Full Heart, Jacques Brel, Can't Lose

Nov 5, 2015

In 1967, at the height of his success, one of the world's great singer songwriters, Jacques Brel, stopped singing.  “I left the day I realized I had an ounce of talent," he said later. "I stopped singing for honest reasons; not for reasons of exhaustion.” 

But the following year, two New Yorkers put together a musical revue of Brel's work to remind the world that even though the great "chanteur" had retired - he was not dead. 

Early reviews of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" - which premiered at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village in 1968 - were overwhelming terrible.  The New York Times panned it and the show's creators, Eric Blau and Mort Shuman nearly shut it down.  But their main backer, Hank Hoffman, loved the show too much to let it die.  He promised to finance it a full year, even if he lost his shirt.  Hank Hoffman did not lose his shirt - and 47 years later "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well" the musical, is itself alive and well.

As Word of Mouth's Sean Hurley tells us, the show is coming for two nights only to Fireworks in Keene, New Hampshire - a restaurant owned by Matt Blau, son of the show's co-creator and star.  

When Matt Blau was 5 years old, his parents took him to the Village Gate, a showbiz nightclub in Greenwich Village. Their new musical "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" had just opened and they wanted to show their son where they worked and what they did.  His father, Eric, had co-created the revue with Mort Shuman, translating Brel's intricate French lyrics into something both new and true to the original.

Mort Shuman, Elly Stone, Jacques Brel and Eric Blau.
Credit Courtesy of Matt Blau

Matt sat on his father's lap and watched his mother, Elly Stone, alone on stage, singing a song he'd only ever heard her sing at home.  "Strangely, or not so strangely," Blau recalls, "as a result of what they did and who they were I didn't really have much of a childhood because they weren't home a lot."

The Village Gate in Greenwich Village

For the next five years, from the ages of 5 to 10, Blau was either home alone - or at the show himself.  "So I was sort of the little mascot," Blau says. "Back then there weren't a lot of seven-year-olds running around the Village Gate three times or four times a week. And so that's where the really beautiful part of it happens in my memory. "

There was the magic of the basement club itself  and there was the growing glamor of his parents' fame.  "And then there is the show itself," he says, "which even at that age for me was incredibly beautiful.  It really is the soundtrack to my childhood and I think even with being too young to understand what much of it meant - I got the power of it."

But as Blau remembers, his mother's songs weren't his favorite part of the show. "I think I liked the male songs more," he says. "My mother's singing was gorgeous and her songs were gorgeous but I would hear them all the time and I'd hear her voice all the time. And you know you get jaded to that a little bit. But the men were powerful -  big - and their songs were strong and I didn't get to hear that a lot. It was never my mother's songs. Although I listen to them now and I can't keep the tears back."

Blau is 52 years old now and lives in Brattleboro.  His father died a few years ago, but he speaks to his mother almost daily.  He owns three restaurants - Fireworks and Brattleburger in Vermont and Fireworks in Keene, New Hampshire.  He can't sing, he says, or act, but he's always wanted to mix what he does now with what his parents did then. " I've always wanted to use the restaurant as a venue for something that I love, something musical," he says, "and I've always wanted to bring this music back.  I'm not sure that I ever put the two together." 

But then he met David Stern.  Stern is 52.  He's the Artistic Director at Main Street Arts in Saxtons River, Vermont - and he grew up listening to a particular record - the original cast recording of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris". And one day, as Stern recollects, the two men bumped into each other, "And we started talking about Brel because I just mentioned that his name and the author's last name, which are not common, were the same and it was his Dad. And his Mom was a singer that I had grown up listening to and I thought wouldn't it be cool to perform it at one of his restaurants."

"Immediately he had this idea," Blau says, "why don't we do it at Fireworks?"

Allie McGahie and cast in rehearsal.
Credit Sean Hurley

Stern put a cast together and 6 weeks later invited Blau and his daughter Lila to see a rehearsal. "The thing is it's a difficult show to do," Blau says. "And the reason it's difficult to do is that you have to more not do it then do it. So the essential thing in Brel is really to get out of the way of it."

Stern agrees, saying "I think the way we've tried to do it is to pay real homage to that initial spirit, to sing with a full heart. It's not about technique for us, or the technique that it is about-  is about the technique of opening your soul and your spirit so other people can see their own."

The full cast in full swing.
Credit Sean Hurley

This weekend at Fireworks in Keene, Matt Blau will sit down with his own daughter, at his own restaurant, and hear the English version of the songs his parents made famous.  "It's something that I have been systematically introducing to my own daughter who is eight," he says, "and we listen to this and she says "Daddy's crying again!"

Scheduled Shows:

November 6 at Hooker-Dunham Theater, Brattleboro, VT
November 8 & 9 at Fireworks,  Keene, NH
November 12  at MacLaomainn’s Scottish Pub, Chester, VT

Visit Main Street Arts for more information