessive, irrational, self-delusional. As if the narrator wasn't already screwed up enough, Brel adds even more neurosis to his character. At no time during the song does the narrator ever blame Madeleine for anything. It's always his own fault or the fault of Madeleine's family, never her fault. Despite the awful way Madeleine treats him, he still sees her as perfect; he says he knows that she's too good for him. In the third verse we see this illustrated most potently. He says he only has himself to blame, perhaps for Madeleine's not showing up, perhaps for him catching a cold, or who knows what else. He even mocks his own obsession, saying he must've called her name a thousand times since he's been standing there, perhaps blaming that obsession for driving her away. Since it's not her fault, since she's not to blame for him standing in the cold and rain, he doesn't have to forgive her for standing him up. And he'll be back there the next night, going through the exact same thing, illustrated by the device of repeating almost exactly the first verse lyric in the last verse. It’s sad because it’s so hopeless but it’s funny because we’ve all been there.
The relationship described in "I Loved" has failed for two reasons. First, the singer had an immature idea of what love is. The lyric starts by listing the magical, fairy tale symbols that she associated with love. She believed that there was just one special man for her, that she only had to wait for him and that they would find each other because they were fated to be together.
Then she meets a man who fits the ideal in her head. He fits all the wild romantic notions she's read in the stories and seen in movies, but they have passion, not love. Everything is extreme. Nothing is real. And on top of everything else, he's a lying, cheating jerk. One of the most telling lines in the song is the idea that this man loved the singer like a poet would love her. It's significant that he does not love as a normal person loves. She saw him as the mysterious, impossible to understand artist, as a god who could throw lightning bolts. She never saw him as a man. A woman can't love a god.
Having extreme passion can be wonderful, but when the good side is extreme, the bad side probably is, too. There is a price to be paid for that kind of too-good-to-be-real romance. There was no trust; she was constantly afraid that he would leave her. That's not love, but it did fit the romance novel ideal of love, the tragic heroine who is left by the man she loves to suffer evermore, to live alone with her memories of the passion, to be the subject of torch songs sung by Billie Holliday.
But now she's grown up. Like Clara in the musical Passion, she knows the difference between passion and love. Looking back, she realizes that the romance was not as life-transforming as she expected, and that losing him did not destroy her utterly as she perhaps hoped it might. She ended up being not a tragic heroine, but instead just a woman, an adult who will endure other loves and other losses and still wake up the next day. She is an adult and her fantasies are gone, for better or worse. No matter how devastating it seemed at the time, it was just another day in her life, inconsequential enough that she can't even remember his name anymore.
It's interesting that at no time during the song does she ever say that she loved him. She loved the symbols, the trappings of romance, but never him. She even loves some of the memories of places where they made love, but not him and not his love. Though her lover was in control when they were together and when they broke up, he's not anymore. She's in control now. He has no power over her. The title, "I Loved," holds the meaning of the song – there is no object, no who she loved. Unlike most love songs, this is about what and how she loved, not who she loved. Brel tells us all we need to know in his title, but it's not until the end of the song that we realize it.
"Mathilde" is another twisted look at love. The spoken line that precedes this song is from Aristophanes' comic play Lysistrata: "Women bring many things. Who can deny that? But surely it's not peace that we bring." And to illustrate that statement, the singer of "Mathilde" tells us about the woman who dumped him, who broke his heart, who destroyed his life – who is coming back to him. And even though he knows she's going to break his heart again, he still wants everything to be perfect for her. Despite the pain she caused him, he still loves her and some part of him still thinks he might have her again. Is this love? Or is it some sick kind of dependence? Has he decided, consciously or subconsciously, that he deserves this pain, or perhaps that he'll never find what he wants so he'd better settle for what he can get. Once again, Brel paints an all too real and familiar scenario and shows it for the insanity it is, cutting through all the self-delusion.
The spoken line before "Mathilde" makes the first conceptual bridge between the songs in the show about love and the songs about war. This line is from Aristophanes' classical Greek comedy, Lysistrata, a play about a city full of women protesting war by denying their husbands sex until they stop fighting. The creators of Jacques Brel have adroitly linked the battle of the sexes with their anti-war message, two of the three most prominent themes in the show.
"Bachelor's Dance" is about a man who can't find a girl because, like the singer of "I Loved," he's created an idealized partner in his mind that he'll never find in real life. This is a song about the objectification of women, about idealized women, women who don't really exist. The woman he's looking for is wise, soft-skinned, loving, good at keeping house, good at mothering, and she'll keep looking better and better as she ages. Not only is the women of his dreams unreal, so is the picture he has of domestic life. Sadly, the man who will settle only for perfection will always be alone. (This is song is sung by the same actor who sings "Alone.")
This song traces the phases of his life, from young love, to blissful, middle-aged domesticity, to comfortable old age. But as he grows old, he does not mature. (Isn’t it interesting that the women in the show mature, but the men don’t?) At each stage, the women who would love him are rejected because they don't measure up to the ideal in the singer's head. At the end of his life, he finds himself still alone, still looking, having let his entire life pass him by without knowing the joys of sharing a life with someone he loves. And all he can ask is why his dream girl never came.
"Timid Frieda" is a song about freedom and the costs and dangers of that freedom. It's about growing up and making a life, living independently, learning life lessons the hard way, away from the repression of family and old-fashioned moral codes.
The first verse of the song describes Frieda's arrival in the big city, the magic and glitz of it all in her eyes, her fear of this strange new world. She wonders if the denizens of this world will accept her and if she will find the freedom and independence she seeks. For the first time, we hear the line that will transform throughout the song, "There she goes with her valises held so tightly in her hands." Here her tight grip illustrates her fear; later it will illustrate excitement, later still, determination and her newfound independence.
The second verse describes her excitement her feelings upon joining this new world. She finds self-respect, perhaps for the first time, and she discovers that the petty concerns of childhood really are inconsequential. She realizes she belongs here and that this is where she will make her life. The third verse gives us a glimpse into the world she has left. She says she won't go back there where they don't need her (or want her?), where all they do is berate her with scoldings and meaningless, ready-made, one-size-fits-all platitudes. Her home life was constricting. The "Little lessons and platitudes from cans" are the empty clichés passed down from generation to generation, the pre-fab rules and restrictions that are mindlessly repeated without ever re-examining them to see if they still apply. Finally on her own, Frieda is free of the irrational repression that drove her from her home and family. Here on the street, there's an excitement and freedom she never had at home. As the third verse ends, Frieda's strangle-hold on her valises shows us her determination to make a new life for herself.
The fourth verse gives us more insight into the new life Frieda has chosen. She is now living "on the street where the cops all perish," a place of danger, risk, and yes, excitement. The contention that those cops "can't break her" might also imply that she is involved in illegal activity, perhaps prostitution. The lyric goes on to say that "she can take her brave new Fuck-You stand" against the cops. There's a strong case to be made that Frieda has become a hooker, a life that scares her but also exhilarates her; she's scared, but her senses are heightened. Has the repression of her home life driven her to the extreme rebellion of selling sex? Could the line about the cops perishing be a reference to la petit morte ("the little death"), a French literary phrase meaning orgasm? In other words, is she giving the cops freebies?
The reading of Frieda as a prostitute is certainly not the only possible interpretation of this song, but it does make sense. If we accept this premise, her home life and family make more sense, the danger of the streets makes sense, and the references to cops make more sense. After all, why would the cops want to "break her" if she wasn't involved in illegal activity?
Finally in the last verse, the singers ask that if we see Frieda, to leave her alone, to allow her to make of her life whatever she wants. Is Frieda really just one woman, or is she an archetype, a symbol of many women? The original French title is plural: "Les Timides," meaning "the timid ones." The lyric makes no judgment of Frieda's career choice and it seems to disapprove heartily of the way her family has treated her. Interestingly, the music is a simple waltz, sounding almost like a lullaby. Perhaps it's telling us that this is the message we're sending to our children, that if we are suffocating them in our moral repression, their natural inclination will be to go too far the other way, into a life of dangerous rebellion. Whatever the song's moral stance, it clearly believes that people should be left to their own choices. Like the several songs preceding it, this song is about passion and lust without love, a theme Brel returns to often.
It's worth noting that Brel's original French lyric aims in a different direction. It begins by comparing "The Timid Ones" to falling leaves being blown about, folding into themselves, at the mercy of the fates. It describes their sheltered lives, their need to hide, to be hidden and protected from the world. They're afraid to take or even ask for what they want, and when they find someone they are just used and discarded. The last line of each verse, "A valise in each hand," says that they have no home, no place that is their own, no safe haven to return to when the world gets too cold. The French lyric connects deeply with the lyric of "The Desperate Ones." The English lyric is a logical extension of the French lyric, instead of a direct translation; Timid Frieda was once one of the timid ones, but she took control of her life, rejected that which was destructive in her life and set out on her own. Though her life may be decadent and unsafe, it is still her life, and it's the one she chose.
"My Death" is not as dark and foreboding as it sounds. This song is not about the dark shadow of death as much as about growing old and the inevitability of death. The point of the song is that death is unavoidable, that it looms over us all like a shadow, but – and this is important – it usually waits until we've each lived a full life and done most of the things we wanted to do. The song isn’t about death stalking us (the usual portrayal); it's about death waiting until we're ready. In a way it's a perfect companion piece to "Old Folks" in Act II. The most important lines of the song are repeated several times:
But whatever is behind the door,
There is nothing much to do.
Angel or devil, I don't care,
For in front of that door, there is you.
In other words, it doesn't matter that death will eventually come to each of us. There's nothing we can do about it; we can't escape or cheat death. What matters is that before we go through that metaphoric door into death, we should enjoy the things that lie on this side of the door, in life. Death is even connected to sex in the second verse references to arms and thighs and fingers, perhaps another reference to le petit mort ("the little death"), or orgasm.
Death in this song is not evil. It is not the frightening shadowy figure with a scythe. It is a kind but uncompromising force, one that is patient, that waits to allow the singer and her friends to live their lives and have fun before they die, yet it is still something we can't escape. It's not something we can understand (as illustrated by the images of magicians), but that's okay. We don't need to understand it. We just have to accept that death informs everything; it is a part of life that can't be separated out. The constant references to the passing time echoes the same phrase in "Old Folks." It connects to the old silver clock in "Old Folks," to the chronological structure of "Marathon," to the descriptions of the phases of life in "Bachelor's Dance," and to the ever present use of past tense in almost all the songs about love. Time and death are the two most prevalent themes in this show, and they converge here. Death is almost friendly; there is a kind of security knowing what's to come and knowing that it won't take you before your time. It's interesting that this song should come after "Timid Frieda" (in a direct segue, without stopping), a song about a girl in the dangerous, maybe fatal, twilight world of the Big City.
"Jackie" is a song about a man who wants desperately to return to the simple, protected world of being a child, away from the responsibilities and complexities of being an adult. Each verse sets up a fantasy scenario in which the singer dreams up a life for himself, each time more fantastic than the one before. Yet none satisfy him. He dreams of being a singer and a drunken gigolo in the first verse; then a rich and famous recording artist, a high class brothel owner, a drug dealer, even ruler of the world in the second verse; and finally an omnipotent god in the third verse. But in every verse, no matter how extreme the fantasy, no matter rich and powerful he is in each scenario, he still prefers the thought of going back to his childhood. He wants to return so badly he would settle for being a child just for an hour a day, just a short escape to recharge his psychic batteries. Despite the brisk tempo and high energy level, this is an extremely sad song. This is a man who can't be happy, whose happiness is all in the past tense. And the last line of each verse even denigrates to a certain extent the life he longs to return to:
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute, cute in a stupid ass way.
It's interesting that before he slips into his imagination each verse to return to his childhood, he needs some sort of mood-altering drug – alcohol in the first verse, opium in the second, and actual death in the last verse.
"The Statue" raises some interesting and difficult questions about honoring war heroes. This is a song about glorifying war, and about the necessity and danger of illusion. The singer of this song is a man who was killed in the war (he doesn't say which war, and though we can assume from certain references it's one of the World Wars, the song applies to other wars just as well), and he's angry at the person who wrote the inscription on the statue erected in his honor. The statue says the singer was a paragon of honor and virtue, but in reality, he admits, he was a liar, a cheat, and an all-around jerk. The inscription says that he was most beloved by God, but in reality, he admits, he only prayed to God when it suited him, and even prayed to Satan when he thought it might help. The inscription says the singer died like a hero, but in reality, he admits, he only went to war because he had nothing better to do with his life, because he thought it might help him get girls, and he died from incompetence, not out of bravery or sacrifice.
The singer knows that the statue is not just a memorial but is also a recruiting poster, an invitation to kids to join the army, to become heroes themselves, and have statues erected in their honor. Yet the singer knows first-hand that war is not like the movies, and that if they erect a statue to honor you, you won’t be around to enjoy it. He also knows that most of the kids who go to die on the battlefield, kids who die more bravely than he did, won't be honored. The singer wants to protect them from the lie, from the glorification of war. He doesn't want his name to be used to recruit kids to go to war and be killed. He doesn't want to be an accomplice in their deaths. But there's nothing he can do. He can tell the kids to get away from this statue, tell them not to read the fictionalized inscriptions, but they can't hear him. He's dead.
It's interesting to notice that Brel quotes a bit of the melody from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the vocal line in each verse to underline the false glorification of war (and perhaps to give America a little extra blame for that glorification?). The central idea of this song is a sentiment expressed in several Brel songs: soldiers are ordinary people having to survive in extraordinary circumstances. Despite the statues and memorials, despite the John Wayne movies and Hogan's Heroes, the men and women laying down their lives in the name of war are neither heroes nor clowns (as the lyric says in "If We Only Have Love"). And in a way, the fact that they are ordinary people makes their victories and even their survival all the more impressive. Brel finds a difficult moral question in the act of war, and he objects to dressing it up and making it seem like something it is not.
Like many Brel songs, this one is built on a tragic irony. In this case, this man led a dishonorable life but he is now trying to do the honorable thing, by telling the kids the truth, by telling them not to believe the lies on his statue. The irony lies in the fact that they can't hear him because he's dead. By getting himself killed (through incompetence and apathy), he not only provided the propagandists with recruitment material, he also forfeited the opportunity to set the record straight.
Some directors have experienced a problem with one word in the lyric. The singer refers to the man who "wrote" things on his statue, and many listeners today think he's talking about graffiti. The singer is really talking about the man who carved the inscription on the base of the statue. This problem has been solved by simply substituting the word "carved" for "wrote" in the couple instances it occurs.
The Desperate Ones
"The Desperate Ones" is a song about a different kind of victim, not those killed in war but those who are killed – or who take their own lives – because of the indifference of those around them. They may be the homeless, who have no voice, no power or influence; they go through their lives without making a sound, without calling attention to themselves. They may be the men in "Alone" without friends or family. They may be the ones success forever eludes, who suffer wordlessly behind their desks and word processors, never given the chance they need to succeed, to realize the American dream, finally just too depressed to keep going.
The are the ones who kill themselves and no one notices. They made no difference when they were alive and their deaths means nothing either. Their fates were sealed long ago; they could never be the winners. "Their footsteps sing a song that's ended before it's begun." They find in suicide a peace and calm, an end to the suffering, that exists no where else for them:
And underneath the bridge
The water's sweet and deep;
There is the journey's end,
The land of endless sleep.
. . .
On the bridge of nevermore
They disappear one by one,
Disappear without a sound.
The lyric says "They cry to us for help. We think it's all in fun." Like the people in "Brussels," we choose not to see that which we don't want to see. We talk of love, of compassion, of all Americans sharing in the American Dream, but it's only talk. As Brel says, we know the verb "to love" but we don't really know how to love. And what's most tragic is that when these people, the desperate ones, are gone, we never miss them. Death on the battlefield can be horrific, but perhaps this is even worse.
Several songs in the show are about war, exposing the false romanticism and reminding us of the harsh realities, but "Sons Of" takes the issue out of the larger social context and puts it into a personal context. The singer is not a mother or a sister. She is not someone who has lost a loved one to war. She is war, first the sweet seducer, set to the pretty, lullaby music of the first verses, then later the mad killer, set to the crazed, grand waltz of the last verse. As the music changes from innocent to manic, war itself transforms from the opportunity for heroism to the indiscriminate killer of young men and women. The first verse doesn't mention death, only children, the hope of the future. It's not until the second verse that the lyric speaks of them vanishing. The images grow darker. In the third verse, the reality hits us: some of our children went to war, and some of them never returned (of course, this song was even more potent in the Vietnam years). The last verse returns to the words of the first verse, only now set to the macabre, throbbing death waltz. The song even refers to itself – to lullabies – in the third verse. The first verses are the lullabies, the false lulling to sleep of our fears, the fraudulent promises of greatness. We're sucked in by the lullaby – by this song itself – and we lose our children.
The song touches on an idea that was explored in "The Statue" and will be returned to in "If We Only Have Love," that war does not discriminate, that it kills rich and poor alike, educated and uneducated. When the shrapnel flies, the rich kid will die as quickly as the poor kid. The song reminds us that when war breaks out, the greatest cost is in human lives. And the people who die aren't just abstract, faceless numbers and they aren’t "troops;" they are our neighbors, our children, and our friends.
The songs talks of generations, of the circle of life ("sons of your sons"). Ultimately, the song says that no matter who dies, whether it's someone famous ("sons of tycoons") or anonymous ("sons of the farms"), a child or relative or someone you don't know ("sons passing by"), a worker, an artist, or a soldier, it's always a loss for us all when a young man or women goes to fight and does not come home. They are all our sons. The nightmare fears of the children become the nightmare fears of us all. As the music gets bigger and louder with each verse, it illustrates the mounting cumulative death toll of human lives lost to war. Harmonically, the music doesn't end. The last chord of the song sounds like it should go on, illustrating the idea that war never ends, that our human propensity to war is eternal.
Act I closes with "Amsterdam," a song about disillusionment and regret. The singer is a sailor who looks back on his life and finds nothing of value. He began as an idealistic young man with romantic dreams of the life of a sailor (perhaps he was one of the kids who saw the inscription on "The Statue" and believed its lies), but he will end his life in a dirty bar in a drunken fight, not bravely on the battlefield, not in sacrifice for a fellow soldier. He will never become the man he wanted to be. The last lines of the first verse, "There's a sailor who's born on a muggy hot night by the dawn's early light," mark this young man's new life as a sailor. He has begun over, born again, into the service of his country (hence the phrase from the "Star Spangled Banner").
But the idealistic young man finds exactly the opposite of what he expected: drunken old men with rotted teeth, seedy bars, and whores. The other sailors can think of only one thing – sex – and they'll do anything to get some. So they go off with the whores, having long forgotten their idealism (or more poetically, "they've forgotten the tune"), the reason they joined the service, each one of them led only by his penis. And soon, the idealistic young man becomes just like the others.
In the third verse, we return to the present as the narrator sits and tries to drink away his memories of who he once was and what he once wanted to become. He tries to drink away the world in which he now lives. At the end of the song, we find that he was also once in love, probably in love with one of the whores he met; but like most whores, she only loved him as long as he was paying, until it was time for the next customer. So now he drinks to that unfaithful love. And there he sits in the port of Amsterdam, his own personal hell on earth, the place where he lost his ideals, where he lost his soul.
Act II opens with "The Bulls," a song about our insatiable appetite for violence and bloodshed. The first line of the song says so much: "On Sundays, the bulls get so bored when they are asked to show off for us." Later, "show off" becomes "suffer," and finally "drop dead." The absurdist image of the bulls getting bored with dying is a way for Brel to point out the foolish consistency of our culture and our species. It's always the same, and has been since humans first walked the earth. We never tire of blood. This song is particularly potent for an American audience, brought up on horror movies, action/adventure movies, ultra-violent cartoons and video games, violent comic books, TV cop shows and "reality" shows, professional football and boxing, and kids roaming our city streets with automatic weapons. When we're not becoming so inured to violence that none of it seems real anymore, we're romanticizing it in movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. "The Bulls" describes the transformation of grocery clerks into Don Juan, Garcia Lorca (the famous Spanish poet-playwright), even Nero, the minute they step into the ring to torture and then kill the bull. It's interesting that none of these three figures are real heroes, the implication being that the toreadors may be romanticized but they are not heroic, just murderous. The lyric even wonders what the bulls are thinking. Are they dreaming of a hell made for the sadistic men who would torture them?
The song's final lines completely change the meaning of the song (something that happens in many Brel songs). Suddenly we find that the bullfighting is only a metaphor for war, that the sadistic toreadors are standing in for the politicians who declare war but do not fight themselves, that the defenseless bulls sent to certain death represent the young men and women sent to their deaths fighting wars they didn't start, the boys in "Sons Of." More than any other song, "The Bulls" illustrates Eric Blau's remark that Brel's songs are about how we survive (or don't) in a world we didn't make. The hell for toreadors that the bulls dream about is really a hell for war-declaring politicians and generals. The silly girls screaming in the stands represent the American public cheering military battles and triumphs, making a hero of the president when he flexes American muscle by sending troops to battle, yet ignoring the veterans of Vietnam because there was no romanticized triumph.
"Old Folks" is a song about time -- the loss of it and the tyranny of it. Like its companion piece, "My Death," it realizes that death is inevitable, that it cannot be cheated; and though it will wait, it won't wait forever. Every day we slip closer and closer to its grip, without ever really knowing just how close we are at any given moment.
The old silver clock mentioned repeatedly in the lyric is a concrete symbol of the ever forward movement of time. Yet though we can see on a clock both how far we've come and how far we have yet to go; in life, we can only see how far we've come, not how far we have to go. The repetitiveness of the music and the back-up singing conjure the steady ticking of the clock and illustrate the old folks' mundane life, every day the same, actions repeating endlessly without variation like the swinging of a clock pendulum.
The first verse identifies the Old Folks -- they are all of us, rich and poor. As many of the songs in the show tell us, no one escapes death, and most of us do not escape growing old. These are the people whose best years are behind them. Like the main characters in Sondheim's Follies, and the characters in other songs in this show, they can't deal with the present so they choose to exist in some foggy, half-remembered, happily romanticized past. Yet they find the clock ticks too slowly for them; their lives are no longer what they want them to be, and living is now just waiting for death. Just like the lyric in "My Death," the lyric of "Old Folks" has the old silver clock saying "I'll wait for you."
All the joys of their lives are done: their books are no longer exciting, the piano stands unused, their pets have died, they happiest moments are only in old photos and songs. Their only reason for going out is to pay their last respects to someone even older than they are, who has died as they surely will. Their main activities for the day are looking out a window, sitting in a chair, or staying in bed. Perhaps the most disturbing line in the song is "They hold each other's hand, like children in the dark, but one will get lost anyway." Is the lost child the one who dies or the one who survives alone? Or is it referring to one of them losing their mind to Alzheimer's? The lyric says "The other will remain, just sitting in that room which makes no sound." Is this the survivor or is death the room which makes no sound?
"Marieke" is a song about loss, a song that takes a very different view of death, this time of premature death from the point of view of the survivors. Marieke is a woman's name, but she represents anyone we've lost: a spouse, a child, a lover or friend. This song is about how life goes on, but how the world is not quite the same once that loved one is gone. This lyric is in three languages. The verses are in English. The choruses are in a variation of Dutch, called Flemish (exactly as Brel wrote them), a language spoken in Brussels. But the choruses also contain some phrases in Brel's original French.
A rough translation of the first chorus (which is all in Flemish) is:
Without love, warm love,
Blows the wind, the silent wind.
Without love, warm love,
Cries the sea, the grey sea.
Without love, warm love,
Suffers the light, the dark light;
And grates the sand over my country,
My flat land, my Flanders.
The second chorus (a mix of Flemish and French) is a variation of the first chorus:
Without love, warm love,
Blows the wind; it is finished.
Without love, warm love,
Cries the sea; it's already finished.
Without love, warm love,
Suffers the light; all is finished;
And grates the sand over my country
My flat land, my Flanders.
The third chorus (all in Flemish) conjures much darker, more fatalistic images:
Without love, warm love,
Grins the devil, the black devil.
Without love, warm love,
Burns my heart, my old heart.
Without love, warm love,
Dies the summer, the sad summer;
And grates the sand over my country
My flat land, my Flanders.
The repetition of the phrase "Come back again" echoes the phrase, "Come on, love," that is repeated so much in "No Love, You're Not Alone." Both songs are about lost love, about people who aren't willing to accept the loss they've suffered, who can't face reality.
Some productions cut this song because of its Flemish lyrics. With every other song in the show translated into English it seems odd to sing one song with lyrics the audience can't understand. The show's creators chose to keep this lyric largely in two foreign languages because they felt the sounds of these languages were so beautiful, and the experimental theatre movement at that time was very interested in language as abstract sound. But is that sufficient justification and does it alienate the audience? Some of Brel's audiences in France, and all of them in Belgium, understood the passages in Flemish, and so this song about Belgium took on greater meaning in its native tongue; but American audiences have no idea what the Flemish passages say. There are a few lines of spoken text in the show before the song that give a rough idea of the Flemish lines, but despite the beauty of Flemish, it still seems odd to translate an evening of French songs into English except for one. There is a textual progression through the three choruses that is interesting and poetic, and to deny American audiences the opportunity to understand these poetic words is problematic.
Just before the song "Brussels" there is a spoken line that sums up the theme of the song: "And sometimes the songs were sung, between the acrobats and the jugglers, in music halls built long ago. Everybody heard the songs – but nobody listened." Like "Marieke" and other Brel songs, this is about denying reality.
This is another Brel song dripping with irony. On the surface, the carefree life of pre-World War I Brussels seems an idyllic one, full of happy people, music, and a trouble-free existence. But we come to understand over the course of the song that the happiness was a false one, an artificially created happiness used to shut out the harsh realities of the world. World War I was exploding around the people of Brussels and they pretended nothing was happening, that they were somehow protected from the violence. Instead of preparing for the inevitable, preparing to defend themselves, they sang, danced, and had sex. When the Germans rolled into Brussels and occupied the city in 1914, no one was ready and their carefree world collapsed.
The singer compares pre-war Brussels to the silent movies – innocent, unsophisticated, artificial, somehow unnatural. Like Berlin before World War II, the people of Brussels focuses on pleasure, which led to a kind of irresponsibility and decadence (as portrayed in the musical Cabaret). This is another song about the romanticism of war and the way people can ignore the horrors around them. The references to World War I as fun, as a game, are the whole point of the song. War is not romantic, Brel is saying (again). It is not heroic. War does not "save the world;" on the contrary, it kills millions of people. To treat it as romantic is foolish and dangerous (hence the reference to the grandfather and grandmother having no brains). To underline this foolishness, the show's creators even made up a new word, "brustled," when they translated the lyric.
The end of the song builds to a manic climax, modulating up a key to build excitement, then suddenly it breaks up and the singers run out of steam like wind-up toys. This is a musical representation of the peak of the party atmosphere in Brussels in 1914 as the Germans tanks rolled in and stopped the party, a kind of social coitus interruptus, somewhat as it happened in Berlin and other places around the world in other times. Too often, we don't see war or other social upheaval coming until it's here, and even when it arrives, we try desperately to pretend it's not here. This song is a cautionary statement to keep our eyes open, to learn from the past (a theme from "Marathon"), to be forever vigilant.
No Love, You're Not Alone
According to Eric Blau, the singer of "No Love, You're Not Alone" has lost the man she loves to alcohol and/or drugs. In an attempt to work her way back into his life and heart, she offers herself as a friend. She thinks that if she is allowed to be his friend, her broken heart will be healed, yet we know it won't. Even if he allows her friendship, she still won't be for him what she once was, and this substitute relationship won't make up for the one that has been lost. Though he will get everything he wants out of this new relationship – love, companionship, a friendly shoulder to cry on, and yet no real intimacy or responsibility– she will not. She is willingly putting herself into a relationship in which she will give love but will not get it in return.
She makes references to their former life together, to their love making. Ironically, all the sorrow and loss she sees in him are really her own. She says that maybe he feels too much, yet she's the one whose emotions demand more than she can have. She says perhaps he prays too much, yet she is the one who is praying for something that won't come to pass. Ultimately, in reassuring him that he's not alone, she's really trying to convince herself. At the end, desperate to go back to what she once had, she says:
The newsreel of our life,
I'll play it in reverse.
Your pain will fall away,
We'll relive yesterday,
And start where we began, love.
But this is what she wants, not what he wants. Going back to yesterday, the pain would fall away because she would have what she's lost: his love.
"Next" is the most disturbing of the songs about sex, turning up the heat one more notch from the song before it. "Next" describes a man's first experience with sex, but this is no ordinary first time. The singer says he was just a kid when his "innocence was lost" (or was it taken?), and though many of us use that phrase to describe having sex for the first time, we don't mean it like he does. His first time was with a prostitute in a mobile whorehouse sponsored by the army, no tenderness, so pretense of affection, just an impersonal assembly-line fuck. He describes himself standing in line with all the other soldiers, naked except for a army towel around his waist. The experience forever changed sex for him. For the rest of his life, he has associated sex with that awful moment, his lieutenant pushing the line along, shouting "Next!", the men shuffling along waiting to be called, him thrown into the arms of a uncaring woman.
But perhaps this song is about more than the specific situation described. Perhaps it's also about the way modern society has made sex into a business, in our TV shows, on our billboards, and in our magazines, in almost every aspect of our culture. Our children are exposed to sexuality everywhere they turn. It’s impossible to avoid it, impossible to preserve their innocence. Perhaps the army-sponsored whorehouse represents the way the media, advertisers, and even the government force kids to become aware of sexuality long before they would otherwise, through child beauty pageants, designer clothes for kids, sensuous Calvin Klein ads featuring nubile young people, and a parade across our television screens of sexually active teens on the daytime talk shows. How many millions of kids accessed the transcripts of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal off the internet?
How ironic that the government, the supposed bastion of discipline and enforced morality, would sponsor a mobile whorehouse; and yet how appropriate that when it did, it would also destroy sex by making it mechanical and perversely uniform, forcing this most unmanageable, instinctive act into a cold, orderly structure. At the end of the song, the singer says he'd happily maim or kill himself to escape the lifelong torture of remembering that day in the army every time he's with a woman. Not only was that day a nightmare for him, but he must live it over and over, for the rest of his life.
The show ends with two powerful songs. The first, "Carousel" is the culmination of everything that precedes it, a kind of summation of the insanity of the evening and of our modern world, the swirling together of all our neuroses, addictions, hostilities, and posturing. We've spent the evening listening to Brel observe that which is most absurd and dangerous in human nature, and in this penultimate song, we see it all come together and literally spin out of control. "If We Only Have Love," which immediately follows, will be the answer to how we can keep the carousel of our collective life from spinning off its base and crashing down around us. Where "Marathon" was a table of contents, "Carousel" is the climax of our madness and "If We Only Have Love" is the resolution.
Brel's original French title for "Carousel" was "La Valse á Mille Temps," a pun title. Normally, a waltz would be "á trois temps," (i.e., "in three time," or as we would put it, "in triple time"). "La Valse á Mille Temps" means literally, "The Waltz in Thousand-Time," which would mean a thousand beats to each measure, an appropriately absurdist comment on the craziness of our modern world. And yet Brel's original French lyric is less about the insanity of modern life; it's about love and lovers, and how they can live their lives in the music of a love song. In Brel's lyric, "Waltz in Thousand-Time" says that in each beat of the waltz, young lovers can live a lifetime.
But the creators of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris had to create a dramatically satisfying conclusion for their show and so they took liberties with this number, as they did with "Marathon." The imagery in the English lyric is all about our often unreal, deceptively packaged, substance-free world. The carnivals are our infomercial political conventions, our high profile religious organizations spending more effort on fundraising and TV shows than on healing, our ridiculously combative government, our citizens' cut-throat battles to seize control of local governments and school boards – all things richer in glitz than in content. The cotton candy described in the song is the empty calories of television and movies, of bland pop music and celebrity magazines. The fortune tellers are the endless parade of self-proclaimed experts telling us our society is being destroyed by gay marriage, telling us salt will kill us, telling us exercising our abs will lead to happiness and success, telling us the world would face its fiery end in the year 2000. The lines that sum up this song and the show as a whole come at the end of the first stanza: "And the whole world madly turning, turning, turning ‘til you can't see."
It's not hard to see our presidential and congressional candidates as crazy clowns chasing brass rings. It's not hard to see our siliconed, nipped and tucked movie stars as kewpie dolls with painted faces. It's not hard to see infomericals, pyramid schemes, and other get-rich-quick opportunities as tricky shell games and missing peas. The missing peas are the promises of riches (or beauty or a washboard stomach) that never existed to begin with.
The point of this song is our disorientation. How can we keep our balance in a world so full of lies and intentional misrepresentation? There may never be a better metaphor for the bedlam of our world than a carousel that never stops, spinning faster than we want it to, making us a little queasy, wishing there was some way to get off of it. But there's only one way to stop the carousel, the song is telling us, only one way to get off this horrific ride. Our only hope is to stop everything and re-evaluate the mess we've made of our lives. We can stop the carousel, if we only have love...
If We Only Have Love
After an evening of cynicism, wicked satire, and biting social commentary, this final song takes us by surprise, this simple anthem of love. But this isn't a song about holding hands and teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. This is a song about surviving. Through almost every song in the show, there is a shred of hope underneath the darkness, behind the bitterness. This last song says that there is always hope, that we will always survive, no matter what seemingly insurmountable obstacles may be placed in our way. The song is not as simplistic or sappy as it might at first seem; and it shows us that the rest of the show is not quite as dark and hopeless as it first seemed. Just as "Marathon" serves as a table of contents, this song becomes a kind of epilogue, a summary of the show, again touching on all the same subjects that were mentioned in the opening number and then explored in more depth over the course of the evening.
This song is not about romantic love or even the love of family and friends. It is about tolerance, respect, the love of the human race. The first line says it all: "If we only have love, then tomorrow will dawn." No matter what the odds, even when millions of souls are murdered in concentration camps, even when bombs are dropped and Armageddon seems at hand, still the sun comes up in the morning and the human race marches on. We will survive.
The song tells us that if we can only be tolerant of each other and embrace our differences rather than letting them separate us – "to embrace without fears" – then we'll be alright. So much death and destruction throughout the centuries has been done in the name of God. But if we just use our faith ("the hymn that we shout") to heal and help rather than to condemn and divide, we'll be alright; "we can reach those in pain, we can heal all our wounds." If we could do this, then religion could have real meaning again ("Then Jerusalem stands."). We have to learn to solve problems and disputes without resorting to sending young men off to war to kill each other in foreign lands, without monthly shootings in our schools ("We can melt all the guns"), a subject that is dealt with in great depth throughout the show.
Ultimately, we are done the most damage by the people who want power and control over their fellow humans, the politicians who use their countries and their citizens for personal gain, the preachers who use their pulpit to become rich and politically powerful, the people who pretend to morality only in order to impose their values on others. If we all realize our basic humanity, our limits, our ultimate insignificance in the sands of time, only then will we be "tall as the pines, neither heroes nor clowns." We must recognize what is good about being human, what we all share, how we all need and depend on each other, and how anyone trying to exalt himself above others will only cause pain and suffering.
We can't forget, however, that every sentence of this lyric beings with "if," that this better tomorrow is not a sure thing. It's interesting to note that Brel's original French title was "When We Only Have Love," not "If." Unlike Brel's version, the English lyric never says that any of this will happen, that humanity will ever get past its innate aggression and thirst for violence. So some of the cynicism that runs so rampant throughout the rest of the show remains present here, and it may be more the perspective of the translators than that of Brel himself.
Brel sees a future that is better than our present, and he maintains less skepticism than his translators that we can attain it. He believes it will come. Frank Galati, director of the epic American musical Ragtime described his show in terms that apply to Jacques Brel as well, and to this last song. He said Ragtime is about "our ability, as a people, to face ourselves in times of crisis and dig deep for what is best within us. It is the only thing that will save us." What makes Jacques Brel so passionately loved by so many people is its universality. It is about struggle, deep, personal struggle and collective social struggle, and we all need to know when we turn out the lights at night that we are not alone in our struggle, that others share that struggle with us, and that just as they have survived, we will survive, too. The "love" in "If We Only Have Love" is not the love of silly 70s pop; it's the shared humanity that reassures us in our darkest times that we are not alone.
A Friendly Warning
There is a great danger is staging Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris without careful consideration; this is not like any other show, and it can't be approached or staged like any other revue. For the same reasons that complex music distracts an audience from lyrics, complex staging (or random wandering around the stage) does the same. This is a show about ideas. Like most of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, Jacques Brel should be physically minimalist. The audience will not get bored if the actors stand or sit still. Most of the audience members have not heard these lyrics before and they're going to need fierce concentration to digest Brel's ideas. Some of these songs demand movement, but some work best in stillness.
When I directed the show, several of the songs seemed impossible to stage. We couldn't figure out how to physicalize them. "Carousel" especially was turning out to be a major headache. Finally, we realized that our mistake was in looking for clever staging ideas. What we should have been doing was trying our best to understand the central message of each song, then create staging that helped communicate that. In the case of "Carousel," instead of trying to create some choreographic carousel on stage, we went back to the lyrics. This is a song about being overwhelmed, about social and historical perpetual motion, about the way history repeats itself. It's also the climax of the tension that has been created through the other songs. So we devised a set of gestures taken from the other songs we had already staged, and we put them together into a six-measure movement pattern that repeated endlessly throughout the song. Since this pattern would be performed against eight-measure sections in the music, the gestures and music would almost never line up right, creating tension between what we heard and what we saw. The cast stood in a diamond floor pattern and the only visual variety was that with each repetition of the pattern, the cast rotated positions on stage. As the song sped up, so did the gestures and the revolutions of the cast, until they became almost a blur of movement. We had created physically the ideas that propelled the song – repetition, motion, tension and a kind of visual summary of the rest of the show. It turned out to be dazzling.
The original off-Broadway cast album of the show is available on CD, but does not contain three songs from the show, "The Statue," "Girls and Dogs," and "Middle Class." And the arrangements on the cast album add a flute and trumpet to the band, which are not in the performance rental materials. The added sound is nice, but the original arrangements, with only piano, guitar/mandolin, bass, and percussion are very strong arrangements, in many cases more subtle and more beautiful than those on the cast album, and there's no need to change them. The movie soundtrack was released on LP (with full orchestrations), but has not been transferred to CD; you might find it in used record stores. The movie soundtrack contains both "The Statue" and "Middle Class," as well as several other songs added for the movie that are not in the show. Fortunately, the cast recording of the 1994 London revival is available in a 2-CD set, and it's the only recording of the entire stage score. It's a little odd hearing these French songs, interpreted and translated by Americans, sung by British singers. But it's still a great recording and the only place to hear all the songs in the arrangements audiences actually heard on stage.
There are also recordings available on CD of Brel himself singing his songs in French; these are often very different arrangements, but it's fun and illuminating to hear Brel's interpretations of his work. The film version has not yet been released commercially on videotape, but it is shown on PBS from time to time, so some musical theatre fans have it on tape. There are plans to release the film on videotape sometime soon, but we don't know when. Eric Blau wrote about the experience of creating the show in a book called Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which also contains all the English lyrics and the original French lyrics. Vocal selections have been published but these are very different, simplified arrangements, with none of the key changes and musical climaxes. Some companies have used the vocal selections instead of the real score because it's easier, but they do a great disservice to the show's wonderful arrangements (and it's a violation of the licensing agreement).
Both the script and score are available only from Music Theatre International, who licenses the show. Unfortunately, there is no piano/vocal score; there is only a conductor's score with piano, percussion, bass, and guitar all scored on the same page, and no vocal lines at all. It's tough to use this for accompanying the show, but there's no alternative. It's also worth noting that the script and handwritten chorus books differ on numerous lyrics so that it's sometimes difficult to know which version is the definitive version. From a practical standpoint, the rental materials make it tough to learn the score, but with the help of the cast album, it all eventually makes sense and the pieces fall into place, and the joy of performing these songs is well worth the effort.
This chapter is an excerpt (expanded and revised) from the book Rebels with Applause: Broadway’s Ground Breaking Musicals by Scott Miller Heinemann Publishing, 2001. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Deconstructing Harold Hill, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.