Musical poverty: If ‘Oliver!’ can do it, so can ‘Angela’s Ashes’

Ellen Frey McCourt on the musical version of her late husband’s harrowing childhood memoir

Two decades after her husband published his first book, Ellen Frey McCourt still marvels at the experience. She had been married for two years to Frank McCourt, an Irish-American retired teacher in his mid-60s, when he finished writing a memoir of his Limerick childhood, entitled Angela's Ashes.

Within months, he had become a publishing sensation, selling millions of books and receiving invitations from the White House. “It would be like being put in a catapult and heaved into the sky with great velocity, because suddenly everyone wants Frank,” Frey McCourt recalls. “My life is very different because of him.”

It's like being in the mafia, you know, when Al Pacino says, 'You can't get out of it, they just pull you back in'

Her life now is very different again: Frank McCourt died in 2009, leaving Ellen a widow while still only in her 50s. But she has not been left alone with her memories, far from it.

The enduring popularity of Angela's Ashes means her late husband remains a central part of her life. "Yeah, it's like being in the mafia, you know, when Al Pacino says, 'you can't get out of it, they just pull you back in,'" she chuckles.

“Frank and I used to laugh about this, where I would say, ‘I’m not going to be the carrier of the torch, I’m not going to fan the flame and keep it alive.’ But in fact, you do have to husband the things people want to do. Because they want to do some crazy things sometimes.”

Crazy category

At first glance, a musical adaptation of McCourt’s account of his grim upbringing might seem to fall into the crazy category. After all, the book’s themes of grinding poverty, infant mortality, paternal alcoholism and the maternal suffering of the eponymous Angela – including a coercive sexual relationship – are not usually associated with a rollicking evening’s entertainment.

But Frey McCourt has high hopes for Angela's Ashes The Musical, which opens in Dublin in July before transferring to Limerick and Belfast.

Her enthusiasm for the project stems back to its origins as a student musical in Derby, when lyricist and composer Adam Howells and writer Paul Hurt asked for permission to stage the show. Frey McCourt flew to England to see the student production, and was impressed by its potential.

“One always thinks, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone with vision, like [the new show’s producer] Pat Moylan, would be able to latch onto this and really turn it into something,” she says, nibbling on a pastry.

The movie does not have the humour of the book, or that this musical has

It may seem like a grim premise for a musical, but Frey McCourt stresses that it will be different from the misery-laden 1999 film adaptation by director Alan Parker, who she feels was "too reverent" in his approach.

"The movie does not have the humour of the book, or that this musical has." Moreover, she adds, "if you think about it, was Sweeney Todd a good example of a musical subject? Or Oliver!, or Annie? There's a silver lining in each of these shows, and Angela's Ashes is really a story about a family triumphing over adversity."

Her own family background was “diametrically opposite” to her husband’s. Friendly and funny, with a disarmingly wicked sense of humour, Ellen Frey had a “very happy” childhood in southern California. “I was raised Catholic, but with the emphasis on raised.”

Mutual friends

Having studied theatre at college, “I discovered I wasn’t really terribly good as an actor”, and went into theatre management in Los Angeles, before moving to a PR job in New York. It was there, through mutual friends at the Lion’s Head pub in 1989, that she met the twice-divorced McCourt.

“I can still see this long, tweedy, houndstooth coat coming down the steps and this person appearing wearing an Afghan hat, and his voice booming out, ‘Are any of my ex-wives here?’ That was his opening gambit.”

Born in New York in 1930, raised in Limerick and resident in the States since 1950, McCourt was a literary “aspirant” when he met Frey, but had never published a book. After his marriage to Ellen, however, things changed.

We connected on so many levels, but when he talked about childhood, it was Dickensian to me

“We got married in August 1994, and he started writing that October. And from that point on, maybe because things were now kind of settled, he had the mental space, because he wasn’t teaching. And I suppose he had the emotional space to do it, because he wasn’t in a contentious marriage,” she says, with a laconic chuckle.

McCourt worked steadily for the next 13 months. Ellen thought the manuscript was "electrifying", but she also found it incredible. "Frank was more than 20 years older than I [was]. We connected on so many levels, but when he talked about childhood, it was Dickensian to me. So Angela's Ashes was a bit of an eye-opener for me."

Not just for her. McCourt’s portrayal of a Limerick so poor that hungry children would gather coal on the streets while their young siblings died in bed won over American readers but sparked a backlash in Ireland. Re-reading the book, the detail seems all too real (and the dark humour all the darker), but at the time Frey McCourt was stung by the “begrudgery”.

“I was indignant – ‘How dare they?’ Of course, what did I know. But there were people who legitimately had their noses out of joint, because they thought it was an unflattering portrait, of Limerick in particular. They would sniff and say, there was never that kind of poverty. But if you’re not seeing it and not living it, you don’t know it’s there.”

Life in America

But in general, things got much better for the McCourts. Frank won a Pulitzer Prize, and wrote two more bestselling volumes about his life in America, 'Tis and Teacher Man ("a wonderful book"). A self-described New Yorker, McCourt also became more at ease about his relationship with Ireland.

“Whenever we would come over, he would get a bit misty, because he was coming back this time without a chip on his shoulder,” Frey McCourt says. “Before that, he was all too aware of the shamefulness of having grown up poor.”

Perhaps most importantly, his book was hung alongside those of his New York writer friends in the literary pub where he first met Ellen. “That was his Nobel Prize, to get on the wall at the Lion’s Head,” she says, choking up slightly.

The late-blooming fulfilment McCourt found only added to Ellen’s grief after his death from cancer. “Right after Frank died, I found it difficult, because everyone wanted to celebrate him. So one could never really get away from it. It was a hard period of several years, of not being able to properly grieve because you were reminded of him at every turn.”

Eight years on, Frey McCourt is “less weepy”, but adds that “it’s not even that it really gets better – it just gets different. I miss him enormously.”

But she still feels his influence. Her background may be Dutch, but “my natural inclination is to be involved with Irish things”. Accordingly, she has been involved with Irish-American theatre, while literary and teaching prizes, Limerick museums and New York high schools have all been dedicated to her late husband.

In this context, Angela's Ashes The Musical seems like just another facet of his legacy.

“I would like it to have a life after its premiere here,” she says. Given how things have turned out for her so far, one wouldn’t bet against it.

Angela’s Ashes The Musical opens at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, on July 18th

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