Jacques and Awe

Cinnabar raining down Brel on 2014

‘Jacques Brel was actually Belgian—but many think of him as French,” explains Elly Lichenstein, director of Cinnabar Theater’s upcoming production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. “When he died, the people of Belgium voted him the most famous Belgian of all time,” Lichenstein says of the singer, whose clever songwriting and unsentimental worldview made him one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

Among those who count Jacques Brel as a major influence are Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins; his songs have been covered by many more, including Ray Charles, John Denver, the Kingston Trio, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone and Andy Williams.

Debuting off-Broadway in 1968, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was a huge and immediate hit. Brel himself attended the show’s 50th anniversary at Carnegie Hall. Now, 45 years after its debut, the contagious musical revue comes to Cinnabar Theater, which kicks off its 2014 season with a New Year’s Eve performance of the show (now sold-out, as Cinnabar’s year-end galas are known to do).

“Jacques Brel was a poet of the finest order,” says Lichenstein. “He was a true minstrel, in that he wrote all of his songs himself, and was a consummate performer, very dramatic and theatrical. On the 30th anniversary of his death, all of Europe pretty much shut down to honor Jacques Brel and to celebrate his life. He was a very important figure. Even in France, to this day his music outsells that of Edith Piaf, who is probably better known in America than
Brel is.”

Yes. Ironically, few in the English-speaking world, aside from students of music and those familiar with French popular culture, have any idea who he was. For many, the stage show was their first contact with the man who had such a profound impact on music all over the Western world.

With music direction by guitarist Al Haas and accordionist Robert Lunceford (two members of the popular North Bay French trio, La Guinguette), Lichenstein is excited to be presenting Brel’s music to audiences in the North Bay.

“This is just such a fun, uplifting show,” she says. “Brel’s songs had a great deal of humor, though many were a little dark. But it was always that European kind of dark—always with a bit of a wink.”

Sonoma County Library