To some snobs, putting James Joyce together with the Broadway musical may be like performing "Swan Lake" in the middle of a disco. Surely the complex art of the great master of prose will be debased by the glamour and glitz of the Great White Way? But to anyone with a feel for Joyce's work, the marriage does not seem so inevitably doomed - because the stream that waters Joyce's great stories is, in fact, popular music. For example, it's a love of light opera and music-hall songs that ties together the people of his masterpiece, "Ulysses."
More than any other great prose writer, Joyce comes with a built-in soundtrack. And it is at its loudest and most joyous in "The Dead," from which Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey have fashioned a hauntingly beautiful musical. We know from John Huston's superb movie of 1987 that "The Dead" can be successfully dramatized. But in turning it into a musical, Nelson and Davey are confronted with an unusual problem. The task is almost too easy. Most of the "The Dead" takes place at a Christmas party in Dublin about a century ago. The three hostesses, the aged sisters Julia and Kate Morkan and their niece Mary Jane, are all music teachers. So, much of the evening naturally is given over to song. Because each of the main characters sings a party piece, the temptation is to go with the flow and drift into soft Victorian nostalgia. But this would be fatally untrue to the story. For what concerns Joyce is not just the music but also the way songs summon memories of the dead. The power of "The Dead" lies in the wonderfully delicate balance between the vivid joy of a festive celebration and the ghostly recollection of those who are no longer present at life's feast. One of these ghosts enters the apparently contented world of a guest at the party, the middle-aged journalist Gabriel Conroy. A song triggers for his wife, Greta, the memory of a former sweetheart who died for love of her. He realizes that the dead boy still has a hold on her most-private feelings. What the music has to do, therefore, is to provide this strange bridge between the present and the past. The key to the success of the show is that composer Davey does precisely this. His songs are a seamless blend of old and new. Ancient Irish poems and lyrics are set to beautiful airs that evoke traditional melodies, while being at the same time fresh and original. With this key, Nelson's production opens up the story's many layers of exuberance, tenderness and melancholy. He makes Christopher Walken's Gabriel into a narrator who wraps the action in a blanket of bittersweet remembrance. Walken's relatively weak singing voice and cold, edgy presence make this a risky piece of casting. But he has a shadowy, haunted quality that exerts a grip of its own. In any case, the show has, in Blair Brown's regal Greta, a vocal presence and a human warmth that fill in the gaps left by Walken's weaknesses and a dramatic intelligence that complements his strengths. With the rest of the cast, Nelson's search for realism sometimes results in awkwardness. But far more often there is a wonderfully detailed exchange of sympathy and affection. The result is a show like nothing else on Broadway: gentle but unsentimental, serious but always lively, open-ended but utterly satisfying - a memory of the dead that pulses with theatrical life.
If you want a theatrical treat that enchants, surprises and finally thrills with unexpected depth, get thee double-quick to the Belasco Theatre.
For James Joyce, life was a cycle of birth and death. Last night the ritual joyousness of that cycle came to Broadway with the wonderful musical play "James Joyce's The Dead."
This sort-of-musical, with text by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey and lyrics by the two of them, started earlier in the season at Playwrights Horizon. Now it has arrived on Broadway for what is regrettably a limited run.
Seeing it again, in the expanded space and atmosphere of the larger theater, I thought it was even more wondrous and entrancing -- not to mention just plain entertaining -- than in the intimate but also constricted circumstances of off-Broadway.
The story is simplicity itself. It is really little more than a kind of diary account of a family Christmas gathering -- the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6 -- set in Dublin in 1904.
Every year, a couple of elderly spinsters, Julia and Kate, and their much younger niece, Mary Jane –all music teachers -- host this homespun gathering of music, dancing, food, drink, hospitality and good fellowship.
It is, of course, a sensitively charming adaptation of the last story of Joyce's collection of short stories, "The Dubliners," which earlier provided the basis for film director John Huston's final masterpiece.
Huston's 1987 movie must have been seen by many more people than ever read the original, so it is probably this shadowy ghost -- more than the Joyce story itself -- with which the present stage version will be compared.
It is, however, neatly appropriate that Joyce set his action during the Feast of Epiphany, because here the author seems to reach his own personal epiphany in the person of the play's narrator, Gabriel.
After all the merrymaking, Gabriel -- alone with his late-night thoughts -- discovers a potent but familiar truth that changes his thinking and is destined, henceforward, to color his character.
The beauty here is the manner in which Nelson and Davey contrive to so vividly present Joyce's mix of jocular realism and heady poetry.
It is Joyce made manifest, much more truthfully than in Huston's more elegiac movie. Staged by Nelson himself and acted flawlessly by a great cast, the show is completely unchanged from Playwrights Horizons, providing sequence after sequence of heart-stopping drama.
David Jenkins's setting, the period costumes of Jane Greenwood, the lighting of Jennifer Tipton and the sound design by Scott Lehrer all frame the actors and their playas if they represented some treasured family engraving mysteriously brought to life.
As for the actors, they don't seem like actors at all; rather they appear to be larger-than-life ghosts from Gabriel's memory. We probably haven't seen such ensemble playing on Broadway since Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa."
The strange, haunted yet amiable presence of Christopher Walken's Gabriel dominates the play, but all the others are strong as well, from Stephen Spinella's sweetly guilty drunk, to the two aunts, Sally Ann Howes and Marni Dixon, to ... simply, to everyone.
Sometimes a murmur is more startling than a shout. For its first enchanted hour, ''James Joyce's 'The Dead,' '' the new stage adaptation of the classic short story at Playwrights Horizons, makes a sterling virtue out of a trait rarely associated with American musicals: shyness.
In reconceiving Joyce's great, elegiac tale of a Christmastime gathering in gaslight-era Dublin, this production, which opened last night, achieves a soft-spoken, hesitant air of intimacy that has you leaning forward like a fascinated eavesdropper.
Portraying a group of friends and relatives assembled for a Yuletide feast of shared songs and stories, the actors, led by Christopher Walken and Blair Brown, seem to be pitching their performances to one another, rather than to anyone beyond the proscenium, and even this is realized with a gentle, uncertain quality that would send Ethel Merman into shock. In a genre characterized by brassy extroversion, ''The Dead'' is a quiet revolutionary: a musical that dares to be diffident.
Mind you, this show, which has a book by Richard Nelson and a score by Shaun Davey, is far from perfect. Midway through, it takes a jolting wrong turn into overstatement and sentimentality. Mercifully, this doesn't tarnish the affecting originality of the evening's first half. ''The Dead,'' which was directed by Mr. Nelson and Jack Hofsiss (who left the production early this month), is as lopsided as a lean-to. But when a musical successfully claims new ground these days, it is reason to celebrate.
The last and best-known of the stories that make up Joyce's ''Dubliners,'' ''The Dead'' would scarcely seem to lend itself to easy dramatization. Its most momentous occurrences are shifts in perception in the mind of its central character, the teacher and writer Gabriel Conroy (here played by Mr. Walken). Nonetheless, the director John Huston, in his last movie, caught exactly the elusive, lambent mood of the story, conjuring the pathos of characters tethered to a realm of shadows, the dead of the title, that they are destined to join.
Mr. Nelson's version is, oddly enough, at its weakest when it tries hardest to transmit this sensibility. Calling the show ''James Joyce's 'The Dead,' '' while considerately awarding Joyce the titular status of commercial heavyweights like Stephen King and Judith Krantz, is to some degree deceptive.
There are indeed moments of true epiphany here. But they are less Joycean flashes of unbidden insight than visions of ordinary people transported by the powers of music. Defined with both delicacy and exhilaration, such moments recall the inspiriting eruption into dance by the provincial sisters in Brian Friel's ''Dancing at Lughnasa.''
''The Dead'' takes place mostly during the annual Christmas party of the elderly Morkan sisters, Kate (Marni Nixon) and Julia (Sally Ann Howes), and their niece, Mary Jane (Emily Skinner), all of whom teach music. Joyce's tale is infused with references to singers and composers and prominently features two traditional songs. Mr. Davey has provided his own substitutes for these, adapted from Irish poems, and added a host of other numbers. Some are of the classic organic-musical variety, in which speech melts into song; the other, and better, efforts are conceived as parlor pieces, performed as entertainment by those at the party.
The night's signal event, in which Gabriel realizes he has never truly known his wife, Gretta (Ms. Brown), has been radically reconfigured by Mr. Nelson, and the physical indications of mortality in the story dramatically scaled up, with Aunt Julia now conspicuously ill, rather than merely frail.
These deviations are not necessarily improvements, and the script itself is hardly the best work of Mr. Nelson (''Some Americans Abroad,'' ''Goodnight Children Everywhere''). Nor do the songs of Mr. Davey, who wrote the lyrics with Mr. Nelson, stand securely on their own. The band of musicians, directed by Charles Prince, plays with unobtrusive moodiness, but the songs' strength has everything to do with how they are sung.
This means with considerable self-consciousness and little obvious professional polish, though the cast features singers of well-honed skills from three generations, from Ms. Nixon (famous for providing the singing voices of stars like Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood on film) to Daisy Eagan, the young Tony-winning star of the Broadway musical ''The Secret Garden.''
The tone is indelibly set when the three Misses Morkan lead off the evening's preprandial songfest with a trio. They are initially a bit stiff, even embarrassed, in need of the touches of reassurance they give one another. Their singing, while sweet, is faltering. For these very reasons, the number, like many of those that follow, is inexpressibly moving and an unmediated expression of character rare in musicals.
For roughly the next hour of the play's intermissionless 100 minutes, this sense of song weaving awkwardly through the prosaic, repetitive business of a party that changes little from year to year is wonderfully sustained, and it is a compliment to say that you are rarely aware of the period scenery (David Jenkins), costumes (Jane Greenwood) or the subtly shifting lighting (Jennifer Tipton). One of the guests or hostesses may leave the stage while others are singing; uneasy glances and whispers are exchanged; Mary Jane sheds silent tears when her Aunt Julia forgets the words to a song she has long known.
The duet performed by the Conroys (with charming choreography by Sean Curran), in which Gretta exudes womanly warmth while Gabriel gives off a distancing awareness of his limitations, is a whole portrait of a marriage in miniature. The sexually tinged friction between Gabriel and the young, politically minded Molly Ivors (Alice Ripley) is provocatively limned in a rousing ditty about Parnell. And the plaintive eagerness of Freddy Malins (Stephen Spinella), a drunk of a middle-aged boy, is given stirringly rough-hewn life in a jaunty barroom song.
Mr. Spinella performs this number with his back to the audience, underscoring the sense of our being allowed a privileged glimpse into a closed world. It is impossible to sort out what in the inspired mise en scene comes from Mr. Hofsiss and what from Mr. Nelson, but there is a generous reciprocity among the actors, a sense of each being aware of the slightest tremors of mood among the others.
Mr. Walken, an actor known to make a diet of chewed scenery, is magnetically low-key here, and the tone matches the defensiveness and intellectual detachment of the Gabriel of Joyce's story. Even when he steps outside the play to address the audience, Mr. Walken somehow projects an intense inwardness. It's an eccentric performance, for sure, but more often than not it works.
Ms. Brown, who has come solidly into her own as a stage actress in the last year or so, is Mr. Walken's perfect foil, vibrantly maternal and sensual. She is earthier than Anjelica Huston was in her more enigmatic take on the character in the movie, and this feeds nicely into the evening's central theme of hidden life beneath commonplace surfaces.
As a visiting opera singer, the performance artist John Kelly seems a tad too exotic, though he also gives off an engagingly humble restraint. Ms. Ripley and Ms. Skinner (who was in ''Side Show'') and Mr. Spinella are all first-rate, and Ms. Nixon and Ms. Howes, who bring to the show their own nimbus of a life in musical theater, are deeply touching.
It's when ''The Dead'' breaks the rhythmic domestic flow of the party, overstating elements that are already eloquently implicit, that the production deflates. Certainly, the sugary duet between Aunt Julia and her younger self (Ms. Eagan) could be eliminated. And Mr. Davey has not found the music to match either Gretta's great revelation after the party or Gabriel's reaction to it. What should be the show's emotional climax feels like an afterthought.
The evening's real pinnacle has been scaled some time before. This happens when, after dinner, the prim Kate and Julia unexpectedly break out into a slightly risque, music-hall style number, ''Naughty Girls.'' The initial astonishment of their guests gives way to intoxicated delight. Soon, they have all joined hands in a flowing, ecstatic line of movement that brings to mind Matisse's famous ''Dancers.''
That the revelry is abruptly terminated only enhances the joyousness of what has occurred before. Such moments of transcendence are, as Joyce well knew, as close to heaven as humanity ever comes.
Under the confident steam of its original champions, producers Gregory Mosher and Arielle Tepper, "James Joyce's The Dead" has moved to Broadway, where audiences unable to secure tickets to the sold-out run at Playwrights Horizons will be able to assess this adventurous new musical's considerable charms. Equally well preserved, however, are its not inconsequential flaws, most prominently a dismayingly miscast Christopher Walken in the pivotal role of Gabriel Conroy, the character through whose sensitive consciousness Joyce's story is filtered.
The Belasco is a comfortable home for the production on Broadway. The theater's deep wood tones and decorative murals in dark colors neatly complement the musical's softly gaslit hues (supplied by Jennifer Tipton's delicate work). The show felt slightly cramped at Playwrights Horizons, and David Jenkins' set has more room to breathe on the Belasco stage.
Nevertheless, surprisingly little of the musical's captivating sense of intimacy has been lost. The quirks of staging used to emphasize the cozy, convivial mood -- performers often sing with their backs to the footlights, addressing only their onstage audience -- have been carefully preserved, although they still strike this viewer as self-consciously anti-theatrical. The ample talents of the veteran cast, in any case, easily invite us to overlook them.
The first two-thirds of the show takes place at a party hosted by the elderly Julia and Kate Morkan (Sally Ann Howes and Marni Nixon), and the assembled performers have only deepened the feeling of long acquaintance and deep affection that suffuses their interaction. The anguished nervousness of the prudish Mrs. Malins (Paddy Croft) as she awaits the arrival of her inevitably inebriated son is visibly shared by everyone in the room, as is the embarrassment when the feckless Freddy (Stephen Spinella) arrives and makes an unfortunate allusion to the choir from which Aunt Julia has recently been forced to retire.
The actors all subtly suggest the way feelings and reflections are silently telegraphed from one character to another among such a close gathering of family and friends. This transparency of emotion is later shown to be in poignant contrast to the secret sadness that Gabriel discovers his wife Gretta has harbored throughout their marriage.
Book writer and lyricist Richard Nelson is now listed as the sole director (Jack Hofsiss left the production prior to the Off Broadway opening), and he's to be credited for beautifully judged ensemble work that nevertheless allows each of the characters to register distinctly. Some of the performances have expanded richly to fill the larger space.
Spinella's Freddy is now an even more rumbustiously comic presence, barely able to control his quaking limbs and emotions under the influence of both high and alcoholic spirits.
Blair Brown's Gretta Conroy has grown in radiance and quiet feeling, and her singing is more robust and assured.
Musical highlights are provided by Howes' heart-stoppingly lovely and (intentionally) tremulous performance of "When Lovely Lady," and her duet with Nixon's chronically concerned Aunt Kate on the slightly naughty "Naughty Girls." On a second hearing, the ample but subtle melodic appeal of Shaun Davey's music strikes the ear more forcefully. (The musical's lone out-of-register song, "Wake the Dead," signals a still jarring shift from a strictly realistic style, in which the characters sing only when they're performing for each other, into the more integrated musical style, when they spontaneously break into song.)
The heart of Joyce's story, however, is the heart of Gabriel Conroy, and Walken's performance suggests that it has been permanently chilled by the Irish winters. In Joyce's story, a quietly raging love for his wife grows in Gabriel's soul as the evening proceeds, only to be quenched by the terrible, sudden realization of the gulf that separates them. This interior drama cannot be easily translated to the stage, and Nelson's combination of narration and dialogue aren't quite up to the task, but the right actor might convey it wordlessly. Walken simply doesn't -- Gabriel's should be the most powerfully emotional presence onstage, and instead he's the most emotionally vacant.
Thus the story's devastating final moments, when Gabriel is awakened to the sadness, solitude and decay of life and love, arrive on the Belasco stage only in muted form. The loss to the effectiveness of Joyce's tale is immeasurable, even if it is only admirers of the literary masterpiece who will powerfully feel it. And only time and the box office will tell whether the subtle graces of the tale that have been more successfully captured by the show's creators will be sufficient to attract a wide Broadway audience.