BWW Interview: Michael McCormick Talks HIMSELF AND NORA
In July 2012, Himself and Nora premiered at the New York Musical Theater Festival. In 2014, Jay Records released Himself and Nora (Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording). Following the steamy romance between James Joyce and his muse, Nora, the musical has returned to New York in a lush Off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Recently, I sat down with Michael McCormick, who plays John Joyce, Ezra Pound, and others, to chat about the show.
Tell me how you came to be involved with Himself and Nora.
Michael McCormick: I went in and auditioned for it, and I never heard from them. They said that they couldn't believe that I came in to audition for them. Then, there were supposed to be callbacks, and I never got a callback. Then, I just got the offer.
I know Michael Bush, the director. He used to run the cabaret portion of the Eugene O'Neill up in Connecticut, where I live actually. He used to be an Associate Director of Manhattan Theater Club for a long time. So, our paths did cross, but I didn't really know the author, Jonathan Brielle. Although, he did say he knew all of my stuff. It was just great reuniting with Whitney Bashor, who I had worked with previously. But, I didn't know the other actors. It's been a nice little ride. I had read "Finnegan's Wake," and I had read a number of the Joyce novels, so I was acquainted with Joyce and what an incredible character he was in life, as opposed to also his incredible writings. But yeah, I pretty much came in clean on it.
So, were you familiar at all with the Off-Broadway cast album when you went in to audition?
Michael McCormick: No. I didn't know a thing about it. I hadn't heard any of the stuff. I guess they did it at NYMF, and they recorded it? But, I didn't know about that at all, so I came into it kind of like a newborn babe. [Laughs]
In the show you get to play a handful of characters. What was it like preparing for those characters since some of them are definitely real people?
Michael McCormick: Well, there's enough about his relationship with his father, which makes it very rich. And Jonathan [Brielle] plays that up a great deal in the writing, the kind of yin yang thing he had with his father. There's a lot of Irish guilt being thrown at James Joyce, coming from his father and the Irish mother before she passes away. Both of the men are kind of flailing at the church, which imposes it's own kind of Catholic guilt.
I grew up Catholic. I know what that's all about because they can lay it on there pretty thick. In the end you can rail against it all you want, but in the end, people who are true Catholics, they'll always at the end go, "Oh my gosh, let me cover all of my bases." They will start praying again, and all that stuff. (Laughs)
And then it turns to Ezra Pound, an incredible figure, actually. Without Ezra Pound, I think James Joyce would not have risen to the heights he did because he found the money for him. He helped underwrite him. He found the rich socialite money out there to make James Joyce James Joyce. Ezra Pound had already had a good association with T.S. Eliot previous to that, and he was very well tied in. He ran a literary magazine in Paris, and that was allowed him to be very tied in with what was happening there.
Ezra Pound was such a character, he know Hemmingway, Proust, and all of these people. I don't what his bent was before the war broke out, but he was a big anti-Semite. He stood trial in the United States because of his views in terms of Hitler, the war, and all that. Then, he kind of went a little flaky, and then he came out of an institution, which is funny because Joyce's daughter was in the institution herself. Pound is an incredible man. There's tons of material on Pound.
The other two people I play are just a little student in his class, and two different doctors as his eyesight problems get even worse. So, a variety of makeup and taking mustaches on and off, putting wigs on, taking beards off, and stuff like that.
That was one thing I definitely noticed. The facial hair changes a lot.
Michael McCormick: It was a concern for me in the beginning because before you are even getting into doing it, you are going, "How is this going to work? How are we going to make this work?" A couple of them are very fast. There is a moment when I am Ezra Pound, but in a split second I become his father, when the audiences finds that he has passed away. That is incredibly fast change.
A lot of spirit gum. (Laughs)
Michael McCormick: A lot of spirit gum and a little double stick. (Laughs)
One of the things I think is really phenomenal about this show, because I reviewed the cast album before I'd ever seen it staged, is the presence of the church and how that is actually given to an actor that is omnipresent throughout.
Michael McCormick: Exactly. That's just smart writing there because the church is so prominent, especially at the turn of the century in Ireland. In some ways it did a lot of good, and in some ways it did a lot of bad. It's always there, so it is just very smart writing to have a character represent that, and represent all of the guilt involved. His father, even though he reverts back to it when his wife is dying, rails against it, and he teaches his son to do the same. It's very, very interesting.
I saw a performance where the first act had to be performed under work lights because of a technical problem. I know some might balk at this, but I think it was a truly special thing to see.
Michael McCormick: Well, you were part of a really special thing. That's what is so great about theatre. Each performance is always singular in that respect, and sometimes things play better with an audience than with others because of that gray area where the audience and the actors meet on a common ground. For a performance like that, it's a very singular event, and I think you got to see the true power of the script without a lot of accouterments, and then for the second act, you got the accouterments. (Laughs) You got the sets, the lights, and the atmosphere!
For sure. And it was fascinating getting to see both versions, if you will.
Michael McCormick: Exactly. I'm glad you saw that performance. That was a good one to have seen.
I was blown away by the power of the script and how it all really works without the lights. As someone who has worked on the show, and you know it so intimately, what is it about the power of the show that speaks to you as an artist?
Michael McCormick: In that sense, of me being an artist, and the other actors I work with, you think about the story you're telling. It's the story of an incredible artist himself, who took a very big risk with his life, and an artistic leap of faith in terms of his writing because, good God, no one had seen writing like that before. He left his own country, which was safe and secure, to go to another place where he took just a regular day job so that he could try to continue to write. I think it's that leap of faith that we take as actors and artists when we are going forth. There are portions of the score that I think are just wonderful, and they just lift you. Some of the passages in the script are Jonathan Brielle's really wonderful work, but it's also intertwined with some of Joyce's work itself. And, I find it all invigorating.
Is there a moment that is your favorite to perform or to watch?
Michael McCormick: I love Whitney [Bashor]. She's always just so in the moment.
In terms for myself, for a long time I was a little terrified of "Pound and Weaver," the Vaudeville number that introduces Ezra Pound and Harriet Weaver, just because it is so out there in tone. It's fun to do when you've finally got it down, and it's fun for the audience, I think, to watch. But, for the first couple of times when we really just went for it, it was a little terrifying. It feels good now.
I also love the arc that the father takes. Not just with the end of the show, but that one moment James Joyce finds out through the letters that his father has passed away, and that musical interlude, which is a reprise of his song about standing for the land of Erin. I find that I fight back against that song because it is so touching, and I don't want to do a disservice and give in to the emotion. The audience will be there for that. But, I love that moment. It's a wonderful little challenge. It's not a big scene, but it's a very lovely scene. So, those are probably my two most favorite, but terrifying, moments in the show. (Laughs)
"Man of Erin" was one of the first songs from the musical that I really clung to.
Michael McCormick: It's great. It's got that kind of Irish anthem and the strength of the lyrics. So true.
And, just because of how catchy it is, "River Liffey" is a favorite too.
Michael McCormick: It's just such great playwriting to put that song in the midst of teaching people from another country the beauty of the Irish language. That song just builds and builds, and it is just a wonderful moment to play Italian students learning English from this Irishman and witness his love of his country. But also, it's fun for the audience because I feel the song takes the audience away.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking of going into an arts high school, or even thinking of choosing arts as a major in college?
Michael McCormick: Well, I was a professional when I was a little boy. I was in OLIVER back in 1965, so I got to see incredible performances. I got to see Zero Mostel in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. I got to see Barbara Streisand in FUNNY GIRL. I started doing this a long, long time ago, and I loved it. I actually made a concerted effort to maybe move away from it and get into pre-med and stuff, but it just pulled me back. The point of all that is, at this age, you should just explore and enjoy. And then if it is something that you really have to do, no matter what in your life, then go for it. If not, you can still have a really wonderful life in the arts, and enjoy the arts, and actually do community theater.
HIMSELF AND NORA runs at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane, New York, 10012) now through September 4, 2016. For tickets and more information, please visit http://himselfandnoramusical.com.