Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor Bring a Portrait of the Artist to the Stage
The pair star as James Joyce and his wife in Jonathan Brielle's musical Himself and Nora
For the past 11 years, Matt Bogart has been playing himself. Well, not exactly "himself." In Jonathan Brielle's new off-Broadway musical Himself and Nora, he plays the Irish author James Joyce opposite Whitney Bashor as his wife and muse, Nora Barnacle.
Bogart has been with the piece since its earliest production, a run at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in 2005, and followed it to the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2012 and New Jersey's Hamilton Stage in 2013. Now, he's taking the stage at the Minetta Lane Theatre in the West Village, with Bashor (The Bridges of Madison County) as his Nora.
On a break from rehearsal, the pair sat down to discuss playing historical characters, reading Joyce's many novels, and developing a show for more than a decade.
Matt, you've been with this show since 2005. How has this piece changed in the ensuing 11 years?
Matt Bogart: Well, now I use a walker. [laughs] In the way of it changing, it's only gone deeper and [gotten] more complicated. Over the years, Jonathan has become a Joycean himself, even after having written it. He's always stopping to put the right kind of thought process in place before he changes everything.
Most of the music has stayed the same through the years. He's invented just a couple new transitional things that help us get from place to place musically. But all of the songs proper are the same since I did it in San Diego. I will say that the San Diego script was a big mess. It took a lot of work to clean it up to get it to a place where it was working. After that, we've had successful reboots. When they decided to do it at NYMF because of the response they got from that New York audience, they began to feel a true strong belief in the piece and what they have. I think that's why this also came to fruition.
Whitney, what was it that attracted you to the material?
Whitney Bashor: I love doing new work. This is my fourth new show in the past two years. Any opportunity to work on a new show, especially being in the city, is so rare and so exciting. I feel like getting a new show produced is kind of like a unicorn. I said this to Matt earlier; I was really drawn to the fact that he had been involved with the project since 2005. I think that speaks a lot to the piece and the people involved in making it, their loyalty to him, and his interest in the project. All of that was really enticing.
What is it like to come in to this material fresh and play opposite Matt, who has lived with it for so long?
Whitney: Everyone's been so welcoming. I've always felt like any ideas that I brought to it were very welcomed not only by Jonathan but by Matt. I know it's a tricky situation when other people have played the part before. You want to honor that and be sensitive to it, but really everyone has welcomed [my] putting myself into the part from the beginning.
Did either of you do any research to try and crack the shells of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle?
Whitney: There's a great biography called Nora, by a woman named Brenda Maddox. I read that book. Playing a real, historical person, it was important to know as much about her as I could. But Nora never read any of James' books, which got me off the hook for trying to read Ulysses. [laughs] I did read a little bit of Dubliners to get the tone of his work. Ulysses is a handful.
His books are very hard to get through, from a contemporary reader's standpoint.
Matt: That's how I feel about all of them. Portrait of the Artist is an easy one. Dubliners is tough. They're all tough for me, but I love visiting them. I'm lost in a little bit of the form and the colloquialisms he uses [but] I get something out of it every time.
Is there a challenge in having to modulate your performance for a different Nora?
Matt: It's easy. I've been really lucky throughout the years. Each person brings different things to the table, different strengths. We're at a very unique place, Whitney and I, with this new incarnation. It's intense, actually. It's very easy to do this with Whitney and not feel self-conscious. But it's harder, I would say, to find the negative side. She's such a great person I'm having a hard time finding why I dislike Nora. It's a challenge in a different way.
Matt, is it gratifying to finally be performing Himself and Nora in a full New York run?
Matt: Oh yeah. I mean, I left Jersey Boys. It's great to do a commercial piece, and feel secure in my job, and get to do a Broadway show like that one for so long, but I definitely needed to spread my wings and do something different for a while. That's the goal: to get to do your craft in New York City and work with great people. It's been great to see this go from a regional production to other workshops and finally have its life where Jonathan had hoped. I'm really happy that this came through.