A Man of No Importance, the musical, is a tender story of family, friendship, and acceptance that teaches us that it really is a wonderful thing to “love who you love.”
Winner of the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, A Man of No Importance is the second successful collaboration by the team of Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, all of whom won Tony Awards for Ragtime.
The play runs at the University Center for the Arts from April 26 to May 5. Tickets are available at csuartstickets.com.
Alfie Byrne is a bus driver in 1964 Dublin whose heart holds secrets that he can’t share with anyone but his imagined confidante, Oscar Wilde. When he attempts to put on an amateur production of Wilde’s Salome in the local church hall, he confronts the forces of bigotry and shame over a love “that dare not speak its name.” But the redemptive power of theatre changes his life and brings his friends back to his side.
“This story about innocence, ignorance, and real love is so beautifully written,” says Broadway veteran Noah Racey, CSU’s new musical theatre professor and director of the musical. “Alfie has this dream of what love is, yet he’s never been able to take part in it or follow that impulse.”
While exploring complicated sexuality issues of the era, the musical focuses on the universality of moving from unawareness toward self-realization. “Theatre has to be universal, and if it becomes about one moral compass or ethical dilemma that you’re trying to beat people over the head with, it stops being theatre because theatre has to reach and speak to the human heart first,” states Racey. “One of my favorite parts of what this show does is that it takes all [of us] universally on a trip, searching for that thing that makes us feel like we know who we are.”
Based on the 1994 Albert Finney film by the same name, the original story is bolstered by a gorgeous score, with beautiful songs and traditional Irish instrumentation that transports the audience to Ireland. A Man of No Importance is a rare gem in the canon of musical theatre, one that combines the depth and drama of a play with the lyricism and comedy of a musical.
Not your typical musical
A Man of No Importance isn’t your kick-ball-change-shimmy-shimmy-jazz-hands kind of musical, but a fully musicalized story. Even the scene shifts are a live-action component. “It’s really rigorous,” Racey says of the choreography that is incorporated into every movement, from repositioning a chair to crossing the stage. “Everything you do on stage represents your story and this kind of storytelling, where the movement never stops, takes physical awareness and a physical capacity that [the students] are embracing.”
Another rigorous element of the musical is the Dublin accent. Accent coach Paul Meyer recorded each character’s lines, creating a reference archive of the challenging Irish dialect. “The Dublin dialect is a ferocious animal in your mouth! To do it right, you have to wrestle with some difficult vowel formations,” exclaims Racey, who believes accents are an attitude, not just a sound.
Racey is thrilled with the actors’ energy and spirit around trying something new. “I heard from previous guest directors to expect it at CSU. It makes it easy to step in line with this and continue to build on it,” he says.
From Broadway to the UCA
For this production, CSU Theatre is benefitting from the expansive Broadway experience Racey brings to his campus directing debut, as well as the vocal coaching provided by Patty Goble, a member of six original Broadway companies who joined the theatre faculty in 2015.
When asked about the shift from being on stage to being behind the spotlight, Racey is positive. “I’m really enjoying the transition. I was equal parts on- and off-stage in New York the last couple of years, doing a lot of choreography and directing, so it’s not quite a new position.”
He does chuckle, however, about his proclivity for getting on stage while giving instructions. “It’s just how I work,” he claims. “Because I’m a physical actor, I have to go up and discover what they’ve discovered and find out what story they’ve been telling with their blocking and movement to say, ‘Oh, this is how this needs to change.’”
Racey continues, “I’m asking them to do things they’ve never done, and I’m doing things I’ve never done. We are all in the same position. I’m in a new place in a crazy, three-quarter thrust theatre that is really challenging to direct in, and I’m like, OK, let’s find out what this is. So, we are this little band of explorers!”
But mostly, Racey has found that semi-professional actors “get in their own head” about as often as professionals, and a cast of people standing on a stage waiting to be given direction are the same. Racey, who describes his job as standing in a room listening to people tell the truth and encouraging them to tell it more truthfully, says, “I’ve worked with the best in the world, but it is so much about attitude, demeanor, and people’s ability to be corrected or challenged to go deeper and bring something more that they didn’t know they had. And that’s why the work we do in theatre can be so challenging.”
We cannot fail to understand that theatre is a reflection of the human condition. In her career as an actress and singer, and during the last three years at CSU, Goble has also been a proponent of honest performances, instilling in her students the importance of respecting and facilitating a character’s journey. “These actors have been able to grasp the depth, honesty, and integrity of this piece at a new level,” she says. “We house the characters in us, and we allow them to come to fruition and truth. Through the work Noah and I have laid, [the students] have been able to establish their own paths to the truth of the story.”
Professionalism of CSU Theatre
With four large-scale School of Music, Theatre, and Dance productions at CSU this semester, the technical departments are running at full steam. Racey is impressed with the level of professionalism and attention to detail, stating that CSU Theatre productions operate like a regional professional theatre. “Nothing unifies like a musical because it brings all the areas together, and I have to credit the tech department for being built really well here,” he says.
In their junior and senior years, student lighting, scenic, digital media, and costume designers and stage managers take lead roles in an orderly yet creative way. “It sets them up for how it’s done in the real world,” says Racey. “Everyone is doing an amazing job and showing why CSU is such a great school with its interconnected, interdisciplinary, and interdepartmental coordination. It’s like where I just came from on Broadway, and I’m really excited to see it here.”
Art portraying art
A Man of No Importance references a work by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. In the 1893 play with a similar title, a Mrs. Arbuthnot, who made calculated choices about doing things out of the ordinary, like not getting married, was dismissively described as “a woman of no importance.” As Mrs. Arbuthnot was individually chastised for going against the grain, society tends to hypothetically agree that that’s where true, authentic living begins. “There’s this whole sense of ‘I’m unique, I’m individual, I’m authentically me,’” Racey explains. “We are all searching for that thing that makes us feel like we know who we are as an individual who is separate from everyone else.”
Throughout the production, against the backdrop of Catholicism, each character pursues their version of personal purpose and freedom, longing to have their heart touched, torn open, and even corrupted to an extent. As Alfie seeks his truth as a man, not just a sexual identity, he finds substantive release through artistic endeavors. Theatre plays a pivotal role in Alfie’s world, as well as the lives of his players, as they practice in the basement of their church.
“It is their chance to step up out of their lives and do an extraordinary thing,” Racey confirms, yet as they reach for something new, they desperately hold on to what they know — the comfort of their Dublin church community. Their conflict is palpable as one of the characters, Robbie Fay, declares, “There has got to be more than a pint and the Pope.”
I AM IN THE WORLD. THAT SHOULD BE ENOUGH. — Alfie Byrne; Welcome to the World
“Alfie Byrne sings this line at a pivotal moment in his journey,” concludes Racey. “All around the world people are finding their voices and asking that their existence be enough. Enough to deserve respect and dignity. We are all asking for our place in this world. May we find our place in offering others theirs.”