Robert Cuccioli is back from his voyage of self discovery after taking Broadway by storm in Jekyll & Hyde, and he's landed in Paris...the Off-Broadway one of Jacques Brel.

Though he's been away -- and sometimes not that far away -- for almost six years, he returned quite invigorated about his life and career. He's sporting a new look with his cropped hair, but the voice hasn't changed; it's still a stellar attraction.

Cuccioli's starring with Natascia Diaz, Rodney Hicks and Gay Marshall in the revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the kinky Zipper Theater (336 West 37th Street).

Brel's songs have been enthralling audiences for over four decades. The Zipper production, directed by Gordon Greenberg (Floyd Collins; Paper Mill's Baker's Wife), is the first major revival since the acclaimed original in 1968 at Greenwich Village's famed Village Gate nightclub (now the Village Theater), where such artists as Woody Allen, Nina Simone, South African trumpeter and jazz musician Hugh Masekela and controversial apartheid activist, actress and unique song stylist Miriam Makeba were introduced along with fiery Latin jazz nights.


Cuccioli became the toast of Broadway and a hugely popular matinee idol in 1997 in the starring role in Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's Jekyll & Hyde. In recent years, he's spent a lot of time shaking off that image. Other than a brief run in an Off Broadway play, this is New York's first opportunity to see the new Cucc, who says of Brel, "What really attracted me to the production was that it's an ensemble piece. I'm getting to work with three other actors. The ensemble environment is something I'm drawn to."
The other attraction, he admits, are the Brel songs: "Amsterdam," "Madeleine," "Marieke," "Brussels," "Alone" and, among the nearly 30 tunes featured, "Carousel" and "If We Only Have Love."

"Each song is a gem within a gem," states Cuccioli. "As a singer, I connect with them because they are a challenge. They're perfect for an actor because each one is like a play. They're story songs with a beginning, middle and an end. For that reason, they fit very well into a revue format because, even if taken out of context, they hold their own weight."

The repertory of the Belgian Brel, who made his home and fame in France, is a blend of ballads, tangos, boleros and rock. The songs examine themes of war, adventure, broken dreams, people from all classes, being young, growing old and, of course, love. With his concentration on scamps, sailors, vagabonds and the complexities of life, Brel's work is also not without its sense of humor.

Thanks to lyricist Mort Shuman, who co-created the original, and poet Eric Blau, the majority of the songs featured are in English.
"Translations are tricky," says Cucc. "You have adjectives, verbs and nouns misplaced, so the ideal is to get the meaning as close as possible to what Brel is saying in French." Cuccioli and company ran into several different translations. "We looked at lists of them," he explains. "In some, the lyrics just don't flow well; so we kept at it to find phrases that fit better."

He notes that this production can't be called an exact revival. "Songs have been rearranged for dramatic and theatrical context, and some new tunes have been added. It's a complete rethinking. As I understand it, the 1978 production was more a concert. Everyone stood and sang. Gordon has given the show a through-line to connect the pieces. It's impressive how everything flows."

Many of the tunes Cucc sings, like "Jackie" and "Amsterdam," were performed by Shuman in the original, but there are some changes. "A song that may have been sung by a man is now sung by a woman," he points out, and several tunes are brand new." Songs heard here onstage for the first time include "Ca Va," "A Song for Old Lovers" and "Ne Me Quitte Pas."

Fans of Brel's work know that some compositions have a lot of lyrics sung at breakneck speed. "Yes," laughs Cuccioli, "some are very wordy. It's a bit of a challenge when you're learning them. You've got to get really grounded in them so that they're totally in your body. You don't have a lot of time to think about them. Once you get in front of an audience, you begin to hear and enjoy them."

Long Island native Robert Cuccioli had appeared as Javert in the long-running Les Miserables, but on April 28, 1997, when J&H finally trucked in to make its New York debut, he was already a matinee idol from one of the lengthy tours. The type of bedlam, especially after matinees, outside the Plymouth Theater stage door was the kind that today would greet a member of a charted boy band, "American Idol" winner or a Brad Pitt. Fans, mostly female, screamed at the top of their lungs for their Cucc to come out. The commotion, which went on for nearly four years, was so loud, it wasn't such a pleasant experience for actors and audiences in longer nearby shows.
"The critics didn't jump to their feet," Cuccioli notes, "but we did get some good reviews. That season we were the longest running show of anything that got Tony-nominated or even won."

Cucc was Tony and Drama Desk-nominated for Best Actor (winning the DD Award), and the show was nominated for Best Musical. However, in an affront, the musical didn't receive a nod in the score department. And this was a Frank Wildhorn musical before there were Frank Wildhorn musicals to deride. "Whatever else," says the actor, Jekyll & Hyde was a crowd-pleaser. Before we got to New York, several of the songs were pretty much pre-sold. Frank was very smart. He had the music out there before the show came to town. I knew what we had, and certainly the audiences were responsive. In fact, they loved it. Many came back again and again."

J&H gave Cuccioli many learning experiences. "One thing it taught me," he says, "was how to be a pop singer, which is something I'm more attracted to than Broadway legit. Some singers can naturally go to it because pop's what they've listened to all their lives; but for me, it was another muscle I had to learn, another ear I had to go to. I listened to rock, but ended up doing Broadway-sound type shows."
Another lesson was the responsibility "of carrying such an enormous show on my shoulders. I hope I did it well."

Robert Cuccioli may have been an overnight sensation, "but," he smiles, "there were a lot of overnights. There were fifteen years of auditioning and working all manner of odd jobs to survive before Jekyll & Hyde."

Ironically, getting into theater was an accident. "I loved music and singing," says Cucc. " I was in the school glee club, had a rock band and played clubs. In college, I majored in finance. I did theater, and people would tell me I was good. They would ask if I ever considered doing it as a career. It never occurred to me."
Instead, he became a successful Wall Street trader. When the bug did bite, he started going to auditions, "where it was all trial and error." He came to J&H in 1994, late in the game, after there had been two major regional productions and a New York workshop, which starred Terrence Mann.

After the run, "I had a difficult time finding things to inspire me," explains Cucc. "That led me to the challenge of directing, which I love. After the run, I was exhausted, and I didn't want to sing anymore. Every note in my body had been expended. I began learning about myself -- what I wanted, what I didn't want."

There was a brief stint Off Broadway in the Enter the Guardsman, then, attempting to take advantage of that blazing hot fame, Cucc became bi-coastal. "No matter how successful you are here, for the most part, the TV folks don't know about it. There are some casting directors who come to town a couple of times a year and check out what's going on onstage. A couple knew who I was and what I'd done; but, the majority, no."
He managed some TV episodic work, but it wasn't satisfying. He always found himself in a New York state of mind: "It's fine out there unto itself, but there's a different mentality. I found it a little destructive. The energy of New York is what I love. It's part of me, and I didn't want to give up on me. There was one big negative. When I came back, it meant starting over again. That was hard for someone who'd been in the business twenty years!"

The last few years for this actor, who turns 48 next month, were "eclectic." Cucc's goal was "to shake things up a bit. People had a certain impression of me. For a while there, I was really pigeonholed. I needed to shake that up for the outside world and also for myself.
"I was trying to stretch myself," he continues, "break the stereotypes of what people thought and what I thought of myself." Two years on the road and two years on Broadway in J&H gave him the type of cachet where regional theaters risked hiring him for things they normally wouldn't consider him. That's worked out pretty well. "I've been doing everything from Shakespeare to drama to comedy to Rodgers and Hammerstein."

There were straight plays in San Jose and at the McCarter, musicals for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse and classics at the New Jersey Shakespeare Theater, where recently he portrayed Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar.

Because he grew as an actor in J&H -- "it was the widest range of anything I've been asked to play -- dramatically, emotionally, physically, vocally" -- things are no longer as difficult. I still find challenges, but if I got through that, I feel I can get through anything."

Cucc finds the kinky Zipper, with its variety of car seats and motley array of other types of seating, "perfect for Brel. The atmosphere is very Bohemian, and you just might think you're somewhere on the Left Bank."


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Key Subjects: 
Robert Cuccioli, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well, Jekyll & Hyde
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
April 2006