04/06/2011 10:28 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011

An Impossible Story of "The Impossible Dream"

A while back, I wrote about the renowned French singer/songwriter Jacques Brel, whose wonderful, biting song "Le Moribund," got translated in America as the dismally cloying -- and oft-hated -- "Seasons in the Sun."

On his own, however, Brel's work was pointed, observant, realistic and richly cynical. He was an admired cabaret performer who occasionally took surprising detours in his career. And therein lies the tale, with a surprising twist ending. If you like this sort of thing, trust me, it's worth the wait.

But first the story.

In the mid-1960s, Jacques Brel was in New York City, and attended two musicals. One was Cabaret, which he was anxious to see because, growing up in Belgium, the ravages of WWII had a profound impact on his life. As he began watching the musical, however, Brel became bothered. So bothered, in fact, that he left at intermission, later commenting that this was not the way the war was. It's a shame he left early, of course, since the point of Cabaret is that the war and Hitler creeped up on people unaware -- and in the second act, what was light-hearted at first becomes horrifying and evil, as the world falls apart. But for Brel, for whom the war experience had no charm, never saw this.

What he did see, however, was another musical. Man of La Mancha. And here was something that fit in perfectly with Brel's outlook and artistry. The tale of Don Quixote told of a man unable to face the harsh realities of life, and so retreated from sanity and created a safe fantasy world in his mind, where he saw windmills as monsters, and himself as a noble knight from centuries long past. Where one had quests and dreamed an impossible dream.

In fact, Brel not only admired the re-telling of Don Quixote, he got personally involved.

To most Americans who know of Brel, either through his many albums, or the long-running revue of his songs, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, he is thought of solely as a singer and songwriter. But Brel acted in several movies, and even directed two. For Man of La Mancha, though, he even went one step further.

When the show came to Paris, Brel took over. He translated the songs himself. He translated the script. And he even directed the production. But that wasn't all. Jacques Brel himself took on the starring role, and played Don Quixote.

A French cast album was made of the show, and it's quite remarkable. For those who've heard or seen the Broadway musical, Brel's interpretation is something different, a revelation. Most people play Don Quixote as a warm, kindly, befuddled old man, who in creating his protective illusion creates a warm world around him. Brel, on the other hand, saw the character as Brel saw most things: with a sharp, realistic, cynical eye. As a result, his Don Quixote is not befuddled at all, but rather a man with noble ideals who's quite crazy.

His rendition of "I, Don Quixote" isn't done with a jaunty liveliness, when the character bounds off on his quest, but with a pounding, frenzied drive. It's an electric performance.

But most revealing is Brel's interpretation of the show's signature song. "The Impossible Dream." ("La Quête," -- the quest.) His rendition is not the Great Soaring Anthem of hope, nobility and goodwill we're so used to, but rather a desperate, angst-ridden plea. Indeed, he fully gasps in tears towards the end.

That insanity permeates the entire album, which includes the Knight of Mirrors scene, left off the Broadway recording, where Quixote is forced to look at his reflection and confront his madness. It's a frightening, gripping sequence.

There are certain theatrical performance that have become legendary, but lost to the ages. To them, I add Jacques Brel in Man of La Mancha. And legendary not just because it was never preserved on film, but because most people are shocked to discover that Brel actually appeared in the musical. Since I first heard the album 35 years ago, I'd dearly wished I could have seen the performance. However, such things are not to be.

But if Man of La Mancha is about anything, it's about that impossible dream. And the wish of 35 years - at least in part - remarkably came true.

There is footage of Jacques Brel in L'Homme de la Mancha.

It comes from a television special done on Christmas Eve, 1968. We actually get to see Jacques Brel perform the song, "I, Don Quixote" in full costume, using full props, and with fellow cast members. And most of all, we get to see the driving intensity of a man who - in Brel's interpretation - isn't warmly endearing in the slightest, but crazy, almost lost, with sunken, angry eyes.

And so, remarkably, here it is: Jacques Brel as novelist Miguel de Cervantes, beginning to tell the story of his book, as he changes into 'Don Quixote" -- venturing forth on his deranged journey for the first time.

(Note: the studio performance is a bit subdued compared to Brel on the cast album, which is far more frenetic. For those interested, it can be heard here.)

Yet that is merely the table setting. Because in the end, the found treasure is "The Impossible Dream." A song, after all, whose subtitle is..."The Quest."

And yes, that footage exists, as well.

This chilling performance came at the conclusion of the television program. As noted, it isn't the glorious hymn to noble selflessness, boomed aloud to the heavens, that we're used to from the song. This is a man caught in his fantasy, needing it to happen, lost if it doesn't, fevered, strung taught, who's on the verge of breaking down, a mad man who chokes up, barely holding back his tears. All as he dreams his dream that is impossible. Willing it to come true

Which, four decades later, it did.