This show is often observed to have been the first Jukebox musical, albeit more in the style of early Jukebox shows like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Beatlemania than what we associate with the term today, since it made no attempt to weave a plot around its pre-existing songs. But honestly, the show doesn’t feel much like a Jukebox musical; it plays more like a plotless but unified song cycle in the vein of Maltby and Shire’s Starting Here, Starting Now or Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For a New World. This is partly because the overall bulk of this catalogue is unfamiliar to most U.S. audiences outside of the show itself, but mostly because the songs, drawn from the output of legendary French singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, are far more dramatic than even the greatest tunestacks heard in other Jukebox musicals.
The show focuses mostly on Brel’s character pieces, with only a smattering of his more political works (like “Amsterdam”, “The Bulls”, or “The Middle Class”), but it’s still plenty harsh enough for anyone’s standards. Granted, the opening, “Marathon” (which resembles a Sixties version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”), and the finale, an anthem to Universal Human Brotherhood called “If We Only Have Love”, while both fine songs, have a very Sixties feel to them, partly because the former was essentially created wholecloth out of a very different Brel song to provide a suitable opening number. But the rest of the score features Brel’s ultra-unique trademark style, blending delicate French chanson with a Brechtian grit that has barely dated at all.
The score blends searing ballads like “Fanette”, “I Loved”, and “No Love, You’re Not Alone” with biting uptempo numbers like “Jackie”, “Carousel”, and “Funeral Tango”. Even the seemingly cheerful numbers, like “Madeleine”, “Mathilde”, and “Bachelor’s Dance” have extremely dark subtext that becomes evident on repeat listens. “Alone” stands out as one of the most depressing songs of all time, a perfect microcosm of everything tragic about the human condition.
Brel’s music is definitely not easy to take (I’ve heard it described as the polar opposite of Easy Listening), but he was one of the greatest songwriters of his era, the French equivalent of Bob Dylan, and the translators for this show generally did an ingenious job of preserving his content and message. If the traditional performing style associated with the show over the years tends to indulge in histrionics, so did Brel himself, so there’s an authenticity and inherent suitability to the hamminess and hysteria generally seen in the show’s productions.
This show has remained a staple of the theatrical canon for almost fifty years, and while part of that can be attributed to its economical production costs, there’s certainly plenty of other low-budget items (including nearly all of the other first-wave Jukebox musicals) that haven’t done remotely as well, so while some people resent this show for ‘launching’ the Jukebox musical genre, the show itself can only be regarded as a bona fide classic.