Friday, February 24, 2006

I'd rather Jacques

Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (Dir: Denis Heroux, 1975)

When I was in London last week, I couldn't help noticing how many of the West End theatres had been occupied by shows that are essentially content-free. Unless, of course, the concept of "content" has been extended to include pretending to be Dean Martin for a couple of hours, or stamping a lot while wearing a vest. Or blue face paint. Or all three. Some have explained this process as part of the globalization of entertainment, or as the function of commercial theatre as an arm of the tourist industry. Essentially, if a coach party of Korean tourists aren't going to understand it, it's not going to be viable.

At the same time, it's a sneaky way of following the official line that theatre and other manifestations of 'The Arts' should be made 'more accessible' - in this case, to people who find the plots and characters of your average Lloyd Webber show excessively challenging. So you either ditch story and dialogue entirely, or make sure that any narrative is buttressed by plenty of tunes, preferably ones that the audience has imprinted on its collective DNA already. The logical end of this is Dancing In The Streets, essentially a live-action, Motown version of Stars In Their Eyes with amusingly bad wigs.

Of course, this isn't a new thing. The content-free musical dates back at least to 1968, when a show called Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (which the Belgian troubador was at the time) opened in Greenwich Village. Seven years later, the show was committed to celluloid at the behest of the American Film Theatre, an outfit that believed it was making permanent records of theatrical masterpieces (rather than straightforward film adaptations) because, uh, it had 'Theatre' in the title. And because it paid the actors rather less than they'd get for making movies.

The main impetus behind the original show was Mort Shuman, who also performed on stage and in the film. The main obstacle to Brel's acceptance in America was that he had the bad taste to write and sing in French (and occasionally and even worse, in Flemish, which Americans not only couldn't understand, they'd never heard of it). So Shuman, being a talented soul (he had, after all, had some success in partnership with the with the obese, crippled blues shouter and professional gambler Doc Pomus, penning 'Save The Last Dance For Me' and, uh, 'Viva Las Vegas') gave the songs English lyrics that reflected Brel's bleak, laconic romanticism.

Crucially, what Shuman didn't attempt to do was to hang a plot around these vignettes of Parisian lowlife. So, instead of a Rive Gauche Mamma Mia, we get barely connected performance pieces, with images and general actorly schtick that relate vaguely to the songs in question, but don't add up to any kind of coherent narrative. So we get signifiers of doom (whores and bullfighters and soldiers) and death (funerals and cemeteries and crucifixions) and off-Broadway theatres (puppets and pierrots and very bad mime ensembles). Also, we must remember that this was made in the 1970s, so backcombing and bubble perms are the order of the day. Shuman himself resembles Dom DeLuise in a Mick Hucknall hairpiece. Tasty. And there's a bit of product placement for, of all things, Damart.

The overall effect is of late-period Bunuel, all deadpan bourgeoisie doing ever-so-slightly absurd things. As the main female performer Elly Stone, puts it, they are all "surrealist pilgrims, melting clocks in marble halls". And bless her wonky teeth and hairy nostrils, it's so true.

All the poncing around is put into context when Brel himself appears in a bar, beer and cig at hand, and sings 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' without a crucified bullfighter in sight. Of course, he's the best thing in it. Sadly, in amongst all the wacky tableaux, they don't have room for his 'Le Moribond', possibly because Rod McKuen had beaten Shuman to that one, turning it into the magnificently sappy 'Seasons In The Sun'. It had topped the charts for Terry Jacks the previous year, and was thus insufficiently off-Broadway to satisfy the chin-stroking connoiseurs of sophomoric surrealism. Although, in the disjointed cobbling-together of music and image, JBIAAWALIP has left one legacy to mass entertainment - it pretty much invented the pop video.

Apparently, the show is about to return to the American stage, although since ol' Jacques ceased to be alive or well in 1978, the title may no longer be apposite. And I bet all the performers will be asked to shave their nostrils.

No comments: