Christopher Walken to star in musical version of "The Dead"

James Joyce's short story is full of old Irish airs, but scholars are skeptical.

Published August 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When John Huston began shooting his 1987 film version of "The Dead," many skeptics wondered if it would ever work. How do you take a gloomy James Joyce short story that focuses on its characters' inner conflicts and bring it to life onscreen? Now, in a move that may strike some as even more unlikely, a Tony-winning team is producing an off-Broadway musical based on the much-anthologized story. Joycean academics are already doubting that "The Dead" can dance.

Yale literary critic Harold Bloom wonders what the production will use for songs. "It strikes me as very odd," he says. "Joyce was such a very bad poet. He was not a lyric poet. But I guess it could be effective if they used traditional Irish airs."

Cornell English professor Daniel R. Schwarz gives the idea a less optimistic prognosis: "I have doubts about this project, notwithstanding Joyce's lifelong love of music. Musicals are usually more effective when dealing with the broad moral and emotional distinctions -- think of 'Guys and Dolls,' 'Cabaret,' 'Annie Get Your Gun' -- rather than with emotional intricacies."

The tale, about a group of old friends and relatives who gather at a Dublin party held on the feast of the Epiphany, is probably best remembered for its lyrical coda, in which the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, realizes his own insignificance. Despite the story's solemn tone, its scenes are filled with music and political discussion. The party's hosts, whom Conroy calls "the three Graces of the Dublin musical world," program the evening with various songs, including "Arrayed for the Bridal," "For They are Jolly Gay Fellows" and the old air that sends Conroy's wife into a fit of grief, "The Lass of Aughrim."

Backed by a creative team with formidable track records, "James Joyce's The Dead" is being directed by the Tony-winning Jack Hofsiss and produced by two-time Tony winner Gregory Mosher. It will star Christopher Walken. However, filmgoers who remember Walken primarily for his role in "The Deer Hunter" shouldn't assume that the dry-voiced, pale-faced actor was hired because his wan looks reflected the story's title.

"When I was a kid, Christopher Walken was one of America's leading classically trained actors," says Mosher, who was very impressed by Walken's vocal performance in the 1981 musical film, "Pennies From Heaven," starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. According to Mosher, Walken didn't audition for the part of Conroy. After reading the Richard Nelson book that Mosher had sent to him, an excited Walken offered his services and performed a few songs, written by "Waking Ned Devine" composer Shaun Davey, from the score. Before accepting the role, Walken reportedly had some minor second thoughts: "Sure you don't want an Irish guy?" he asked.

The musical will open on Oct. 1 at the Playwright's Horizon in New York.

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This recently in from the Hollywood Reporter: In another potentially strange casting move, Castle Rock Films is developing an untitled film about Sylvia Plath -- with Meg Ryan pegged as the possible star.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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