Matters of Life and Death: The Dead Rises on Broadway

Matters of Life and Death: The Dead Rises on Broadway God knows the gravitational pull that got Christopher Walken -- of films like "Deadline," "The Dead Zone" and "Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead" -- into the company of James Joyce’s The Dead inhabiting the Belasco. This is hardly a horror show.
Sally Ann Howes and Christopher Walken in The Dead.
Sally Ann Howes and Christopher Walken in The Dead. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

God knows the gravitational pull that got Christopher Walken -- of films like "Deadline," "The Dead Zone" and "Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead" -- into the company of James Joyce’s The Dead inhabiting the Belasco. This is hardly a horror show.

Yes, the title did present problems. "We talked about it a lot," admits Richard Nelson, the musical play’s adapter, director and co-lyricist. "We didn’t want people to think it was about ghosts, and we didn’t want them to think it was about The Grateful Dead, so when it was suggested we call it James Joyce’s The Dead, we all thought -- for clarity’s sake -- that was the right choice. I don’t think any other titles were seriously discussed.”

"The Dead" is the longish, much-loved short story that climaxed Joyce’s first collection, "Dubliners," published in 1914 and depicting an almost idealized end-of-the-year party of the gaslight vintage, full of now forgotten treasures like shared stories and songs. In the play, the Angel of Death does hover darkly over one character, but for the most part, the emphasis is on life and living, and the piece ends with party guests and hosts alike, gathering in happy clusters, singing, "Snow will be falling/Falling softly upon the living and the dead."

"It winds up being a play about the living," Nelson underlines. "I think that’s the thing. It’s about how we live our lives and how the small things in our lives—the details of our daily lives—are really the basis of who we are. Very simple things in life often have very great meaning to us, but they aren’t celebrated in the way that, I think, our show does. Certainly, [not] in a musical. Usually, musicals celebrate the big things, not the little things."

James Joyce’s The Dead prides itself on being exactly life-size. Consequently, as Broadway musicals go, it’s markedly modest in its style and aims—a matter of holiday revelers hovering around a piano, helping themselves to a solo or a stanza or two. Music is the prime mover of the evening as well as the raison d’etre of the party, held in the home of three unmarried music teachers, the Misses Morkan—spinster sisters Julia (Sally Ann Howes) and Kate (Marni Nixon), and Mary Jane (Emily Skinner), the niece they raised who is now taking care of them. A visiting opera singer (John Kelly) is the celebrity ornament at their 30th annual Yuletide bash, and for political spice, there’s a tart Irish Nationalist (Alice Ripley). Family and neighbors include the elderly Morkans’ favorite nephew, Gabriel (Christopher Walken), and wife Gretta (Blair Brown), as well as the poignantly tipsy Freddy (Stephen Spinella) and his disapproving mum (Paddy Croft).

Quite a jolly lot, these revelers -- and, in the intermissionless 100 minutes that constitute the party, they lift their voices in freshly minted ballads and jigs, which Shaun Davey has composed in the idiom of century old parlor songs; then, he and Nelson raided some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry for lyrics to make the effect seamlessly sound alike.

"Shaun is, I think, one of Ireland’s great composers. He has a rich range of music—from Irish traditional to large symphonic works to film scores like `Waking Ned Devine.' We agreed very early on that we wanted to start with `realistic music' in the sense of music that people would be singing to each other at a party. It established the importance of music within the world of these characters, so that as time passes in our story, people begin to communicate -- express themselves -- in terms of music over the passing of time in the evening. The place of music actually has a growth, a progression, in the show."

Trevor Nunn, the British director for whom Davey and Nelson have both worked, introduced the two back in 1991, and the music almost started right then. "We started to think about what we wanted to do together right then," remembers Nelson. "Certainly, you think of Ireland with Shaun, and I had been wanting to write a realistic, almost-like-a-Chekhov-play musical. We thought of `The Dead' and settled on that."

They took their creative cue from the 1987 movie version of "The Dead," which John Huston masterfully directed with his daughter Anjelica as star and his son Tony as co-adapter. By the time the movie came out, Huston was among the dead himself, and the film was received (warmly by the critics) in the elegiac manner in which it was made.

"It’s a beautiful movie," Nelson admits, "but Shaun and I both realized that the story was quite different for us than the movie that Huston made. He was dying when he made it, and I think it’s very much about an older man who is dying. The story was written by a 26-year-old Joyce, looking at life in all the complexities that hold death and life together. `The Dead' is as much about life as it is the dead, so we thought we could do something quite different from that wonderful film -- something that would be very theatrical."

That, they did—plus it’s a show that reaches beyond the recent holidays—maybe even, he thinks, beyond the spring thaw: "It’s also a great St. Patrick’s Day show!"