Giving Joyce a Voice: Interview with Playwright-Composer Jonathan Brielle

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How it’s New York:  A New York Music Theatre Festival award winner gets a world premiere next week.
How it’s Irish:  “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” — James Joyce

FROM APRIL 24-MAY 12, American Theater Group presents Himself and Nora, a new musical about author James Joyce, at Hamilton Stage in the heart of the colorful Rahway Arts District, a lively and diverse hub of arts activity 30 miles from midtown Manhattan.

The play was conceived by Jonathan Brielle, who created book, lyrics and music. Brielle is a New Jersey native who’s worked in New York music and theatre since the 1970s and fondly remembers running the Songwriter’s Room at Uncle Lulu’s, an Irish pub on W. 56th Street, Back In The Day.

JonathanBrielle

Jonathan Brielle

LEM:  What inspired you to write a musical about James Joyce? And to focus it on his relationship with Nora?

JB:  It’s been a long journey:  over 15 years of research and development and finally landing on a real story told through song. What I was most attracted to was the person and the man. What I discovered was it was the woman with the man and their love that enabled Joyce to try to create a new way of communicating in literature. Without Nora, there’d be no James Joyce, in my opinion.

They lived in such a fascinating time where artists were constantly experimenting with form. The painters were trying to get us to understand the feelings behind everything, and that’s what Joyce was doing in words. It was in the air. What really drew me was this amazing love story. What I found, at least in my imagination, was that there are things that are timeless in every relationship … out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary, which was his work.

LEM:  Biographic details about Joyce and Nora are fairly well established. The challenge you faced was totally unique — creating music that’s never existed. How did you approach that?

JB:  I went straight to the source:  Ireland itself. Ireland is one of the most magical, mystical places on the planet. I’ve been there over a half dozen times and spent time in the Wicklow Mountains riding horses from pub to pub, absorbing as much of everything about the country and the people as I could. Even though Joyce was a Dubliner, he had a sense of all of Ireland. For me, there’s a mystical feeling in all of Ireland. In prepping myself — because it’s such a specific world — I listened to a lot of music in Ireland, all kinds.

As a composer, I began to understand what the harmonic rules were. I found that since Joyce was writing of Dublin and of Ireland that the music needed to be of the time and place. It’s not period music, but it’s done through a modern lens so it feels contemporary and yet doesn’t feel like it’s out of place. Some of the music I wrote on guitar, as Joyce played guitar. Some traditions of Irish music can be defined by how a fiddle plays in parallel fifths and those kind of relationships harmonically. I was really listening for what the harmonic and rhythmic rules were. I think Joyce was trying to communicate with the sounds of words, especially with Finnegans Wake, so you could get a deeper feeling of what he wanted you to sense.

We have one scene in the show where he’s in Trieste, he’s reduced to teaching English lessons, and he feels betrayed by Ireland because he had to leave to write the way he wanted to write. He decides to teach English to Italians by repeating the names of towns in Ireland. The names create their own music, the same way the words on his page create a sense of music and a sense of rhythm. And he’s able to communicate an emotional feeling through this song. Because if you think about it, words are either a road map to a story or to an emotion the author is trying to convey. Nothing is a stronger road map than music and words. Whenever I read Joyce, I read it out loud, so that I can feel that connection.

That’s how I musicalized and allowed the words find the music for me … the sound of the words. Which I thought about as I performed the piece at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin underneath the staring eyes of Joyce’s father, John Joyce, in that painting that hangs in the main sitting room there.

Himself and Nora-piece2

Matt Bogart and Jessica Burrows

LEM:  For the performances at Hamilton Stage in Rahway, what will the instrumentation be?

JB:  It’s a five-piece band:  piano, bass, guitar, clarinet, drums. When we move to a larger theatre, I would like to add a fiddle and cello. It’s very rich. There are traditional pieces, a waltz, it’s an interesting array of styles of the time. Our pianist is our musical director, James Sampliner. When one person writes the whole musical — the play and the lyrics and the music — you need to have a fresh pair of eyes over you. Everybody needs an editor and a policeman. In the truest sense of the word, I think, policeman. I’ve been very lucky in having a fantastic director, Michael Bush, to dramaturg. And James Sampliner has been a great musical policeman!

What’s amazing about this particular theatre is that they have a Bosendorfer grand piano on the stage. That in itself is an orchestra! I don’t know that we’ll ever have this opportunity again, but to hear the sound of that piano doing these orchestrations is going to be very special for the audience.

LEM:  What did writing Himself and Nora give you in the way of insights into Joyce and his work?

JB:  It took Joyce most of his life to understand Love, with a capital L. Nora was always there for him. When you’re so focused on creating something people don’t understand, you have to be slightly obsessed. He was more than slightly obsessed; he was a genius. There’s a lyric in the finale of Act I where Joyce asks Nora, “How do you paint a painting no one else can see? You fill in the colors for your very own sanity.”

That’s what he had to do. And here was this woman who understood him, who opened him up to these feelings, especially sexual feelings initially, when he was so torn by the rules of the Catholic Church. Here was this woman who, when they first met on June 16, 1904, in a sense gave him a true religious experience. It was a true release that he know he could love someone without guilt. That was huge. And that she could say, “All right, I won’t be a married woman. I will live with you, I will have your children. I will be with you and love you and teach you.” Which she did.

LEM:  How much did Nora influence his actual writing, do we know?

JB:  It seems she only read some of his poems. And never read the fiction. In the play we have her sing, “Why should I read it when I live it?” She was what I like to call his portable Ireland. She helped him paint the picture.

LEM:  A portable Ireland. That’s something everybody should have!

JB: That and a chance to sing about it.

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  • American Theater Group presents Himself and Nora, a new musical by Jonathan Brielle
  • Presented at Hamilton Stage, 360 Hamilton St., Rahway NJ
  • April 24-May 12, 2013 (Wednesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 3 p.m.)
  • Tickets $30-$35 (special rates for seniors, students)
  • Call (732) 499-8226 or buy online here

ATG-LogoHimself and Nora stars Matt Bogart as James Joyce and Jessica Burrows as Nora Barnacle; director Michael Bush; music director James Sampliner.

* Show photo credit:  Seth Walters Photography

 

 

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