I first came across Jonathan Brielle and “River Liffey” in June 2008 when I returned to my hometown of Dublin to report on the festivities surrounding Bloomsday, James Joyce’s magical June 16, 1904, the day that his novel Ulysses takes place. It was at the Joyce Center on North Great Georges Street in the Georgian townhouse where much Joyce memorabilia is displayed, including the door to Leopold Bloom’s #7 Eccles Street.
In an upstairs drawing room, Brielle stood at a microphone with two American actors and sang many of the songs from the musical he was working on, "Himself and Nora." The signature song of the play, “River Liffey”—it features Italian students learning English from their teacher, Joyce—immediately caught the imagination of the audience (listen here):
River Liffey, River Liffey…
Kilkenny, Connemara, Kildare
Galway, Carrick, Ballyshannon
Killarney, Roscommon, Wicklow
Enniskillen, Wexford, Waterford
Howth, Rush, Bray, Armagh, Omagh
Nenagh, Donegal, Derry,
Dundalk, Limerick, Cork,
Lismore, Bainbridge, Cashel, Arklow
Tipperary, Tramore, Carlow
Arklow, Athy, Macroom, Mallow
Sligo, Swords, Skibbereen, Monaghan
The sweet sound I know
Ireland My Ireland…The sweetest sound I know…IRELAND!
There just seemed to be something musical about all the names of all the Irish counties and the River Liffey,” Brielle told IrishCentral. “There is something hidden in the sounds, the vibrations created by air, over tongue and lips are almost magical. It evokes a feeling, the way Ireland feels to me. The Gaelic names have a rhythm when put together. The language does the work, not me.”
Ireland, today, loves to promote her writers. They have named new bridges over the Liffey for Joyce, O’Casey and Beckett. The irony is that is that all three writers, because of the suffocating censorship of the Catholic Church—abetted later by the new Irish Free State government—left Ireland in disgust. Of course the one who started this 20th century exodus was none other than James Joyce himself. After meeting Nora Barnacle on Nassau Street on June 16, 1904 they decided to leave Ireland that fall and except for short visits back to Dublin in 1909 and 1912, Joyce never set foot in Ireland again. They wandered from Trieste to Zurich before settling in Paris after the First World War.
It seems that Brielle was seduced into Joyce’s world through one Leopold Bloom. “Although not being Irish, but raised Jewish,” said Brielle, “I imagine myself as another of Joyce’s Bloom, the lead character of his Ulysses, and the story goes that Joyce’s inspiration for Bloom was the following: Before Joyce met Nora, he was wandering the streets of Dublin, and drank so much he passed out on the street. Apparently, a nice Jewish fellow carried him home. To repay the kindness, Joyce made the lead character of Ulysses Jewish (as well as probably wanting to show the Church you didn’t have to be Catholic to be a real Dubliner). So if I am Bloom, I have felt that my job was to give Nora the credit that Joyce wished he had given her but that the world never got to hear. And to prove the point, there is a letter from Joyce to Nora that says: ‘Everything that is noble and exalted and deep and true and moving in what I write comes, I believe, from you.’ ”
The complicated relationship between Joyce and Nora—much more love than hate—is the foundation for Himself and Nora. “I was slowly seduced by Joyce,” says Brielle. “Hearing his words out loud seemed musical to my ear. The sound of his words introduced me to Dublin and Ireland. He inspired me to visit Ireland many times. I began to explore on so many levels. But what fascinated me more than his work, was the man.
“And then, I ‘met’ Nora,” says Brielle, clearly smitten. “Nora Loora Lei. She, too, seduced this writer and after studying what was written about the two of them, I began to easily imagine their everyday lives: She: this fiery, country girl from Galway, who had never gone past 8th grade and yet managed an acerbic, colorful wit that inspired him. He: the egotistic exasperating, intellectual writer from Dublin whose words would awaken the world. It seemed crystal clear that they were this great couple who had many fights, and always made up with great sex. For me, that struck a chord. However, the big ‘ah-hah’ moment for me, came after I discovered Joyce died fifteen minutes before Nora got back to his hospital room in Zurich in 1941. The musical became the missing 15 minutes I imagined she wanted. For it was always James Joyce and Nora. Never Nora first… hence the title… and the title song.”
Brielle did extensive research on Joyce so he could get a clear handle on his subject. “From a factual standpoint, Richard Ellmann’s biography (James Joyce) was my starting point; he was Joyce’s first and greatest background source. It is a polite book, however. I found more emotion, and an everyday quality, in his brother Stannie’s book (My Brother’s Keeper), as well as Brenda Maddox’s biography, Nora. But the more I read, the more I wanted to know all the people he hated and loved (and vise versa). So I continued to read books about his daughter Lucia, his benefactor Harriet Weaver, and his publisher, Sylvia Beach.”
The road to Off-Broadway has been a long one. “We started at the Old Globe in San Diego staring Matt Bogart,” recalled Brielle. “We took it to Dublin twice for Bloomsday at the invitation of the James Joyce Center there. First year, I presented highlights of the show performing Joyce with two other actors. The Center was standing room only and I got to sing underneath the painting of John Joyce, James’ father. Quite a thrill, people were overflowing on to the street. The following year I brought Matt and we performed a concert reading in a theater in Dundrum, a suburb of Dublin. In 2012 we did a full production at NYMF (New York Music Theater Festival) to great critical acclaim and were offered a record deal from JAY Records with John Yap, and another full production. American Theatre Group produced us in 2013 to rave reviews and our CD came out in 2014. On June 6, we open at the Minetta Lane in the heart of Greenwich Village—the Village for me being the spiritual home of writers and artists the way Montmartre was for Paris.”
Could the Off-Broadway premiere lead to a Broadway production? “We are thrilled to be in the Minetta Lane,” said Brielle. “It is in the artistic heart of New York. If it makes sense to move, we would look for an intimate theater. We certainly have a Broadway team right now: We have an amazing orchestra, a Broadway musical director, James Sampliner as well as Broadway stars and veterans including Matt Bogart as Joyce (Jersey Boys, Miss Saigon), Whitney Bashor as Nora (Bridges of Madison County), Zachary Prince (Honey in Vegas) in several roles including the priest, Lianne Marie Dobbs who plays five characters, and Michael McCormick (Elf, Curtains, Chaplin).”
Among the historic characters in the musical are Joyce’s financial patron Harriet Weaver and Joyce’s greatest publicist, the eccentric and often irrational poet, Ezra Pound. In one of the funniest and most nimble songs, “All Expenses Paid,” Brielle reached far back into vaudeville as Pound tries to get Weaver to subsidize Joyce’s flamboyant lifestyle. “There is a wonderful vaudeville routine by Gallagher and Shean. (Mr. Shean was Grouch Marx’s uncle),” recalls Brielle. “Joe Hardy suggested I listen to them and from that came the idea for ‘All Expenses Paid.’ It takes a tremendous amount of practice to pull off, as some Vaudeville routines do, and I enjoy singing both parts at the same time for parties and fun and on the occasion I perform at Birdland.”
Of course, when dealing with Joyce and Nora there is a lot of innuendo and double entendres and outright declarations about sex, such as “Compatriots in Lust.” Did Brielle have any concerns about being too explicit in some of the lyrics? “No,” said Brielle definitively. “I approached it like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, or old Groucho Marx routines. As I kid I thought they were hysterically funny. Only when I was older did I understand all the meanings. Part of the fun of the musical was to show all of their sexual colors through wit and pun—as you know, Joyce loved a good pun. In fact, a great misconception of Joyce was that he was this serious writer, when in fact, he loved nothing more than creating a good laugh—and I believe, he and Nora shared that laugh through their chemistry as well.”
Brielle also wanted to throw a bouquet to his indefatigable producer. “Cherie King has been watching the growth of Himself and Nora since the Old Globe,” Brielle said. “She’s known my process, struggles and successes intimately, and coincidentally, we’ve been married since the Old Globe Production. After a few broken promises from other producers, Cherie more than anyone, believed it needed to be seen, understood what it could become, and so, ‘yes I said yes, I will yes!’ ”
Himself and Nora began previews May 14 at the Minetta Lane Theater (off 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Streets). The premiere will be on June 6. For ticket information go to HimselfAndNoraMusical.com.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Irish Miscellany (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.