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‘Dead’ man talking: Performance artist found voice on Broadway

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

The last thing John Kelly, a ranking "downtown" performance artist, expected to find himself doing as the new millennium dawned was playing a significant role in a Broadway musical. That, however, is precisely what occupied the New Jersey-born Kelly for the last several months, playing Bartell D’Arcy, "an opera singer," in Richard Nelson’s highly acclaimed stage adaptation of one of the greatest short stories in the English language.

"James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ " was supposed to run into the summer at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, but instead closed last week, the victim of sagging sales and a few crucial cast changes.

On an afternoon shortly before the show’s closing, as ushers inserted slips informing the soon-to-arrive audience of a couple of understudies who would perform that night, the technical crew did a sound check and checked the closed-circuit video monitors that enable the actors to see the music director as he conducts, no matter where they happen to be on stage. Kelly sat in an orchestra seat, waiting patiently for the checks to end.

"Jack Hofsiss, the show’s original director, had the idea that I might be able to do the part," " said Kelly, who had planned to leave "The Dead" early in the summer.

The closest thing to a full-scale musical in which John Kelly had previously appeared was "Miracolo d’Amore," created by director-choreographer Martha Clarke 12 years ago and produced at the Public Theatre to generally positive response.

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"As a singer," he said, "I’m a counter-tenor, which is to say I sing in the counter-tenor range . . . equivalent of a female contralto."

Toward the end of "The Dead," Kelly’s character, widely thought to have been based by Joyce, who was himself an avid amateur singer, on the Irish tenor John McCormack, ventures into the sickroom of Aunt Julia Morkam, one of the two sisters who are the hostesses of the party that is the subject of the play. He sings an "aria," written for the occasion by Dubliner Shaun Davey, who scored the musical. It is a mock Italian operatic aria of the sort that someone like Monteverdi might have written in the early years of the 17th century, precisely the kind of music that an esteemed visitor such as Bartell D’Arcy might come up with on short notice.

"I’m not a speaking actor," Kelly said. "I write, produce, direct, choreograph and star in my own work, so I’m pretty much able to do what I want to do, and when and where I want to do it, mainly in the not-for-profit world."

Until Kelly worked with Martha Clarke in "Miracolo d’Amore"

at the Public in 1988, he’d never had any formal training. "There was a musical director," he recalled, "and there’s where I got the first actual lessons I ever had. Before that, I was singing in clubs and in my own work, but I was totally untrained."

In a sense, he didn’t exactly crave training as such. "I knew who I was and I’d never wanted to go the legitimate route as a singer, because I feel as though I’ve pretty much invented my own voice," he said. "Obviously, there was some voice there to begin with, but I feel like I really brought it to life to suit my own needs, but I did want to develop a stronger technique, and to understand what technique was all about."

Kelly is from Jersey City, went to St. Aloysius Grammar School, Hudson Catholic High School and Jersey City State College, where he majored in art. He tried ballet at the American Ballet Theatre , but found himself, at 17 and 6 feet tall, too old and too big to start a career in ballet. He then returned to painting. "This time it was Parsons School of Design," he said, "for two years. Then I was just on my own for a while, painting and drawing."

Many talents

Along the way, he learned one of the lessons often acquired by artists who can do too many things at least reasonably well. "In our culture," he said, "it’s not appreciated. People want you to do one thing, and if you do more than one thing, they don’t quite trust you, or they think you’re spreading yourself too thin. We live in a very black-and-white, pigeon-hole culture. Do too much, and people question your integrity."

Kelly cites individuals such as Jean Cocteau and Leonardo Da Vinci as people who managed to do a lot of different things. "I think if you’re in touch with your sensibility," he said, "you can focus it on different crafts, and, maybe with some adjustments, infuse those crafts with your own particular sensibility."

Kelly said he began to come of age as an artist when he moved to the East Village in 1979. "It was an incredibly sexy, dangerous place in those years, with cheap rents and a lot of artists," he said. "I started in the East Village, I slaved away in restaurants in the East Village, and I hit my stride in the East Village, with all these incredible people performing."

It came as a shock to Kelly when he realized precisely how different his world was from the one the rest of the cast of "The Dead" inhabited.

"The irony is that nobody in this show has ever seen my work," he said. "Except for Stephen Spinella, who saw me do my Joni Mitchell piece," he added, referring to an act he does in which he performs the music of the Canadian-born singer. Spinella is the Tony-winning actor who plays the alcoholic Freddy Malins in "The Dead."

"None of the others," he said, a touch of sadness entering his voice, "have ever, ever, ever seen me work. There is a real schism between uptown and downtown sensibilities. Downtown there’s no money. Maybe that’s part of it. Maybe that’s a big difference."

"The Dead" wasn’t the only time that Kelly has worked with other artists on a communal project, but it was probably the first time he’s been a member of a group of performers who have bonded as tightly as has the cast of this intimate musical.

"I do ensemble work as well," he said. "Some of my pieces have 10 people in them, plus film and music, but the difference here, the thing that has been fairly new to me, is speech. I normally don’t speak in my work, because my training is visual art and dance, and I prefer to tell stories without speaking. I don’t feel as though I’m a wordsmith, particularly."

Kelly spent the last eight months surrounded by people who are extraordinarily adroit where words are concerned, and, working on "The Dead," were steeped in the words of one of the greatest masters of the English language. And yet it wasn’t only the words that have captivated John Kelly.

"Music has always made me nuts," he said. "If it hadn’t been for music, I never would have set foot on any stage, ever, anywhere. Music made me move. It just drove me crazy."

And now, the profoundly glowing music of "James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’" both the melodies of the great Dubliner’s words and those supplied by composer Shaun Davey, have echoed, replaced in the elegant old Belasco Theatre by silence.

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