Imposing Ghosts Were Hovering

A Review of James Joyce The Dead

Review by Barbara Isenberg
LA Times, July 16, 2000.

Richard Nelson had James Joyce and John Huston to deal with in turning 'The Dead' into a Chekhovian musical.

     NEW YORK -- When playwright Richard Nelson stepped to the microphone last month to accept his Tony Award, the first person he thanked was not a family member, agent or producer. Nelson instead thanked Irish author James Joyce.
     "Who more to thank than the person most responsible?" Nelson asked a few days after winning his Tony for the book of the musical "James Joyce's The Dead." "The words by and large are Joyce's. The characters are Joyce's. The central themes are Joyce's."
     Those words, characters and themes have clearly been interpreted by Nelson, who is also the musical's director. But his devotion to the source material is so fierce that when the show opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Wednesday, Los Angeles theatergoers may well be surprised to learn its music and dances were written in the 1990s, not the 1890s.
     "The Dead" is the last story in Joyce's classic 1914 collection "Dubliners" and is among the most highly regarded and influential short stories of the 20th century. Its setting is the turn-of-the-century annual Christmas party of the music-loving Morkan sisters, where family, friends, songs and memory fill a cozy Dublin drawing room.
     The party, which has been given for 30 years, highlights a couple not unlike Nora and James Joyce. In Los Angeles, Faith Prince and Stephen Bogardus play Gretta and Gabriel Conroy, roles originated on Broadway by Blair Brown and Christopher Walken. Bogardus and Prince also appeared in the Broadway production, as did all but one of the other cast members reuniting at the Ahmanson.
     In adapting "this great writer's great story," Nelson also labored in the shadow of John Huston's final film, "The Dead." Huston's critically acclaimed 1987 film was adapted by his son, Tony; starred his daughter, Anjelica; and was directed by Huston at a time the director himself was so ill he was on oxygen during filming.
     "That was a psychological hurdle to get over, that extraordinary film," says Nelson, 49, in an interview. "But it was important for us to realize that that film was directed by a man that was dying, and the short story was written by a man who was 26. John Huston's take on 'The Dead' was his take, which was a wonderful and worthwhile take, but it's not the only take."
     Although he'd earlier adapted such writers as Strindberg, Brecht, Fo and Chekhov, Nelson says he hadn't read much Joyce until the late '80s. Rather, he was enticed by the notion of "a musical you could call Chekhovian. I wanted to do something very character-based and based on detail, nuance and all the things that are sort of anti-musical."

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     Nelson was introduced to musicals early on by his mother, a former chorus dancer. "I saw 15 or 20 musicals before I saw a play," he says. But the Chicago-born Nelson soon turned to "serious theater." He wrote his first play at 15, then went on to Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he won the school's playwriting contest all four years.
     By the time he finished college, he had produced more than a dozen of his own plays. He spent a year in England on a travel grant writing plays, and has gone on to craft more than a dozen plays for stage and television, including "The General From America," the Tony-nominated "Two Shakespearean Actors" and the Olivier-nominated "Some Americans Abroad."
     Not long after his "Principia Scriptoriae" was performed in 1986 at England's Royal Shakespeare Company, director Trevor Nunn called to see if Nelson would like to rewrite the musical "Chess" for Broadway audiences. "Being pulled out of my own work for 10 months to work on a big pop musical sort of revived a memory of musicals," Nelson says. "I started to think how I could do musicals that would fit into the kind of writing that I do."
     Nunn introduced Nelson to Irish composer Shaun Davey, whom Nelson and his family later got to know well during a summer in Dublin. Sitting in Dublin with an Irish composer, wanting to do a Chekhovian musical, says Nelson, "it doesn't take too much of a leap to end up with 'The Dead.' It's about people who are musical--professional musicians and music teachers--and about a musical evening whose plot turns on a song."
     Realizing their musical based on "The Dead," however, took many years. The two men worked together on "Columbus and the Discovery of Japan" for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but the idea of "The Dead" languished.
     "It took a while to convince Shaun to write a musical and to write this musical," Nelson says. "John Huston's film is filled with music of a kind that's not anything that I was proposing. It was very Edwardian, and Shaun kept thinking that was what I wanted and how I was hearing it. After we talked at length, he started to realize there was a great opportunity for the kind of music he loves and loves to write in this piece."
     All of the music in "The Dead" is original. Many of the songs are character-driven, but others sung as party entertainment were written to suggest songs in which Irish party guests of the time might have engaged. Much as T.S. Eliot's poetry was adapted to Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies for "Cats," so did Nelson and Davey pull lyrics from Joyce, 19th century Irish poetry and Irish music-hall songs.
     In a break with traditional staging, songs are sometimes performed with the singer's back to the audience. "In rehearsal, we said, 'Let's make this a party. Let's make this real. Where would people stand and why?' " Nelson says. "If you're sitting here and someone is singing, that person should sing to you. I wanted the interplay between singer and listener on the stage. I thought that would be a wonderful dynamic to witness, and a rare one."
     During the first song, three people get up, turn their backs to the audience and start singing. "There was some trepidation the first time we ran it for anyone," Nelson says. "But people understood what we were doing and were excited by it."
     Among those excited was Stephen Spinella, the Tony-winning actor (for "Angels in America") who plays tipsy Freddy Malins. "[Richard] said at the very beginning that he wanted to write a Chekhovian musical, and that would entail a non-presentational style of acting," Spinella says. "Even for the Tony Awards, which are about as presentational as it gets, he had us turn our backs and relate to each other and not turn out to the audience.
     "I think it creates a stronger sense of intimacy. We are playing so fully with each other on the stage that the audience is pulled into it. Instead of us going to them, it's pulling them in."
     Songs are designed to appear spontaneous, and so are the show's dances.
     Choreographer Sean Curran says he even augmented dance research with things that occurred in rehearsals. Given the number of people on stage, the rug and the fair amount of furniture, Curran says, "mistakes would happen--actors would bump into one another--and we'd keep them.
     "They're the style of dances handed down from generation to generation, and what I tried to do is put sort of an eccentric twist on it," he says. "None of the 13 actors are trained dancers, which is great. In the beginning, people were intimidated and didn't want to dance, but I said, 'It isn't going to be Fosse. You are real people at a Christmas party who love music.' "
     Curran, the son of Irish immigrants, says he started Irish step dancing lessons at 3. While he did a lot of research, he says, there is also "stuff in there I learned at parties at my aunties'. I remember going as a child to my grandparents' house in Ireland, and they had a big old-fashioned radio run by a car battery. We'd go to an Irish pub, and everyone knew the same tunes. Friends said [this show] reminded them of Christmas at the Curran household."

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     In moving Joyce's tale to the stage, Nelson not only rearranged some of the action and added Joycean-style dialogue, but he also created two important characters. Nelson has party guest Gabriel Conroy double as a Joyce-like narrator who guides us through memory and the present. Also new to the story is a serving person who reminds Gabriel's wife, Gretta, of someone from her past.
     "The short story has no narrator," Nelson says. "It's written in the third person, and one of the richnesses of the story was the observations. You clearly got the sense that someone was observing these things. It wasn't an impersonal third person. Since there seemed to be some relationship of Joyce to the character of Gabriel and certainly some relationship between Gabriel's wife, Gretta, and Joyce's wife, Nora, it wasn't too farfetched to make Gabriel the one who would bring us into the very real world of the play.
     "In this story, Gabriel, the character, learns something about his wife that he never imagined, about the one person in the world he thought he knew better than himself. And that opens his eyes to a world that is full of profundity in the most minute detail."
     As the musical's narrator, continues Nelson, "Gabriel would be able to direct our attention to certain moments--slight things that would propel us forward into the story. He would also be our entry into what the story for me became about, which was how extraordinarily rich and complex the simplest things in life are. There are times in our lives when something happens to us, and we start to see the world differently, far more complex than we had imagined it to be."
     Filmmaker Huston saw similar ideas in Joyce's story. In Lilyan Sievernich's documentary "John Huston and the Dubliners," Huston tells Sievernich, "the story is about a man's being revealed to himself and while we're watching that happen, I think we're revealed to ourselves. What we think we are and what we are really are two different things, and the discovery of what one is, that's a soul-shaking experience."
     The link between the living and the dead is also crucial to Nelson's interpretation of "The Dead." "There's a woman in the room who is dying," says the playwright, "but there's also the fact that the dead are always with us living. People who are in our memories and past experience make up who we are. I think it's a great Joycean metaphor."
     Nelson has accentuated the frailty of the elderly Aunt Julia, pushing her closer to death than did either Joyce or Huston. "I think Aunt Julia is aware of her mortality very much," says Sally Ann Howes, the actress who portrays Aunt Julia onstage. "Vocally, I'm still in pretty good shape, but I have to concentrate on being the ill and weak Julia and not get carried away and sing out loudly."
     Huston wondered how many people would want to see a film called "The Dead," and Nelson readily acknowledges that "a musical called 'The Dead' was not the easiest sell in the world." (The title "James Joyce's The Dead" came about in part to avoid that problem and, Nelson adds, "as much to say it wasn't about the Grateful Dead. It was suggested by the producers that we change the title, which was fine.")
     Nelson says it took a few years to find producers once the script was completed. The musical wound up opening the season in October for off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, then moving to Broadway in January, initially for a limited run. It received several awards and good notices but closed in April after 112 regular performances and 32 previews.
     Nelson says that moving from the small Playwrights theater to the 1,000-seat Belasco Theatre was to the show's advantage. Critical reaction to the move was favorable, and, says Nelson, "I think everybody felt that the show grew going to the Belasco. We were able to rejigger the set a little bit and make it feel even more intimate than in the much smaller house."
     The show will change again--"very slightly"--in its move to the 1,600-seat Ahmanson, Nelson says, as he restages a few things to assure clear sight lines. "But you want an audience to feel that it's sort of eavesdropping on a situation, on a life, on a world. So no member of the audience is going to see every face all the time."
     "James Joyce's The Dead" may be performed again elsewhere after the Ahmanson, says Nelson, adding, "That's not set yet." Meanwhile, he says, "we're all very proud of what we did and sorry it didn't keep going [on Broadway]. But if it had, we wouldn't be going to the Ahmanson."

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     "James Joyce's The Dead," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. Opens Wednesday. Regular schedule: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Additional performances: July 30, Aug. 6, 13 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 10, 17 and 31 at 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 3. $25-$70. (213) 628-2772.

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Barbara Isenberg Is a Regular Contributor to Calendar. Her Oral History "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work" Will Be Published by William Morrow in October