James Joyce Gets Musical Treatment

Musicals about historical figures are having a moment, as a Jersey playwright brings light to the tumultuous love life of James Joyce.

Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor in Himself & Nora.
Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor in Himself & Nora.
Photo by Nathan Johnson

Jonathan Brielle is well aware that musicals about historical figures are having a moment. But the composer and playwright’s Himself & Nora, which premieres June 6 off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Manhattan, is no Hamilton.

“We’re very different shows,” says Brielle, 62, during an interview at the one-room schoolhouse that serves as his studio on 10 Hunterdon County acres he owns with his wife, Cherie King, the musical’s producer. “This show isn’t a modern view of things that happened then, and it’s not hip-hop. Ours is a contemporary pop score with a little bit of an Irish feeling.”

Still, Himself & Nora, about the love affair between the Irish literary icon James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, the chambermaid he eventually married, has its similarities to Hamilton.

For one thing, both have sturdy ties to New Jersey. While Hamilton recreates the famous 1804 duel in Weehawken that ends in the death of the title character, Himself & Nora got liftoff in the Garden State. Brielle wrote key scenes in his schoolhouse studio. What’s more, the musical was staged in 2013 in Rahway at (where else?) Hamilton Stage.

Brielle’s credits include the score for Broadway’s Foxfire and numerous productions at off-Broadway’s Circle Repertory Company.

The Jersey native—Brielle took his name from the town where he grew up—says audiences don’t need to know about Joyce to appreciate Himself & Nora. “It’s just about these two people that fight a lot and have great sex,” he says. “Totally relatable.”

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