Navigating Stormy Seas

The Pirate Queen at the Celtic Cafe


WLIW New York's exclusive broadcast of a new behind-the-scenes documentary of the making of 'The Pirate Queen' airs March 12, 2007 -- before the show opens.

In the DVD-drenched world, there’s no shortage of “Making-of” documentaries – but they’re usually found on, well, DVDs. They’re produced and released after a show has become a hit and there’s an established audience wanting to know more about something that’s already been accepted into the popular hearts. Tyrone Productions, the producers of the new musical The Pirate Queen, have released this one while their show is still a work in progress: it's in Broadway previews after a difficult test run in Chicago in 2006, for which audience reaction was mixed and critical response was mostly negative and in many cases scathing.

Which is all the more reason to watch the documentary, airing Monday, March 12, on WLIW21 New York at 9 pm Eastern time. Don’t get WLIW? If you have any interest in contemporary Irish stage shows, or in the Broadway stage, modern musical theatre, or the fascinating rarified world of theatrical production, try to find a friend who does, or make a friend fast. You won’t want to miss this, even if Pirate Queen itself sinks. And this is an exclusive broadcast for WLIW; unlike most PBS shows, there’s no guarantee you’ll have another chance.

Why should anyone care about a troubled production that’s had mixed response at best? The documentary, of course, represents the show as a brilliant piece of work and a sure hit – but it was produced by the show’s backers, and has been released prior to the official opening in a clear publicity move. And in the harsh climate of Broadway, there are no sure hits. Make no mistake: this show, like its protagonist, is fighting for survival.

Again, all the more reason to watch the broadcast, which will give WLIW watchers a truly unique opportunity to peek behind the scenes – not of an established hit spotlighted by glowing headlines, its financial future secure, but of a work in progress whose survival on the professional stage still remains to be determined. It’s always easy to exult over the details of a work that’s been hailed as an artistic triumph, but far more fascinating on many levels to consider a scrappy adolescent that may or may not prove to be a contender. Broadway is unforgiving artistic and commercial terrain, and it takes an extraordinary level of courage to challenge it.

Moreover, in the staggeringly expensive Broadway production environment, ruled by revivals and remounts of proven works, the presentation of an entirely new piece of theatre is the greatest challenge of all: and the most notoriously brutal reception is reserved for new musicals. Pirate Queen isn’t just a new work in the theatre, it’s an entirely new creation: unlike Boublil and Schönberg’s other productions, all of which have been based on established works. Les Misérables was an adaptation of one of the greatest works of French literature. Miss Saigon was an updated retelling of Madama Butterfly, a story whose “legs” have been well-tested by a century on the opera stage. Martin Guerre had already gone from case law to popular romance to big-screen success – and not even Boublil and Schönberg’s clout on the world stage could guarantee commercial success for their version; the show, which underwent emergency surgery after its West End opening, never reached Broadway.

Martin Guerre was some six years in development; Pirate Queen has been nearly as long. Although the collaborative process of theatrical development is often slow, pre-production that lasts for years is generally considered a bad sign. But on some levels, the delay has played into the hands of producers Doherty and McColgan. Thanks chiefly to Johnny Depp, pirates are the pop culture theme of the moment; and Ireland – Irish music and dance in particular – is still a hot commodity. Powerful female figures are hot, especially figures that combine historical fact with a fine aura of legend. What could be a surer hit than a musical about a genuine historical Irish Pirate Queen?

Which brings us back to the uncertainty of musical theatre in general and Broadway in particular. Even Boublil and Schönberg had their doubts about the show when originally approached. This is a team that usually develop their own projects, and had never before agreed to sign on to someone else's.

“We were saying no – and at the same time, Claude had composed half of the overture," Boublil explains to an audience of potential theatrical backers in the documentary. "So, instead of saying blankly yes or no, we said, well, we’d like to play you something that we think could be the basis of something which could become something . . . “

This choppy vagueness is characteristic of the first half of the documentary, a fairly standard collection of behind-the-scenes scenes and patchwork snippets of the development and production process, occasionally hopping to Ireland for a taste of history with Gabriel Byrne providing rather dour narration. Thankfully, the broadcast is free of the outright absurdities that made Riverdance: A Journey so peculiar among documentaries: there are no scenes of the production staff sitting around the boardroom table discussing financing, sponsors, and logo layouts. The brightest sparks in this section come from an all-too-brief segment on Eugene Lee, the set designer (whose passion for sailing made the project a dream come true), tantalising clips of the production on stage, and glimpses of the actors in and out of rehearsal. More is left unsaid than is disclosed: creative personnel are rarely identified, and the production’s groundbreaking decision to offer online “video diary” segments by "Castcom", an extraordinary leap into publicity 21st-century style, goes unmentioned until the second half of the documentary.

It’s the second half that really catches fire, as the production moves to New York – and faces its moment of truth over its chances for survival, although the broadcast puts a brave face on the need to overhaul the show.

“You can’t tell what’s going to happen till the last member of the cast comes into the theatre – and the last member is the audience, really. And they tell you what’s working and what’s not working – and they did,” John McColgan admits.

How well the show will work is yet to be known, but the documentary certainly shines. The backstage scenes become more intimate, more fascinating, less staged, the view behind the scenes becomes less cursory. There are more clips of the production on stage and in rehearsal, and the viewer shares the delight of the cast in their own roles and their camaraderie under fire. The extended development period is seen to have nurtured relationships among the actors, promising an added depth to the performance rarely possible in the hurried world of professional theatre. The passion of a cast and crew rededicating themselves for the long haul infuses the broadcast with excitement and energy.

In particular, Celtic Café regulars will be glad to learn that one change being made to the show is the addition of more Irish dance. This is a story of a male-dominated world, and the dancing is dominated by men’s hard-shoe pieces. Based on the brief scenes in the documentary, Irish dance enthusiasts can look forward to many now-classic motifs from the dramatic vocabulary that has been built up over the last decade of Irish show dancing: men’s hard-shoe vs. bodhran, hard-shoe dance-offs between sections of the men’s troupe, hard-shoe one-on-one duels between male principals, plus celebrational ceili numbers and dance used as an expression of community. There’s a promising rhythm number using oars as percussive staffs, and a pub-table-dancing scene that looks worth the ticket price by itself.

Whether the theatre-going public agrees that the show is worth the ticket price remains to be seen, as the revamped show faces its moment of truth. The message of the documentary is clear: the course is laid and the wind is fair, the ship is sound and reports of its imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. Pirate Queen already has a growing fan base, and if the overhauled show lives up to its promise, may yet come to rule the seas.

Click here for the press release on the broadcast.

Author: Louise Owen

Continuing Story

Poster for The Pirate Queen
Hadley Fraser (Tiernan) and Stephanie J. Block (Grace O'Malley)

photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of WLIW
Jeff McCarthey (Dubhdara) and the Pirate company

photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of WLIW