BWW Interviews: Jonathan Brielle of HIMSELF AND NORA at American Theater Group
The American Theater Group (ATG) in Rahway, New Jersey presents the East Coast Premiere of Jonathan Brielle's HIMSELF AND NORA, a musical which tells the romance of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. Broadway World caught up with the show's author/composer/lyricist to talk about the piece.
BWW: Jonathan thanks so much for joining us today to talk about this musical. What drew you to writing a musical about James Joyce?
Jonathan Brielle: Like most people, I was afraid to open a book by James Joyce. In 1997, I was invited to a reading about his life staring the incredible Len Cariou. I was hooked and grateful as I was asked to add songs to the play. Our first outing was the Caldwell Theater in Florida, where Len won a Carbonell Award. But the play still wasn't a musical until 2005, when it evolved into the love story of a younger Joyce and Nora Barnacle, his muse and eventual wife. We launched at The Old Globe in San Diego as Himself and Nora staring Matt Bogart. After the Globe, I took over the book, and presented it at the James Joyce Center twice in Dublin to make sure I had it right. We got their seal of approval.
About two years ago I started working with my director and creative partner, Michael Bush, and together we discovered Joyce died fifteen minutes before Nora got back to his bedside in Zurich. So in a way, the musical now takes place in the missing 15 minutes Nora wishes she could have gotten.
BWW: That is absolutely fascinating to know you discovered that extra 'tid-bit' after you had already been working on it. It's also amazing to find writers that still do all three (book, music, lyrics). What's your process like since you work alone?
JB: Although I am dumb enough to write book, music and lyrics, I am smart enough to know that songs don't work without a great book. So for me, the book comes first with a rough sketch of lyrics. I write music on synths in my studio, sing and record every vocal part to test the truth for each character and adjust lyrics as I go. Occasionally, I argue with myself, but am grateful to have a director/dramaturge as talented as Michael Bush to keep me on track.
BWW: Collaboration is always key: with others or even when arguing alone! Can you share a little about your writing background?
JB: I've been writing songs since I was four, inspired by my mom who took me to see the originAl Golden Age Musicals: Sound of Music, Music Man, My Fair Lady, West Side Side Story. Although I started playing clarinet and writing for the school band, by the time I was 10, the Beatles hit and show tunes were not a good way to meet girls. I switched to guitar, and wrote for my first rock band at 12, moved to NY at 17 (while attending NYU). In my mid twenties I created the first songwriters' room in NYC called Uncle Lulus and after Sid Bernstein came in one night, I got the chance to write the songs for Foxfire on Broadway. While serving as composer in residence at Circle Rep in NY, I began paying the bills writing industrials, Las Vegas extravaganzas (including opening the New York New York Hotel and kids' tours (including Goosebumps with Rupert Holmes and the tour of Rugrats). After 911, I sold my studios in TriBeCa and moved to the country and have been only writing musicals full time ever since.
BWW: Wow! You have quite an impressive theater background and as you've mentioned you've had some wonderful productions of this show at The Old Globe and even at the James Joyce Center in Dublin (which must have been amazing). Is a show set in stone for you once it's done or do you find you want to continue to work on with each production?
JB: We performed Himself and Nora twice in Dublin.The first time, I played Joyce under the eyes of the painting of John Joyce in the James Joyce Center on Bloomsday. What an amazing experience. It was so successful; they brought back a full cast including Matt Bogart as Joyce. The show evolved and grew each time we did it and will not be done until the day we open on Broadway.
BWW: I love to hear that it continues to evolve. Wonderful! What do you hope to gain as a writer by working with American Theater Group?
JB: Our NYMF production was an amazing opportunity to put our new version on its feet for the first time. This winter, Michael and I had the chance to work further at the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony which I headed up with Michael at Goodspeed Musicals. And now the American Theater Group is our next step. It gives us a most welcomed opportunity to live with it for three weeks in front of an audience and further fine tune it.
BWW: We certainly wish you all the best with this production, both at ATG and going forward.
Himself and Nora runs April 24- May 12 (Wednesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 3 p.m.) at American Theater Group's home at the Hamilton Stage at 260 Hamilton Street in Rahway, New Jersey. Tickets are $30-$35 (Special rates for seniors and students) and can be purchased on line or at the UC PAC Box Office.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Randex Communications
Photo One: Jonathan Brielle
From This Author Gregory G. Allen