By Meredith Ganzman (@MGanzman)
The lives of prolific writers are the subjects of both the Broadway box office breaker, Hamilton, and the new off-Broadway musical, Himself and Nora. Subtitled “the greatest love story never told,” the production recounts the nearly four-decade long romance of Irish author James Joyce and Nora Barnacle.
With book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle, the musical begins on the day Joyce dies, January 13, 1941. Standing over Joyce’s body (Matt Bogart) the priest (Zachary Prince) orders, open the window and let out the spirit. But Nora (Whitney Bashor) comes in 15 minutes too late to say goodbye to her husband, calling him a “selfish shite.”
Covering nearly 40 years, Himself and Nora, is a disjointed chronology and lacks a sense of real romance. Joyce was known for his long prose, stream of consciousness style and run-on sentences, but this musical’s long-windedness could use some tightening up. Though Joyce had a love of words, the music, with often an Irish folk sound, is mostly overwritten — and is itself a selfish indulgence by Brielle– and lacks melody.
In the title and opening song, “Himself and Nora,” Nora asks her late husband if she ever came first in their relationship. Indeed, Joyce, the famous author of Ulysses, seemed to always take precedence. He even died first.
The love story begins. Nora, a chambermaid, teaches James, 22 years old and college educated, how to kiss in the appropriately titled song “Kiss.” Their first date, June 16, 1904, corresponds with the date Ulysses is set. Every year Dubliners also celebrate this day with Bloomsday and reenact the events of Ulysses.
Matt Bogart, most recently in Broadway’s Jersey Boys, masterfully portrays James’ both unsteady nature, often swaying as he drinks away the pain of his slow starting career and deteriorating eyesight. But passionately committed to his work and to Nora, he powerfully and seemingly effortlessly belts such odes to Ireland as “Land of Erin.”
Joyce’s better half is Nora, played by Whitney Bashor, last seen on Broadway in The Bridges of Madison County. Nora staunchly supports her to be husband through their rocky relationship. In Act II, Bashor sings a beautiful and heartbreaking reprise of “What Better Thing,” which certifies their love, as James’ health takes a turn for the worse.
Directed by Michael Bush, we meet the young Nora and James in lusting after each other, “Compatriots In Lust,” they sing. Torn between his love of Ireland and Nora, but unable to write freely under the severity of the Catholic church, James leads Nora into self-imposed exile to the European continent. But the priest, an embodiment of James’ self-doubt and fears, tells James he can never escape the church.
James struggles to mount his writing career, save his sight and support his family through the creation of Ulysses. Act II opens with “The Grand Him.” After the novel’s success, James’ ego and drinking nearly gets the best of his relationship to Nora. Despite two children, they remain unwed. James will not marry in the name of his freedom as a writer. Neglecting his family, especially his schizophrenic daughter, Nora nearly walks away. “Know what I’d be without a man?…Lucky,” she sings. Only once he has nearly lost the love of his life does James finally consent to marriage.
The musical both begins and ends with the image of a window, open and letting out Joyce’s spirit. What this show needs too, is to breath and focus on James and Nora and the story of their love.
“I’m a rambling idiot. Can you forgive me?” James asks Nora. And she does. You may need a stiff drink to do the same for this jampacked, though ambitious, new musical.
Himself and Nora is playing now at the Minetta Lane Theater.