With a title like The Dead, a show needs all the help it can get–even if it’s based on a noted James Joyce story that was turned into a fine film by John Huston. Well, this Tony Award-winning stage musical version of the property has gotten a healthy dose of assistance from some very fine actors. In writer/director Richard Nelson’s acclaimed production of what is officially called James Joyce’s The Dead, now playing at the Ahmanson direct from its Broadway run, no less than two legends of the stage and screen play the parts of the story’s turn-of-the-century Irish aunts: Marni Nixon and Sally Ann Howes.
“The L.A. audience gets some of the lines better than New York,” says Howes. “Whoever says this isn’t a theater town doesn’t know what they’re talking about, judging by the reaction to this play.”
And Howes has seen quite a few audience reactions in her day. The actress–who politely declines to give her age–says that her favorite role of all time is that of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which she played on Broadway as Julie Andrews’ successor. Her numerous other credits include A Little Night Music, Cinderella, Brigadoon (which earned her a Tony nomination), Paint Your Wagon, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, but she is probably best known as the aptly named Truly Scrumptious in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She has also done cabaret and television, and recently has been making the rounds on the lecture circuit.
According to Howes, “The Dead was sent to me by Jack Hofsiss [the show’s original director, later replaced by Nelson], and I was astonished that someone would think of me in this role. When you’re known for My Fair Lady and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, people don’t see you maturing. Yet there’s nothing more obvious in life than the fact that you have to adapt and change.” Based on the final story in Joyce’s collection Dubliners, and featuring a score by the Irishman Shaun Davey, James Joyce’s The Dead brings to life an array of complex characters in what is a very quiet, interior musical play. To further ensure authenticity, the show features choreography by another Irishman, Sean Curran. Set in 1904, the story takes place mostly during a family Christmas party, as personal realities and surprises are revealed in subtle ways.
Howes plays Aunt Julia, who holds these annual family gatherings along with Aunt Kate (Nixon). “There are so many facets to everyone’s story in this piece,” says Howes. “She’s the heart of the family, mad about music, and she’s been fired from the church choir. At that time, women were fired directly by the Vatican. The edict was, ‘There will be no women in the choirs.’ She’s a victim of political prejudice, and she’s lost her confidence. Only at the end, when she’s dying, does she realize her life wasn’t a waste.”
Whatever her age, Howes still has plenty of energy, as evidenced in ‘Naughty Girls,’ her duet with Nixon. “Julia’s about 78, so I have to be careful not to kick up my heels too much,” jokes Howes. ” ‘Naughty Girls’ gets a huge roar of laughter in L.A. I’ve always wanted that reaction. The dance comes out of a nostalgic toast by Julia’s nephew, Gabriel [Stephen Bogardus, in the role originally played by Christopher Walken]. She dances to lift the party back up.”
The Dead is a theatrical hybrid–more a play with music than a musical in the conventional sense. Interestingly, Howes sees the show as similar to My Fair Lady. “This has that same feeling that the book and music are equal,” she says. “Even in the great golden age of musicals, with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, the dialogue was minor in comparison to the music.”
Howes’ friend Marni Nixon is, or course, most famous for having provided the singing voices of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn for the film versions of The King and I, West Side Story and My Fair Lady. But her dubbing work was just one step in the evolution of a multi-faceted career. “I was first a violinist,” says Nixon, who grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena (near Pasadena) and now lives in New York. “I did straight plays at Pasadena Playhouse and bit parts in movies. Everything, including dubbing, was a way to make a living. And everything I touched became a career. As a teenager, I was singing the avant garde: Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others.
“I tried to keep up with everything,” Nixon continues; she even toured for a while as a sidekick to Liberace and Victor Borge. “Because of my career diversity, I’m having great success in the master classes I now teach. They keep me very much alive and needed.”
In The Dead, Nixon brings her Scottish ancestry (maiden name McEathron) to bear for her Irish role. She relates that she nearly returned to her dubbing roots while in the New York production: Nixon had a terrible cold and couldn’t stop coughing on stage, but Howes’ character is the one who’s ill in the show. It was jokingly suggested that Nixon hide offstage or behind Howes and provide her coughs, but co-star Emily Skinner came up with a solution for Nixon’s dilemma. “Emily gave me a little necklace with a tiny purse,” says Nixon, “and inside I had a cough drop that stopped the coughing immediately. Thankfully, I haven’t had any problems like that in L.A.”
The show has been as well received in L.A. as it was in New York. Nevertheless, Sally Ann Howes does have one suggestion on how to improve it. “The producers will hate me for saying this,” she ventures, “but it would be nice if wasn’t called The Dead!”