The producers of The Pirate Queen, husband-and-wife team Moya Doherty and John McColgan, talk to Cahir O’Doherty.
Between the first draft and the opening night the challenge of mounting a Broadway musical on the scale of The Pirate Queen is a high-wire act of artistic daring that few of us will ever have the courage or good fortune to make in our lives.
Prior to the show’s opening night I talked to its two Irish producers, John McColgan and wife Moya Doherty, in the sumptuous VIP room of the Hilton Theatre on Broadway.
“High risk, high rewards,” says McColgan with a smile. His wife nods. “There’s a very famous gentleman of the theater called Jimmy Nederlander,” she continues by way of illustration. “One day a perky young journalist asked him, ‘Jimmy how do you become a millionaire in the theater?’ He replied, ‘Well it’s easy, you just have to start off as a billionaire.’”
Joking aside, The Pirate Queen is an ambitious undertaking. In terms of its scope and scale it surpasses everything the successful producing couple have attempted before, even the multi-award-winning international phenomenon Riverdance.
“We asked ourselves what do we do to raise the bar after Riverdance?” McColgan admits. “We wanted to do something epic that was Irish, that was historical and something that was attractive to the best composers.”
The result is an exhilarating new musical with soaring melodies and spectacular set pieces that chronicles the life and loves of Grace O’Malley, the fiery Irish chieftain who stood up to Queen Elizabeth and the entirely male-dominated world of the 1500s. Despite the legends that persist about her, Grace O’Malley was not a mythological figure, but a real person, a fact that is foremost in the minds of the creators of the show.
“Grace O’Malley was a woman way ahead of her time. She and Queen Elizabeth were almost exact contemporaries. They were both the sons their fathers never had, and they gained power in an age when it was absolutely unknown for women to have power,” says Doherty.
The audacity of O’Malley, who took her ships to London to meet with the Queen to discuss British incursions in her Irish territory, was an act of courage and defiance that underlined her character in the show.
“The sheer madness of her visit is astounding,” comments Doherty. “Elizabeth has been dogged by this Irish woman who always fights and wins. Grace is outsmarting them all the time and is a thorn in Elizabeth’s side. And for her to sail up the River Thames in her ship was extraordinary. To write a letter to Elizabeth directly and to go over the head of the governor general seeking an audience with the Queen was extraordinary too.”
To bring a story of this magnitude to the stage was also thought by some to be “sheer madness.”
“We forget sometimes that it is an enormous undertaking,” says McColgan. “And if we’d known how hard it was we might not have bothered,” adds Doherty with a heartfelt laugh. “There aren’t that many theatre producers like ourselves – producers who are also the principal investors,” she adds. “Nowadays it’s the big corporations who are in the business of producing new musicals. And it may very well be that in the future it becomes impossible for an independent producer to mount a show unless they go the off-Broadway route with something small.”
The greatest challenge the couple faced was getting the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg to come on board. A Hungarian Jew who grew up in Brittany, Schönberg (who together with his writing partner Alain Boublil, created the legendary Broadway shows Les Misérables and Miss Saigon) was already very familiar with Celtic music.
Other accidents of fate helped them, too. Schönberg loved the idea of an ensemble with an orchestra that included ethnic instruments played from the heart. “The musical concept excited him, the pipes excited him, the bodhrán, the tin whistle – all those Celtic sounds. The idea of writing for that, the music that comes out of that landscape. That was probably the single most attractive thing, the catalyst that made him want to do it,” says McColgan.
“Schönberg would also say that he is a modern composer, not a composer of Irish music, and so you will hear very definitely the signature of his music,” says Doherty. “There are echoes of Miss Saigon. And then there are also moments when it is massively Irish in its sounds. He takes the fiddles and he weaves it into the score representing Ireland as a country.”
Says McColgan: “When you hear the overture I think it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. The sound of the whistle and the pipes is instantly evocative and moving. He’s a storytelling composer and to him the instruments are characters of Ireland, characters of antiquity. I think he’s done that well,” says McColgan.
The Pirate Queen role, they both admit, is an extraordinarily difficult part to play. “Vocally you have to be incredibly talented, skilled and strong,” says Doherty. “I think we have been incredibly fortunate in Stephanie J. Block [winner of the 2006 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actress] because she has a really powerful voice. With the new song at the opening of Act One, a song called ‘Woman’ – our composer now knows the voice he’s writing for – and it’s wonderful to see how that has helped the show.”
Speaking of the research she did for the part of Grace O’Malley, Stephanie J. Block is refreshingly candid: “I just did what everyone does these days – I googled her and found every book that had ever been written about her. I spoke in depth with our producers John and Moya, too. There’s not a whole lot of Irish documentation on her because she was a woman and such a rebel – and I guess at the time she was someone that Ireland was very proud of. But the English documented her meeting with Queen Elizabeth. I found that documentation really important – they got to the heart of who this woman was.”
In early previews in Chicago some audience members were a little confused by who was fighting whom. “It was a historical world that they did not understand, so we refocused. We had to simplify complex ideas and make them easier to grasp,” says McColgan.
“It’s a musical and not a history lesson,’ says McColgan wisely. “I think it has to be underpinned by a sense of reality, because these things did actually happen, but in a musical, complex ideas and themes need to be accessible.’
Doherty adds: “I think that we paint pictures of the O’Malley clan as pirates and fishermen and traders and that they are going about their daily lives and then suddenly there is a massive opposing force to deal with. Suddenly they are being stripped. There is one scene in the second act called ‘Surrender’ which depicts Irish chieftains effectively taking the Queen’s shilling because that’s the only way that they can save themselves. There is famine and starvation and their crops are shipped to England, including all the natural resources.”
“In the end we show the pyrrhic victory of Elizabeth giving O’Malley back her land and her ships for the duration of her life,” says McColgan. “It was a personal more than a political decision between two women. We know the Battle of Kinsale follows. Grace knew that, while she got everything back, as soon as Elizabeth died it was over. She won but it was over.”
Grace O’Malley died in 1602, just two years before the Battle of Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls. Alongside Hugh O’Neill in the north she was one of the last Gaelic leaders. Historian Anne Chambers, an O’Malley scholar, recently unearthed the Court documents that detailed O’Malley’s meeting with Elizabeth which showed that since neither could speak each other’s languages they conversed in Latin.
One of the issues that arose during the production was the reliance on English historical documents to recreate the history, costumes and conflicts of the era. When they looked at the 16th-century portraits of Irish chieftains drawn by Dürer, for example, they could discern an air of condescension, even a possible attempt to lampoon a people the artist had little in common with. “We had to create our own interpretation that was as free of an agenda as possible,” says Colgan.
The couple’s original plan was to open the show in Dublin and then go to the West End. But as they moved forward they decided that North America had been fantastic for Riverdance, being the place where most producers want to produce, because of the potential.
Says McColgan: “The world recognizes the Broadway hit as a brand that can travel anywhere. If you take the risk of opening in the most highly competitive shop window in the world, you can go forward.”
The biggest challenge still facing them is getting out the message that the show is in town and that it’s opening soon on Broadway. “With all the other shows that are vying for attention, how do you let people know that it’s coming to a nearby theatre? Again high risk, high reward.”
Grace O’Malley herself would have approved of their daring. To open on Broadway is almost unheard of today, and their cast and crew on the show were the first to tell them: “They said you’re like old-fashioned Broadway producers who have the heart, who develop and care about the project,” says McColgan. “They couldn’t believe that we were in the rehearsal room every day and giving input to every element of the show. Over the years on Broadway, producers have been subsumed and even replaced by investors. The moneymen are obviously important to the process, but we have a passion for this show that transcends mere financial investment. It means something to us; it has a unique voice and an integrity. It’s different from Mary Poppins, it’s different from Legally Blonde. It has a distinct cultural and creative voice that differentiates it, and that’s the hope that when people come in they’ll tell their neighbor and their other neighbor and then we’ll have a hit.”
Previews for The Pirate Queen begin March 6th at the Hilton Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street.
Moya Doherty and John McColgan were awarded Irish America’s Entertainment Lifetime Achievement Award for their continuing contribution to the world of entertainment. ♦