Jacques Brel : A Life a Thousand Times is a project I started several years ago, back when I knew little about Jacques Brel or his music.
I think, to start, it is important to give some background to the project as a whole. In the 1950's, 60's (and for most of the 70's) Jacques Brel was a superstar in Europe, one of the truly respected chansonniers (in such company as Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg) selling out huge concert venues wherever he visited, and receiving standing ovations and huge encores. His popularity in Europe was noticed in the English-speaking world and he - although very briefly - played concerts in the UK and US. He always sang in French and, occasionally, Flemish, but never English. In the 1960's, the western world became more aware of his genius and artists such as Scott Walker and Terry Jacks started to translate and perform his works in English. If we talk of the songs "Le Moribond" or "Ne Me Quitte Pas", they might mean little to most but if we quote them in their English form of "Seasons in the Sun" and "If You Go Away" they are classics that people remember to this day. Brel's success in the English speaking world reached its pinnacle with Eric Blau and Mort Schuman's musical dedication to his world, "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" which premiered in 1968. This featured many new translations of Brel's works, and was suitably succesful at the time.
I first heard of Jacques Brel at an audition for a production of this musical. Although I loved the music, I wanted to delve deeper, to hear the original versions of the songs and find out more about the man himself. The first thing that struck me was the passion of the songs. Unbridalled energy with each song almost a play in itself, Brel never left anything on the stage. Whether you understand French or not you can feel the songs. The second was how different the songs themselves were in the original French. Brel's language was dark, strange and sometimes plain weird, but immeasurably different to English translations I had been aware of. "Le Moribond" is a million miles away from the standard "Seasons in the Sun" which it spawned, and "If You Go Away" not (I would argue) a true reflection of the heart-wrenching "Ne Me Quitte Pas" on which it was based. These are just a couple of examples, but running through the list of English versions there are very few which bring the same feeling as the original. And finally, I discovered the story of the man himself. Such a story - how he rejected an easy career path, and left his family behind to follow his dreams and the highs and lows of achieving those dreams - deserves to be told (and heard) a lot more than it is.
So I set about trying to correct these things. I'm no expert at French, but with the help of Google Translate and few French friends, I was able to retranslate a whole raft of Brel songs, some which hadn't been translated before. I researched Jacques Brel's life, using not only the few English language books written about him but painfully working through the French language versions too. I spoke with Editions Brel (the current rights holders to all of Jacques' work, and currently headed by his daughter, France) several times to obtain research information, video footage and documents. I started writing the script in 2011, and it has been through various different versions and guises since then. In 2014 the script was presented to Editions Brel and received authorisation from none other than France Brel, Jacques' daughter.
The result is the show "Jacques Brel : A Life a Thousand Times". It is a musical celebration of the life of Jacques Brel using his words, songs and philosophy as well as those of his daughter, France. The show plays out like an interview ; France is being interviewed about her Father, what it was like being his daughter, how she felt at different points in her career. She uses this to take the audience through her Father's story. Inbetween her narration, Jacques appears to give his opinions and to sing some of his classic songs. France also sings some of her fathers works and on occasion they duet. Everything Jacques says is a direct quote from him. Most of what France says is also directly quoted. The majority of songs are performed in English but some - those that I believe are the most difficult to translate - are in the original French.
The show premiered at the Buxton Fringe Festival in 2015. Using a converted Ballroom (the Green Man Gallery) no set other than a couple of chairs, no lights and a less than perfect sound system, we had a fantastic run of shows, being nominated for best show at the Fringe awards. We returned with the show in 2016, with a new team and design, extending it to include a short run at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, receiving glowing reviews and attracting the interest of some big theatres. Fringe Guru called it "A seductive and convincing musical play", whilst Fringe Review rated it as "One of the Hot Tickets of the Fringe".
In June 2017 we are planning to take the next step and go on a short UK tour. Until now, however, we have been a self-funded project, relying on the generosity of those involved as well as family members to keep the show going. We have been unable to offer guaranteed wages, or to provide a suitable budget for set or promotion. This year we want to change this. With us now taking the show on tour, extra costs come into play, including accomodation and also an increased rights charge payable to the backing track makers. It all adds up to us needing more money upfront than we possess, hence why we are starting a crowdfunder appeal.
We know the show can be a success and that a run in London (and even in Europe) is very much on the cards. We have obtained the support of the Belgian Embassy in London who will provide support if we attain a run there in future. Editions Brel continue to promote the show for us amongst their supporters worldwide. Many bigger venues have shown interest in the show but we need to get more mileage in it, and get more people along to see it, before the balance starts to move our way. We know it is a specialised subject, one that is going to take a lot of work to promote but it is a story worth telling and a show that people need to see.
Without funding the tour in June is going to be pretty much impossible. We want to attract the best people to be in the show, from actors to production team, and to do this we need to be able to promise decent recompense. This will ensure that the tour is a showcase for the script that will blow people away rather than just gaining their interest. With the right resources at hand the show can be very special, it just needs a boost to take it in that direction.
I do hate asking people for money and I know how hard it is to make anything new in this business. But this show has steadily become my life over the past few years, it is - as many reviewers have rightly pointed out - a passion project and something I am determined to make work. I know how generous people are in the arts world and I would be so so grateful if they are able to come together again to help another dream be realised.