Rain. Poverty. Death. Repression. Are these the ingredients for a hit musical? Absolutely, says theatre producer Pat Moylan, who is bringing Angela's Ashes: The Musical to Irish stages this summer, with ambitions of taking it thereafter to an international audience.
Posing for photographers on the Samuel Beckett Bridge on an unseasonably freezing April morning, to announce the show's two-week run at the nearby Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in July, Moylan, along with composer/lyricist Adam Howell and writer Paul Hurt, was ebullient about the prospects for the show based on Frank McCourt's global bestseller about growing up in poverty in 1940s Limerick.
It’s more than 20 years now since McCourt’s memoir was first published, going on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide and winning numerous accolades including a Pulitzer prize. But, aided perhaps by Alan Parker’s unremittingly grim and rain-sodden 1999 film version, it has become fixed in the public mind as the epitome of Irish Misery Lit. As Moylan points out, though, in the book itself the apparent bleakness of the story is undercut by McCourt’s writing. “There’s an awful lot of rain and grimness in the film,” she says. “But actually, when I read the book, it was the wit and the humour and the fun of Frank McCourt’s voice that came right through.”
Angela's Ashes: The Musical has been in development since 2012, when Howell and Hurt first staged it in Derby. Moylan, whose many theatrical successes include Stones in His Pocket, I, Keano, Alone it Stands and Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, had been exploring the possibility of doing a play based on the book when her attention was drawn by McCourt's widow, Ellen, to Howell and Hurt's show.
"We both thought there was a great story in it," says Howell. "Some people say: 'Angela's Ashes? They can't make that a musical', in the same way people thought they couldn't make Les Miserables a musical. I think people who are attracted by Frank McCourt and the book will appreciate it, but so will the people who say 'they can't make a musical out of that'."
"It's not a jazz hands, happy-clappy musical, but musicals haven't been like that since the 1930s. Think of Miss Saigon. The Phantom of the Opera is not a bundle of laughs and neither is Evita. What's amazing about Frank's story is all the different elements of family and emigration and it's a very human story."
Casting is currently under way – the show does not call for child actors, as adults play the younger roles, with the narrator stepping into and out of the story as it unfolds. Moylan says that there has already been "a lot of interest" from Broadway and the West End. "But I'm not making any promises," she says. "There's a recognition of the brand across the world. It's in the top 50 of the books which have sold most copies around the world. It's on the school reading lists in the [United] States. But this is a show I want to stand on its own two feet in Ireland. "
Angela's Ashes: The Musical will play Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from July 18th-30th and will also have dates at Limerick's Lime Tree Theatre (July 6th-15th) and the Grand Opera House Belfast (August 1st-5th)