James Joyce would seem an unlikely hero for a musical. In fact, though he was known to be a good singer, he would be horrified at being the subject of a piece of romantic musical theater. He was a great writer, but he above all wanted to be remembered for his work. Nonetheless Jonathan Brielle has created a musical out of Joyce's thirty-seven year relationship with Nora Barnacle. Nora was a hotel chambermaid when Joyce met her, but they forged a partnership (eventually, after twenty-seven years a marriage). Nora was lover, servant, mother of their two children (a sad story there), but most of all a muse.
HIMSELF AND NORA falls into some of the traps of biographical drama, particularly plays about writers. Writing isn't particularly dramatic, and we get a bit of clunky exposition about Joyce's problems getting published. Fortunately, Brielle focuses on the turbulent relationship.
The score is very strong. Twenty musical numbers in two hours. Appropriately, there is an Irish flavor to the songs. There is also some clever pastiche like the vaudeville routine when Ezra Pound convinces Harriet Weaver to support Joyce in Paris while he finishes ULYSSES. Most of the songs define the many facets of Joyce and Nora's relationship. It's a tuneful score with strong lyrics - a necessity when depicting a great author. I must say I remembered some of the songs when I left the theater -- and that isn't often the case these days.
Matt Bogart and Jessica Burrows give splendid performances. Both are fine singers -- and they have a lot to sing -- and they are arresting actors. Bogart particularly does a splendid job of depicting Joyce's aging without resorting to physical cliches. We see the man's arrogance and his insecurity. Bogart is a Broadway survivor, playing leading roles in long runs, but none of his roles have been as musically or dramatically demanding as Joyce and he fully rises to the occasion. Burrows acts best while she is singing, but Nora's fierceness is there. And her devotion to her difficult partner. The staging (Michael Bush) is simple, as it needs to be for NYMF productions, but effective.
HIMSELF AND NORA has been around for a while. La Jolla in 2005, Dublin a few years after that. Now, finally, New York. It is doubtful whether HIMSELF AND NORA has a commercial future), but the production should certainly place Bogart, who has been stuck in JERSEY BOYS for years (lots of money but not much of an artistic challenge), in the star category. Alas, how many good parts are there these days for an excellent forty-something singing actor?
We've had a good musical of Joyce's "The Dead", the last story in DUBLINERS. And there was a famous dramatization of the "Ulysses in Nighttown" section of ULYSSES. Now a musical spiced with some of Joyce's magical language. Can we now expect a musical of FINNEGAN'S WAKE?
HIMSELF AND NORA. New York Musical Theater Festival. The Theatre at St. Clements. July 16, 2012.