Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Andrew Keates: Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well

By | Published on Thursday 16 October 2014


This month a starry cast begins a run of musical revue ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris’ at the Charing Cross Theatre. ‘Any Dream Will Do’ alumnus Daniel Boys appears alongside West End veterans Gina Beck and David Burt, as well as Eve Polycarpou, familiar TV/theatre face, and one half of musical duo Martha And Eve.

I love, love, love Jacques Brel, so I was immediately drawn to this production. I sent some questions over to director Andrew Keates to find out more about the show.

CM: For those who don’t know, who was Jacques Brel, and what kind of music did he create? What themes did he explore?
AK: Jacques Brel is regarded as one of the most successful Belgian singer-songwriters of all time, famous for songs like ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ and ‘Amsterdam’. He composed and performed his beautifully theatrical songs with their extraordinarily poetic lyrics from the early 1950s until his premature death in the late 1970s.

Brel wrote about the human condition, telling stories that explore love and loss, war and peace; nearly all are written with strong political themes. A master of the modern chanson, his works have been translated and performed by artists such as David Bowie, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker and Andy Williams (to name but a few).

He was also a very successful actor, appearing in ten films and even directing a number of his own striking pictures. Brel appeared in a movie version of ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’, a piece that weaves together his best known and loved songs, which is what our musical (with translations by Mort Shuman) is based on. It’s a truly inspiring piece overflowing with a rich history of Brel, who is still hugely popular – to date, over 25 million records of his music have been sold worldwide.

CM: The show is described as a musical revue – does that mean it is simply the performance of Brel’s songs? What exactly can audiences expect?
It’s funny, when you think of musical revues you tend to expect a few stools, a nice acoustic piano, a mic on a stand, some moody lighting and often very concert-like performances. However, my ambitions for the production go way above and beyond this.

I knew I had twenty-eight different songs, or slices of life as I like to think of them. Each of the songs has such poetic narrative that I very much want to treat each of them as a sort of ‘mini-play’. With this in mind, I have used various theatrical styles and devices to create vividly different and honest moments. The staging styles shift from music hall to naturalism, political satire to rock concert. We certainly haven’t been lazy. Every song is an intricately different world, each one rooted in Brel’s work. We want to lead the audience through 28 different stories, 28 worlds.

The music and lyrics are so eclectic, it’s impossible for the songs to ever just be a collection of “simple” Brel performances, because by their very nature, each performance requires imagination, storytelling, commitment and often great vulnerability.

CM: ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ was first staged in New York in the sixties, wasn’t it…? Is it still relevant to today’s audiences?
AK: What I think makes this production relevant to audiences today and indeed, anyone who has encountered Brel throughout their lives, is the universality and timeless quality of Brel’s work. A good example is when I was working with the brilliant Eve Polycarpou on ‘Sons Of’, which tells the story of the many sons that we have lost on vast battlefields during war. It is just as heart wrenching experiencing it now with our current conflicts all over the world as when the song was first performed. Brel writes about the human condition and in my experience, it hasn’t changed much. We have all loved and lost.

CM: Why is this production being staged now? Whose idea was it, and who has been instrumental in bringing it together?
AK: Steven Levy and Sean Sweeney came to me after seeing my production of ‘Dessa Rose’ at the Trafalgar Studios and told me they were planning a very exciting season for the Charing Cross Theatre. They then told me the three productions they were planning to produce and I was immediately excited. The Charing Cross is such a wonderful venue in a brilliant location and I always wanted to do something with Steven and Sean. However, deep down I knew that of the three shows they were programming, there was only one that would suit my style of direction that would fire-up my imagination in creating it.

I waited a couple of days and finally got a phone call from Steven asking if I would direct ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’. They chose the right one! They allowed me to handpick my usual tribe of production team members and cast. So of course, I accepted. What was wonderful is that later they explained it was a show that they had always wanted to do – they just hadn’t found the right director for it! I felt very honoured.

What makes it all the more special is as an eternal romantic, I’ve always adored Brel, right back to my college days. To be able to work in such a gorgeous venue and bring Brel to those who may have never heard of him is such a privilege. I hope we can bring this extraordinary man’s work to life for new audiences in the same way as once a production of a Sondheim show did for me when I was a boy.

CM: What has it been like working with your cast?
AK: Nothing short of a pleasure. For this production I actually personally requested the four actors we have in the cast, rather than the traditional approach of auditioning for several weeks. I knew the material I would be working with so could cherry-pick those that I thought were experienced, quirky and open enough to facilitate all of these extraordinary pieces.

Gina Beck has the facility to switch from an innocent wide-eyed ingénue to a deeply dark, seductive temptress. David Burt is a musical theatre icon, in fact he should be listed as a national treasure, he has been involved in creating nearly every iconic musical from the 1970s-1990s. The gravitas and sensitivity his experience brings is worth the ticket price alone; they just don’t make leading men like David any more. Daniel Boys has been someone I’ve wanted to work with for quite some time. Not only because of his perfect voice, but his beautiful vulnerability and quirky nature. Lastly, it’s such a privilege to have the powerhouse that is Eve Polycarpou. She brings a commitment and rawness to Brel’s material that is truly exhilarating.

We’ve all turned into a bit of a Brel family, sharing our personal experiences to feed the work and create the performances we have. I really didn’t want this rehearsal process to end.

CM: What is your favourite Brel song?
AK: I’m not really one for having favourites, as often great pieces of art are only personal because of how and when we encountered them in our lives. For example, I find it impossible to listen to ‘Song for Old Lovers’ without thinking of someone I once loved very much. Or ‘Amsterdam’, which is how I first encountered Brel, that takes me back to a somewhat drunken party, which inevitably ended up with a group of us gathered around an out-of-tune piano obnoxiously belting it out. Or the great ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, which always reminds me of when my mother was left by my step-father. Every song tells a truly remarkable story, and due to the brilliance (or should that be Brelliance?) of Jacques, it always relates to something in my life. I really hope audiences will connect with the work in the same way.

‘Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris’ is on at Charing Cross Theatre until 22 Nov. See the Charing Cross Theatre website for more info and tickets.


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