Thursday, July 22, 2010

Viva Las Vegas, Jacques!

The last few weeks have found me busy with a show called "Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris". Besides being one of the longest working titles of anything I have been involved in ("A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum" running a close second) it also possesses some of the most gut wrenching lyrics I have ever listened to.

Since I am involved as a guitarist in this production, I have been able to absorb much of what is performed and have come to the conclusion that Brel was an ego-maniacal, eclectic, mad, fantastic genius.

Songs like "The Bulls", or "Fannette", or "Next" hurtle at you. And, as you try to stop them from puncturing your soul, sometimes you fail and are left with a bitter/sweet wound.

Actually, that description would be typical of a Brel lyric.

This post involves the "American Songbook", and in my spare moments, I have found a direct link from Brel to America through his translator, Mort Shuman.

Shuman, born of Polish Jewish immigants in Brooklyn New York in 1936 and died in 1991 from complications after a liver operation. He left behind a wife and four young daughters.

Shuman began writing music and lyrics at the age of 18 while attending The Music Conservatory of New York. He was affected by his love of rhythm and blues and he, along with another son of Jewish immigrants, Doc Pomus, (born Jerome Solon Felder) soon found himself at the Brill Building; that vast concrete and steel percolator of popular song that bent, irrevocably, the course of American music.

His work includes such hits as "Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love", "Save The Last Dance For Me" and erstwhile single-name superstar Fabians' "Turn Me Loose", (oy!)

Allowing for that, he was also the co-writer of "This Magic Moment", "Little Sister" and "Viva Las Vegas", a song that sweeps us back to a time of rhinestones, white leather fringed jump-suits with large collars and the comeback of "The King".

Shuman and Pomus eventually went to Europe where they wrote and sometimes performed songs rather successfully to a huge segment of those thirsting for things American. Such French hits as "Allo Papa Tango Charlie", "Sha Mi Sha" and "Brooklyn By The Sea".

He wrote for the French rockquer Johnny Halladay and even had time to write a hit for Small Faces in England; "Sha La La La Lee".

Mort Shuman was constantly honing his craft and wrote a musical overseas entitled, "Budgie". It was not terribly successful, but it introduced him to the English lyricist Don Black ("Born Free", "To Sir With Love", "Diamonds Are Forever" and a host of Bond movies.) And with this knowledge he began one of his greatest works; a revue highlighting the songs of Jacques Brel.

Occasionally, the full impact of Brels words have been lost in translation; such as "Ne Me Quitte Pas".

Originally written as "Don't Leave Me", Rod McKuen (a close friend of Brel) sings it as "If You Go Away". There is a line which translated correctly says something to the effect " for me I will offer you pearls of rain which comes from a country where rain never falls".

Shuman translates as "...but if you stay, I will make you a day that has never been nor will be again."

Somehow, the lyricism is lost.

But it sold a million copy's.

Mort Shuman, along with composer (Milton) Eric Blau, eagerly dove into the music by Brel and produced the revue herein mentioned.

The original opening song shows a knack for writing, but, again, looses something in the translation. "Les Flamandes" as composed by Brel, is a tongue in cheek assessment of the Flemish. But Shuman and Blau turn it into "Marathon", a miniature time line of the United States in the 20th Century, and it bares no relationship to the original.

Regardless of flaws, this revue has been successfully done and redone many times since it opened on Broadway in 1968.

The Music Clinic Theatre Company in central New Hampshire has produced the latest manifestation.

And it is grand! Cest magnefique!

Each member of the cast; Erin Murphy, Bo Guyer, Tom Mann, Rodney Martell and Laurie McDaniel (the creative director and heart of this show) is tuned to perfection. The songs spill into the audience with elan and bright courage. There is joy, trust, cynicism, love and despair, which is worn on the sleeve of each performer.

And the music director, Justin McCarthy plays with a steady hand and a professionalism seldom found in "small market" theater productions.

Then there is me.

A short, gnome-like guitar player with a desire to help, and a limited arsenal of knowledge.

But it works.

From now through July 31st, it is the perfect way to spend a warm summer evening. As if strolling The Rue De La Pais. Call 603 677-2777 for more info.

Ahh yes, I remember it well.

© 2010 George Locke

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