Montand gained his experience performing in music-halls, but his career ignited after he met Edith Piaf in Paris. She became his lover and mentor. Brassard tells us that Montand inspired Piaf to write the lyrics for her trademark ‘La vie en rose’. However, Piaf shrewdly concluded that should both of them appear in the same venues they would “cancel each other out”. Early numbers in Montand’s repertoire included ‘La chansonette’, ‘La bicyclette’, ‘Mon manège à moi’ (You make my head spin) and ‘Ce monsieur-là’ (This gentleman). For the evocative ‘Syracuse’, Brassard picks up a harmonica with which he lovingly enhances the Parisian mood, following it with ‘Le gamin de Paris’ (The kid from Paris).
Other songs include ‘Grand boulevards’ and ‘Les cireurs de souliers de Broadway’ (The shoeshine boys of Broadway). They punctuate stories of Montand’s enduring marriage to actress Simone Signoret (despite his philandering) and the couple’s blacklisting due to their involvement in left-wing politics: the couple was instrumental in translating Arthur Miller’s allegorical play The Crucible, reflecting McCarthyism, for the Paris stage. Later, when Montand was in Hollywood filming Let’s Make Love, he had an affair with Miller’s wife, Marilyn Monroe. From that film, the only American song Brassard includes is James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s ballad ‘Incurably romantic’.
In a touching reminiscence from his childhood, Brassard – born in Quebec – recalls his father, on accordion, playing the plaintive ‘Roses of Picardy’. Brassard becomes his father, slowly waltzing around the dining room holding his mother at some length away (“She was a large woman”). In contrast he sets feet tapping with a bouncy ‘C’est si bon’.
The song probably most associated with Montand is ‘Les feuilles mortes’, most often heard with Johnny Mercer’s English lyrics as ‘Autumn leaves’. The words tell of loneliness and love lost, but this is an evening that celebrates the most romantic language in the world, so how perfect that Brassard shares with us a set of lyrics written by his own romantic partner, co-writer and director David Krueger, and which tell of love fulfilled and love enduring. C’est magnifique! Throughout, Leigh Thompson, Ed Morris and Dominick Hahn offer perfect backing.
- Jean Brassard is at The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, Piccadilly Circus, London W1 until Saturday 22 June 2013
- Bookings 020 7734 4888