by Samuel L. Leiter
What kind of historical figures make the best subjects for biographical musicals? Political leaders and royalty? Musical, theatrical, or cinematic personalities? Religious visionaries? Gangsters? Businessmen? Athletes? Artists? Literary figures? Surely not the latter, as Himself and Nora, the humdrum new musical by Jonathan Brielle, about the career and love life of James Joyce (Matt Bogart, Jersey Boys), makes abundantly clear.
Why are musicals, much less celebrated ones, about famous nontheatrical writers so rare? An Off-Broadway musical about Edgar Allan Poe drew mixed reviews a couple of years ago but how many others—good or bad—can you name? Straight plays (and movies) have not been shy about dramatizing the lives of major poets and novelists, like Emily Dickinson, for example, or that vulpine pair, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Wolfe, but there’s a decided shortage of attempts to turn such beings into subjects for the musical stage. Is it because their lives were too passive (certainly not Hemingway’s, you might argue), or because creating a song list based on a series of best sellers is simply too challenging?
Whatever the reason, James Joyce’s life, for all its ups and downs, doesn’t cry out for either dramatization or musicalization, at least not when seen through the prism of this great Irish writer’s 37-year relationship with his beautiful, Galway-born muse and eventual wife, a barely educated but sharply independent chambermaid named Nora Barnacle (Whitney Bashor, The Bridges of Madison County); the result is only a tad more absorbing than a page of Finnegan’s Wake.
Advertised as “the greatest love story never told,” Himself and Nora (which premiered in San Diego in 2005 and was seen at the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival) is a chronologically organized, impressionistic flashback framed by Joyce’s death in 1941, with a priest (Zachary Prince) offering the last rites. In a nod to Joyce’s disgust with Irish Catholicism’s oppressive dictates, the priest appears throughout as an omniscient presence, offering ironic, but largely unenlightening, asides.
Concentrating on Joyce’s relationship with Nora, whom he meets in Dublin in 1904, the book introduces Joyce’s hard-drinking father (Michael McCormick) and dying mother (Lianne Marie Dobbs); offers Joyce multiple opportunities for randy lovemaking with Nora (“Kiss”), on whose colorful (or, perhaps, off-color) language his writing comes to depend; follows the couple into self-imposed exile in Trieste, where Joyce teaches English; touches on his failing eyesight; and celebrates his ultimate success when, with the support of Ezra Pound (McCormick) and Harriet Weaver (Dobbs), Joyce and Nora move to Paris and Sylvia Beach (Dobbs) publishes Ulysses to great, if controversial, success. Joyce and Nora, who have two unstable children, Lucia (Dobbs) and Giorgio (Prince), finally wed in 1931 after 27 years together; naturally, strife and reconciliation ensue.
Dutifully dull book scenes, which would benefit from musical underpinning, are blended with songs of varying melodic quality and often clunky lyrics. The 17 numbers include “Compatriots in Lust,” sung on the lovers’ trip to Italy; “River Liffey,” a Celtic music-inflected list of Irish cities performed as a step dance with Joyce’s students as a (go figure) way of teaching them English; “Stand Fast,” the otherwise saucily feisty Nora’s anthem to her fidelity to the chauvinistic Joyce; “Let’s Have a Drink,” a standard-issue celebration of a well-known Irish habit that, at least, allows for the reading of Joyce and Nora’s erotic correspondence; and “The Grand Himself,” a spirited number in which the solipsistic Joyce celebrates himself. Everybody sings well, especially the big-voiced Bogart and Bashor, although the finest moment comes when Bashor lowers the volume for the simple, sweetly orchestrated “What Better Thing.”
Himself and Nora is a musical, not a lecture, but mightn’t it have made sense for something by Joyce to have been read from, discussed, or sung? A song based on Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses might have been fun. We hear about that book’s censorship problems but, beyond its “obscenity,” the objections are never described, nor are there any mentions of Joyce’s stylistic, linguistic, thematic, or scatological preoccupations.
Apart from their inconsistent brogues, McCormick, Prince, and Dobbs do well by their multiple roles; Dobbs—covering six roles (kudos to J. Jared Janas’s wigs)—shows particular versatility. Both leads are polished and talented but the handsome, strapping Bogart is an overly idealized (and theatrical) Joyce. Bashor is more believable as the forthright, uninhibited chambermaid who gives Joyce tit for tat. Paul Tate DePoo III’s simple setting of textured walls and select scenic pieces makes a perfect background for the truly exceptional lighting of Jason Lyons and Amy Clark’s attractive period costumes.
Joyce’s most famous disciple gets a passing shout-out in the script. Perhaps, he, too, could be bio-musicalized if you don’t mind waiting for Beckett.
Himself and Nora
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through September 4
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).