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Dead Singers 

Turning James Joyce into a Broadway musical

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
Lily, the caretaker's daughter, has a minor role in James Joyce's The Dead, hanging up coats, serving drinks, and sometimes joining the songs that break out during the Misses Morkan's annual Christmas party. In James Joyce's story "The Dead," she's more significant, not because she does anything besides hang up coats or serve drinks, but because Joyce repeats her name and designation like a musical refrain -- "Lily, the caretaker's daughter" -- until the reader catches their meaning.

Richard Nelson's musical is less subtle. The line repeated in his version comes from Joyce's legendary final sentence, the one about "snow falling faintly through the universe," which has convinced so many people of the play's high position in the canon of English-language short fiction. Joyce managed a fine, controlled excess in the last cadences of his story, and sampling from that language risks cheapening it or making it sound absurd. (How can snow fall through the universe, anyway?) But the assumption is that theatergoers come to The Dead for a glimmer of the melody in Joyce's prose, so Nelson and his collaborator, Shaun Davey, give them what they want.

It's not a bad musical. The notion of turning a story by James Joyce into a Broadway show is so ridiculous that I need to admire how cleanly Nelson and Davey have pulled it off. Joyce wrote subtle, delicate, introspective prose, so you'd expect a musical to trample his sensibility more decisively than this one does. The story is about music, for one thing, with singing and dancing before the Misses Morkan sit down with their guests for roast goose; as such, the phony or melodramatic moments of breaking-into-song aren't frequent. But they are, it turns out, hard to avoid.

"The Dead" focuses on Gabriel Conroy, an Irish journalist and teacher who arrives at the Misses Morkan's Christmas party with a prepared toast. The Misses Morkan are his elderly aunts, Kate and Julia, who teach music to families in Dublin. It's Gabriel's role to toast them in some proper way, but the job unnerves him, especially after a loud guest named Molly Ivors accuses him of being a "West Briton" because of the newspaper he writes for. ("West Briton" is turn-of-the-century Dublinese for "politically incorrect.") Gabriel needn't worry: His toast is a success, if overlong and pompous. Later, his wife Gretta mentions a now-dead young man called Michael Furey, who died in the winter out of love for her. Gabriel's neuroses as "a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians" clash with the image of this romantic young Furey, and the last section of the story evokes his heartbreak and regret.

Nelson and Davey keep this plotless, Chekhovian framework, change a few details, and add a clutch of songs. The problem in making this a Broadway production is that most of the songs in the story are supposed to be embarrassingly bad. Aunt Julia has lost her singing voice; other characters lack practice or talent. Joyce gave the pre-dinner recital a quality of self-conscious, middle-class acting out, and watching the show struggle with this contradiction may be the best part of The Dead. Alice Cannon, who plays Aunt Julia, has a bright, strong, professional voice, but she misses notes on purpose in her excellent duet with Aunt Kate (Patricia Kilgarriff), called "When Lovely Lady." I assume Brandy Zarle can control herself onstage, but in the overbearing character of Molly Ivors she dances and sings too hard. And so on. The careful mixture of awkwardness and professionalism gives The Dead its charm.

Unfortunately, the main numbers ("Three Graces," "Michael Furey," and "The Living and the Dead") feel imposed on the story. Gabriel has no dramatic reason to break into song after he's delivered his toast, especially when the song itself just repeats his words -- but the show needs an anthem. So the whole company sings, "Health and be praised/ Our three graces," in counterpoint to Gabriel's lines about "years gone by." It's nicely written, but badly integrated.

An angry step-dance number called "Wake the Dead" would be a stirring change of pace if the live music -- especially Allen Biggs' percussion -- didn't sound synthesized. A reprise of "When Lovely Lady" with a blond young woman (who turns out to be the youthful spirit of Aunt Julia) is cheesy. Music fails to improve the story's final sentences; "The Living and the Dead" chorus caramelizes Joyce's prose.

Sean Cullen does powerful work as Gabriel. He gives us a solid, strong, still youngish man who bends his shoulders and holds his hands nervously close to his chest, making clever asides to the audience. Kate Kearney-Patch, as Gretta Conroy, can be cutting as well as nostalgic, which is perfect, and Paul Anthony McGrane is colorful as the drunkard party guest Freddy Malins. (Megan McGinnis also does well as Lily, the caretaker's daughter.) There's no lack of talent onstage, but the show succeeds only so long as it struggles between forms -- between the story and the Broadway spectacle. It's when Davey and Nelson rush straight to Broadway that The Dead goes high and soft.


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