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Eric Blau Image

Jacques Brel Poster

Mort receiving award

Jacques Brel


Mort, Jacques and Eric Blau

Mort, Jacques and Eric Blau

Newspaper Cutting

Newspaper Cutting

Newspaper Cutting

Mort, Jacques and Eric Blau

Newspaper Cutting

Newspaper Cutting

Newspaper Cutting

Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris



When World War II ended in Europe in May of 1945 I was a soldier in Paris. My poetry had been published in Poesie, the leading poetry magazine of France. My name was on the cover. A kid from Brussels. Jacques Brel, made his first visit to the fabled of City of Lights. He saw my name on the poetry magazine cover. His only thought was: it’s a very German name. The kid from Brussels, he was sixteen, was beginning to teach himself how to play the guitar and to sing small songs he had composed.

Across the Big Pond, a tall, gangly eight year old kid, named Mortimer Shuman, who had no ideas that he would one day be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, was trying to avoid piano lessons. He was too awkward to be a professional baseball player and he didn’t know that then.

And Elly Stone, a classically trained singer, got her first paid job as an entertainer. She was eighteen years old. The job was in a Borcht Belt hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York. She offered a program of Brahm’s songs. She got fired.

The idea of a theatre musical with the unlikely name of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris never crossed their minds. It was a million miles away in a future they would one day discover.

The kid from Brussels, convinced that he is unattractive and will never make it with the girls, gains acceptance from his peer by entertaining them. He learns that he has a good voice. His friends love his comic talents. His father would like him to put away those childish things and take his place in the family cardboard carton business. Jacques is terrified by that prospect.

Also, he has fallen in love with Therese and they get married despite family reservations. Jacques decides to go for broke, become a professional song writer. He goes to Paris. Sings his songs to performers and music publishers. They tell him, you’re a nice kid but got home. You haven’t got the right stuff.

Mort, the kid from Brooklyn, has prodigy proportions. His long arms and fingers fluidly master the piano. Like singer Elly, Mort is classically trained but his heart belongs in rock ‘ roll, the new young music. He becomes founder of the Rock Age. By the time he’s nineteen he has earned millions of dollars. In no time young Mortimer has a couple of dozen hits on the best selling song charts.

Elly is making a living touring the United States with a guitar and a continental repertoire. Se does her mini-concerts for ladies groups and community centres. She learns that while she loves singing, she hates performing. She lives in a railroad flat on the East Side. Her mail box bulges with un-retrieved mail: there might be bills in there!

And me? I’m freelancing. I get a job in what is now respectfully called Public Relations. I also became a sports ghost writer. I am the voice of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Bill Russell, Jimmy Brown, Bob Cousy. You name them, I am them. I continue to write poems but who cares?

The future still lies ahead as well it should. The four of us are still in distant and different orbits.

Jacques is no longer a kid. He shaves regularly. He decides to stay in Paris and, maybe, beat the system. He, spouse, and new born child settle in a working class quarter. Too much pride and too little money, Jacques hustles songs while his teeth ache and go bad. He decides to take his songs to the people – go on the road and be his own troubadour.

What do you know, they like him out there. Already a very sophisticated song writer, he is adored by the great unwashed, the eaters of biftek and drinkers of cheap wine. And Jacques loves them; they’re his kind of people.

He sings his songs in run down halls, bars and bistros. He even gets a few gigs in dusty music halls. This is a break for the kid. There is a guy named Jojo on the bill with him. Jojo's a professional whistler. He whistles using his fingers; one finger, two fingers, three fingers, five. For an encore Jojo whistles classical tunes with no fingers at all. Jojo and Jacques become friends; Jojo become Jacques road manager and alternate driver of their beat-up car. (Jojo is celebrated in Brel’s song The Middle Class .."With my friend, Jojo and my friend Pierre…"

Jacques continues to perform with his guitar which is an inhibiting factor. He wants to use his hands and to move around. He meets a piano player who likes his talents and becomes part of Jacques’ act. The piano player is Francois Rauber, who becomes arranger, music director and very often composer of various Brel songs. Jacques’ lyrics are sometimes beyond his ability to compose. (Gerard Jouannest and Jean Corti will also provide tunes for Brel words.) An early song Brel writes, ‘C’a va!’, is picked up by a performer, Zizi Jeanmaire who makes it a hit. Of course, the Paris publishers who had once sent the kid packing now want his songs.

He has arrived: publishing contracts, recording contracts, big cafes, music halls, etc. Didn’t we tell you the kid was a natural? He now earns enough money to have his teeth fixed.

And in the meantime back in the United States, skinny Mortimer has put on some weight and written some more hit tunes for The Drifters. The Temptations, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley. And all over the world teen boppers are crying, singing and dancing to his hit, ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’

Mort has discovered good wine and other pleasures. But he feels tired He’s burinng out. He gets married. He gets divorced. He tries to get lost in London but the English kids find him and he’s on the rock’n’rollercoaster again.

Mort runs off to the continent and bums around. In Paris, he hears this Jacques guy sing for the first time. He cries; he cries for joy! This is a real singer! These are great songs! And Mort, the classically trained rocker, graduate of Juilliard, realizes that he doesn’t want to write songs for little girls and boys anymore.

He follows Jacques to the resort town of Knocklezoot in Belgium. He takes in every Brel show. He introduces himself to Jacques. Jacques thinks this tall American who now sports a huge moustache is just another groupie. Jacques has no idea that Mort’s celebrity far exceeds his own. Just another eccentric American.

Elly is making a living but touring is becoming difficult. She introduces herself to the folk song crowd and finds herself on the Carnegie Hall stage doing Hootenannies with Pete Seeger. Her fellow performers consider her a sort of interloper. She accompanies herself on the guitar alright but she sings show tunes and wears a gown – something left over from Handel’s Messiah when she was a member of the chorus.

However, she gets hired as a folk singer to do a song parody on a record designed to promote a candidate seeking the office of the President of the Borough of Brooklyn. The record is being introduced by me, a publicity guy for my client, the candidate. I like her singing. I like her. We don’t know it but we’re going to get married.


One of my friends, Nat Shapiro, the International Artists’ Rep of Columbia Records, comes back from Europe wit a new recording by Jacques Brel, a French performer. Nat gives me the record because he thinks that Brel is a singer I might like. Am I not a poet? And isn’t Jacques?

I like Brel’s recording. I like it a lot. I bring it to Elly. She listens and, like Mort, she cries. Brel is a great singer! But what do the songs say? I translate off the cuff. The songs are as great as the singer. Elly asks me to do some songs of Brel’s in English. I protest. I’m a poet! I say. I know, Elly says, that’s why.

I put three songs into English. They are Marieke, Crazy Carousel and If You Go Away. Elly puts them into her act. The year is 1960.

In 1961 I concoct a musical revue called O Oysters!. It is my first attempt at the theatre. It opens at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate. It stars Elly and a new kid named Jon Voight. The three Brel songs I did are in the show and sung by Elly. Songwriter Frank Loesser (later to write Guys and Dolls) checked the show out. Asked what he thought of the Brel material, Frank shrugs.

O, Oysters runs for three months.

Six years pass. Brel’s star continues to rise. Elly’s star rises too, but modestly. She plays in Oh Marry Me!, She Stoops To Conquer. Critical acclaim. She plays in an English import called Valmouth. She sings one song. She takes the show and the reviews. She learns that she is a very funny lady. Her acts get filled with comedy songs.

The New York Times critic sees Elly at Julius Monk’s club, Plaza Nine, and call her the best singing comedienne in the United States. She is also performing Brel songs.

Nat Shapiro brings Mort Shuman to the Plaza to hear Elly, to meet her and me. Mort has also translated some Brel stuff. After the show, over drinks, we more or less conclude that maybe a show can be fashioned out of the Brel works. Maybe. Let’s think about it.

A week later we meet at Nat’s place. I give Mort and Nat my impression of what the show might look like. Intense lighting. Small cast, three or four singers. (Elly says four, better blend.) I suggest a dream-like atmosphere with a hard edge, like Brel’s songs. Brel’s songs are a cornucopia of little dramas. The performers on the stage must present four aspects of Brel’s character; his soul, if you believe in that sort of thing. We don’t want a standard sort of director. I suggest a mime by the name of Moni Yakim. He’s an Israeli who has toured with Elly; her opening act.

Now we need two things. Which songs to perform and a title. The title comes first. It was Nat’s idea. There was a thing going around, too big for a bumper sticker, but it was being said and getting laughs. Hitler is Alive and Well and Living in Argentina We changed a couple of the operating words and we had it. Through the years it burrowed its way into the English language.

Now which were the songs to sing?

Looking backwards it seemed not to b a difficult thing to select the twenty six we were going to open the show with. We looked through 150 Brel pieces. What I thought we needed were songs which showed the complexity, irony, and comedy which lived inside Brel.

Mort sat at the piano and sang the songs. Little by little and with many regrets we winnowed through and made our choices.

Long after the show had opened. Brel asked me why I had used Girls And Dogs. I told him for the colour; It was a useful piece of fluff. Jacques confessed he had never really liked that song. I asked him why he had written and recorded it, Oh, he said, triple rhymes. I wanted to do a lyric with triple rhymes. Well, I said, it has triple rhymes in English too.

So I see, he said.

We both laughed. (It has been replaced in the show you see tonight. We have added four new songs, great Brel works which were not available to us when we first crafted the show).

For better or worse we had the songs. We had the title. We had the cast which included Mort Shuman at Elly’s insistance. He had a fine voice, he was a wonderful musician and he understood Brel stuff like few others.

After you think you have a show the next thing you do need is money. In this case, after a false start, we put the budget in the bank. It was November of 1967. The cost of our venture was $25,000. The new production you see tonight cost over 25 times that amount. Those were the days!

After we had finished casting the original group adding Shawn Elliot and Alice Whitfield – we looked for the understudies. This pair, ‘swing singers’, would have to sing both roles of the men and the women. Not an easy job. The show would often depend on them.

The first male understudy was a black, classically trained singer named Robert Guilllaume who was pushing forty and had spent a good part of his professional life singing Sporting Life (Porgy and Bess) in Vienna. He had a good voice, an ironic sence of humour but he had no handle on the interpretation of the Brel songs. It took almost three months before Guillaume got on the stage.

The director had given up on him and it became my job to coach him. Aside from exploring song meanings with the petrified Robert it was a matter of helping the singer overcome an emotional bag of worms. Robert, of course went on to become TV’s Benson.

The female understudy was Betty Rhodes.

The most difficult problem we encountered in rehearsal was getting the song order right. I played with this until the song progression gave us what John Wilson of The New York Times called ‘ The first librettoless musical’. I had never thought of that but Wilson was right. That’s what it was.

So we rehearsed. There were days of elation and days of despair.

We got into three weeks of previews. Ticket buyers seated at rickety tables and chairs of the Village Gate seemed to enjoy the show. They whistled, bravoed, and applauded a lot. Each performance seemed better than the last. I felt like a lion.

Then we opened. January 22, 1968.

Two reviewers liked it. All the rest hated it. The Times kills you, you’re dead – I decided to close the show. But our principal producer Hank Hoffman, an opera and ballet aficionado, said, “you crazy?” we cant close a show like this!” “We have to” I said, “we cant sustain it. Reviews like that. People don’t come. We haven’t enough cash reserves to run.

"How much will we lose in a week?"

"My guess: about a thousand dollars"

Hank Hoffman, his eyes getting misty, said. "Let’s prepare to run for a year ; I’ll cover it. Y’know it. Eric, its like a middle aged guy having a twenty year old mistress. He cant afford to have her but he cant afford to give her up. We run"

So we didn’t close Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in January 1968.

Hank didn’t have to put dime number one. ‘Word of mouth’, that magic, if rare theatre occurrence, took over.

Audiences appeared. We broke even in the first week. We made a profit by week two even though we didn’t sell out.

More magic. One of the executives of The Times who attended opening night caught the second string reviewer in a corridor and excoriated him; I mean chewed his ass out for missing one of the ‘best shows I have ever seen’

The second stringer quit his post and took a job as a theatre reviewer on the west coast. Some years later when we played in his area he excused himself. To his credit he called me, told me of his decision not to review. Once, he said, was enough.

Shortly after the original Times review, Clive Barnes, the senior critic of the paper reviewed it on his weekly radio show (Times policy didn’t allow second reviews). When The Times speaks the first time it is the official and only time. But they had no injunction against our putting Barnes’ radio comment in print. So we did. It was a super rave critique.

Now, we sold out the Village Gate for the next four years.

One night we had to turn away Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his party when his rep asked if we could put up an additional ten chairs. We explained that those extra seats were up and sold. One more body in the house and we’d be breaking fire laws.

I had another emissary from Canada; Howard Bateman, the Executive Producer of this show. We had an appointment. I was speaking in the lobby with English actress Hermione Gingold when I noticed Bateman patiently waiting. I met with Howard and in five minutes we agreed to his producing the show. He presented it, with a talented Canadian cast, at the Bayview Theatre in Toronto. It ran there for two and a half years, a remarkable feat!

When the show settled into the Village Gate, I took off for Paris to see some old friends and very especially to see Jacques. The word of our success had preceded me. Jacques was delighted with every detail of the news as was his manager and close friend, Charley Marouani.

Mort, of course, was already Jacques close friend. I soon became part of that circle but that is another long and happy story which I will recount one day.

In the thirty years which followed there have been several thousand productions of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I cant estimate the number of individual performances done. It has played all over the world in night clubs, small and large theatres, in concert halls and outdoor arenas accommodating thousands. This new production brings a new life to our little musical and the cycle is reborn.

When we performed the show in the Olympia Taverne in Paris, Jacques showed up to be our stage hand and sound guy. When, in 1976, we mad e the film version of the stage show in France near Cannes, Jacques came from out of the country to play himself and to sing Ne Me Quittes Pas.

But those happy days were followed by sad and sombre ones. Although Jacques clowned and carried on during filming, he was seriously ill.

Jacques died in Paris of lung cancer after a long illness. He was only forty-nine. He had been living on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Chain with his companion, Maddly Balmy.

If I’d had the job of writing his obit I would have said, a free standing truth, Jacques Brel was one of the ten greatest song writers of the Twentieth Century. Who would contest it?


Mort Shuman, “a tragic clown” died in London eleven years later following a liver transplant. He was fifty two years old. Mort, aside from our show, was also a legend. He had been a founder of the rock era. He also was a delightful and very fine performer.

The talented Joe Masiell, who co-starred in the film with Mort and Jacques, died of Aids at a younger age.

So, Elly Stone and I are the last of that founding troupe still standing. Elly, who once said (and I believed her) that she had always hated performing but loved singing, now teaches vocal arts. She is writing a book on singing techniques. She too was (is) a great singing performer.

As for me, I’m writing plays, novels and poems.

We had a wonderful time with our little show

Maybe Ray Conlogue of The Toronto Globe and Mail had it right when he wrote: "It is easy to say that classic shows like this should not be revived unless they are somehow revived or made relevant to the present. To fiddle with Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in this fashion would be an insult; as if to say that he was not relevant, and would not continue to be so for a few weeks or centuries to come!"

ERIC BLAU, Spring 1999

Jacques Brel press cuttings