By: Paulanne Simmons
James Joyce is considered one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and his Ulysses the greatest of modernist novels. Who was the muse that inspired Joyce and the model for Ulysses’ Molly Bloom, the wife of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom? The answer to these questions and much more can be found in Jonathan Brielle’s musical, Himself and Nora, now at Minetta Lane Theatre, and directed by Michael Bush.
Whitney Bashor, Matt Bogart
The musical has been dubbed “the greatest love story never told.” And here lies the main difference between fact and fiction. While Molly is not faithful, Nora remained steadfastly beside her man, even though he did not marry her until their two children were adults.
Himself and Nora begins with Joyce’s death in 1941 and is told as a flashback. The musical follows the couples’ life from their meeting in Dublin, when Joyce is an unknown scribbler, and continues through his struggles with his father, his writing and his failing vision. Throughout, a disapproving priests (Zachary Prince) watches over the heedless sinners.
We see Nora (Whitney Bashor) and James (Matt Bogart) moving to Trieste where Joyce, removed from his roots struggles to find his voice, until Nora sells her brooch so Joyce can go back home. And we witness several benefactors coming to his aid: Ezra Pound (Michael McCormick). Harriet Weaver (Lianne Marie Dobbs) and Sylvia Beech (Dobbs), all of which leads to the eventual publication of Ulysses.
But success does not bring complete happiness. Joyce has his demons and Nora has Joyce. They both grieve over Georgio (Prince) and Lucia (Dobbs), their unhappy children.
Brielle has composed a score that blends traditional Irish melodies with modern pop. The result is spirited and evocative. Bashor and Bogart are beautifully paired and sing well together and separately. Basher is particularly strong is the tender ballad “What Better Thing.”
Although Nora and James spend most of their lives in continental Europe they are always at heart Irish. Songs like “Land of Erin” and “Let’s Have a Drink” don’t let us forget that major fact. There’s even a bit of lively step dancing.
Himself and Nora is a small-scale musical with Prince, Dobbs and McCormick* hauling more than their share as multiple characters. But despite its low budget, Himself and Nora has aimed high. There’s music and dance, drama and heartbreak, love and joy. Here is Joyce’s “full glory of some passion.”
*The night I saw the show Gary Troy ably stepped into all the roles normally performed by McCormick.
Himself and Nora is at Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, through Aug. 6, http://himselfandnoramusical.com.
Photo: Mathew Murphy