The Irish-born performer, who now lives in New York, won praise on both sides of the Atlantic for his performance as an Irish barfly and storyteller in Conor McPherson's The Weir a decade ago. Since then he's scored an Obie Award for his work in A Dublin Carol and a Tony in 2008 for The Seafarer, both also by McPherson. Still, it's unlikely that anybody expected the actor to follow up those dramatic triumphs with a song-and-dance turn in a revival of that cherished piece of musical comedy malarkey known as Finian's Rainbow. But here he is, collecting more plaudits for this performance in the title role of the 1947 Burton Lane-Yip Harburg musical, including a notice in which the New York Times Charles Isherwood uncharacteristically misted up, writing, "I cannot think of an actor I cherish more than Mr. Norton." The Cherished One spoke to Playbill.com about his unexpected Broadway musical debut.
Playbill.com: Have you ever done a musical before this?
Jim Norton: Not really. I haven't done many. The last musical I did was at the National Theatre a couple years ago. It was a musical version of La Mandragola that Wallace Shawn wrote the book for. I did sing in that. But it's not something that I'm known for.
Playbill.com: Did you ever train as a singer?
JN: Yeah. When I was a kid, I had a very good soprano voice. I won a couple of competitions back in Ireland. That's really how I got into acting. I ended up doing a lot of radio shows as a child actor.
Playbill.com: Were you familiar with Finian's Rainbow?
JN: Very familiar. I've known the music for a long time. I actually first saw it in 1964 in Dublin. I was amazed when I saw it because I knew all the songs, because I used to listen to them on the radio growing up.
Playbill.com: So that score was very popular in Ireland?
JN: Oh, hugely. Playbill.com: What did you think of the plot when you first saw it?
JN: I accepted it, because in Europe there's the tradition of pantomime. Really, it's like magic realism. You don't analyze it too much. You just accept it, because each scene is so entertaining in its own right. So, I never had a problem with that. I think it's a very good example of an early, innocent Broadway musical, with a strong political theme running through it. Yip Harburg had very strong political beliefs. One of the things I read is he said he wanted to laugh discrimination out of existence. He didn't want to hit people over the head with his message. I think he succeeds very well with that. It's a very gentle message, but it's there all the time.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Playbill.com: You probably heard from people that, for a long time, that American theatre considered this musical impossible to stage due to the peculiar plot. But your production found a way. Was there a key to getting it right?
JN: I think Warren Carlyle is a genius. He has so many abilities. One thing he does is create a company that really cares about each other. In that way he reminded me of Lindsay Anderson, who said, "I can never work with someone I don't like." I think what he went for was the innocence of the show. We all respected it. We didn't try to upgrade it. It's not Sondheim. It's a very gentle 1947 musical. We reckoned that if we played it as truthfully as we can, we'd carry the audience along at a speed at which they don't sit back too much and analyze what's happening. Playbill.com: Do you sometimes feel you're called upon by New York casting directors to embody the nation of Ireland?
JN: Well, it does seem that way. That was never my intention. When I moved from Dublin to London at the end of the 1960s, I deliberately avoided playing Irish parts. I didn't want to be the token Irish actor. It was only when we did The Weir that a lot of people in the U.K. realized I was Irish. But I'm very happy to embrace those wonderful characters that Conor McPherson creates. I've done five projects with him. It really was a turning point in my life.
Playbill.com: What did you think of what Charles Isherwood said about you in the New York Times? It's unusual for a New York critic to wear his heart on his sleeve in that fashion.
JN: My manager read it aloud to me. I was very moved by that. I was surprised and delighted. As an actor, you don't expect to be cherished. And also I was just flattered that this man had actually noticed me over the years, and in many ways got inside my skin, because he realized what it is I try to do. Sometimes you do that, and nobody notices.
Playbill.com: What is it you do try to accomplish an actor?
JN: When I was asked if I'd be interested in doing Finian, I said yes, but I want Finian to be a real person, I want him to be organic. I don't want him to be one of those Disney Irish characters that we see so often on the American stage. I just try to be truthful.