Musical Theater Heritage is preparing to unveil a new revue based on the music of prolific Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel.
The show is called “Jacques Brel: The Life and Music of a Legend” and was put together by George Harter, founder and executive director of MTH, and pianist/composer Brad Cox, who wrote the arrangements. Harter considers this a workshop production.
This show is not to be confused with “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” a revue that opened off-Broadway in 1968 and has been revived in New York several times. It later played Broadway and was adapted as a film.
“I looked at that, and I feel like it’s kind of hopelessly dated, actually,” Harter said. “It’s hard to follow, it’s kind of muddy, and I think it tries too hard to be artsy-fartsy.”
Brel’s career as songwriter, nightclub performer and recording artist spanned most of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Late in his career he became an actor, appearing in 11 French-language films, according to IMDb.com. Brel died in 1978.
He wrote mainly in French and sometimes Dutch. His songs have been recorded in French, English and German, among other languages. Artists who covered Brel tunes include Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, David Bowie and Nina Simone.
Harter said that he and tenor Nathan Granner came up with the idea for a revue of Brel songs in 2003 and asked Cox to rearrange 15 of Brel’s compositions.
“We tried to find the original (Francois Rauber) arrangements, but they’re unavailable or lost, so he just wrote new ones,” Harter said.
The result was a show that was performed twice at the former MTH performance space in the Belger Arts Center.
“Probably not a month has gone by without people asking when we were going to bring it back,” he said.
Harter said creating a new show required permission from the Brel estate, which exercised certain requirements, including say-so over the title.
“The conceit, if there is one in this, is that rather than have a straight revue, we have a set that looks like a Paris sidewalk cafe,” Harter said. “The singers will be in some kind of costumes that smack of France and Paris in the period, and I will play the waiter. They arrive and ask me to tell Brel’s story, and they help by singing the songs. Brad Cox and his tango band will be there on the sidewalk.… I’ve taken some liberties with the chronology of his life to improve the pacing.”
The singers are Jessalyn Kincaid, Shay Estes, Justin McCoy and Lucas Pherigo. Paul Hough is directing. Only three performances are scheduled: 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
Harter hopes the show has a future. If it does, it will only be with the approval of the Brel estate. Harter said he plans to shoot the performances on high-definition video from two angles.
“My long-term goal with this is I’d like to see us come up with Brad’s arrangements that I think capture the Rauber arrangements back when Brel was singing in nightclubs,” he said. “The estate wants to see video, MP3 files, translations.”