The amazing technicolor Rising


The English creators of a musical based on the Easter Rising of 1916 hope it will do for Irish history what Les Misérablesdid for the French - once they can raise enough money to stage their revolution

1916 The MusicalLes Misérables

The musical is the dream of Sean Ferris, who would like it to do for the Easter Rising what Les Misérablesdid for the failed bid by French revolutionaries to overthrow the monarchy in Paris in 1832.

“Even though I was born in Essex, I feel Irish. It’s where the heart is,” says Ferris, whose mother was born in Derry and raised in Donegal and Tyrone. “It was so important for me to tell this story because it dawned on me that it was so sacred to the Irish.” Dozens of actors and back-room staff are giving their time for nothing as work continues to prepare the musical for an opening night now scheduled to take place in the Colonial Theatre in Boston in April 2012.

Ferris’s ambition is to take the production around the world after that. “We plan to bring it to London and absolutely stun the West End and then bring it to Ireland and get the Irish people behind it. At the end of the day it is their musical,” he says.

For now, however, the creators have to raise £10 million (€12 million) to get the work onstage, a tight budget given the costs involved. They insist there has already been “phenomenal interest” from investors.

“The decision was to go to Dublin first, but after several meetings there, it was decided that Boston was the best place because of the concentration of Irish in that area,” says Ferris.

“Right now, Ireland is so depressed. We wanted to help Ireland to come out of that, but they weren’t picking up on that. We wanted to go somewhere to protect the longevity of the show and get the Irish-Americans behind it, move it to Broadway, to London and then bring it to Ireland.”

The show’s progress has not been without incident. Much of the original score was rejected two months ago when John Cameron, who wrote the orchestral score for Les Misérables, was brought on board.

“All of the libretto is done but we are making adjustments. John . . . has been working flat out,” said Martin Cox, the executive producer who has worked with Mackintosh on a number of other productions.

Although few of show’s the spoken-word scenes were performed at the Irish Centre, nine of the songs were, including Now, I’m With You, a duet between Bridie, an Irish servant girl, and Harry, her British soldier lover, and Anthem, which brings all the cast onto the stage for the end.

“The nine pieces tonight represent about 60 per cent of act one and John has written about another 40 per cent. So we are about halfway. The ambition is to complete the music ready for workshopping by Easter 2011,” Cox says.

The protest held outside the GPO recently against the terms of the loans from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have parallels with the Easter Rising, says Ferris. “I believe now that the EU is effectively holding Irish sovereignty to ransom,” he says. “We want to focus Irish people on the fact that Ireland fought for sovereignty for a long time and we want the Irish to keep that.”

Cox, an Englishman, adds: “But this is not just for the Irish: Les Misis not just for the French, Miss Saigonis not just for the Vietnamese and Evitais not just for the Argentinians. 1916 is not just for the Irish. If it was, it would be a problem.”

In 1974, when Cox was a student in a boarding school in Surrey, he used to sneak out of the dormitory to go to nearby Guildford. He was there on October 5th when the IRA bombed the Coach and Tram and the Seven Stars pubs.

“I’m 53. I remember the Troubles,” he says. “We were there on the night of the bombings. We used to have to do patrols for bombs around the school grounds. There are a lot of English of my generation who think of Irish history only in those terms.

“What I have learned since I have been on board this is that there is a whole other strand of Irish history that we are never taught in England, which is what happened prior to, and after 1916,” he says.

In the musical’s current format, narrator Stephen McGann offers a potted version of Irish history, travelling quickly from the 1798 Rebellion through to the Famine of 1839-45 and its coffin ships when “God brought the potato blight, but the English brought the Famine”. Some in the audience wince but the majority applaud.

When asked about its political message, Ferris is unapologetic: “The aim is to tell the story as it happened. We don’t aim to ‘British bash’, but we aim to tell the story and if that British bashes then that is the story.”

Asked the same question, Cox offers a more nuanced answer: “Are they English, or are they non-English? They will both have different views. I would explain it in the broadest sense, that this is a love story set during the Rising of 1916 in the way that Dr Zhivagowas a love story set in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

“By positioning it in that way, we don’t want it to be perceived by the English, particularly, as a rallying cry for either loyalists or republicans,” he says.

“We are not putting any kind of spin. We are definitely trying to avoid that because we want this to be a product of healing.”

1916 The Musicalis due to open in the Colonial Theatre, Boston, in April 2012

First impressions: 'Clearly, the show is targeting Irish-Americans'

FIRST IMPRESSIONS can be an unreliable indicator of the finished product when one is looking at a work-in-progress, but 1916 The Musicalseems to have a long way to go. It does not yet have a song that will live long in the memory of audiences as does I Dreamed A Dreamfrom Les Misérables.

Some of the song book is formulaic: the lovers’ duet; the lonesome lullaby solo of the hero’s best friend, along with the all-singing, all-dancing number called The Clap Song, which casts doubts on the sexual cleanliness of British soldiers.

The historical narration, coupled with images of cottages being burned and British militia behaving abominably, would certainly have made Celtic Tiger Ireland cringe, even if it might be greeted with more of a welcome now.

Clearly, the show is targeting Irish-Americans and the images of coffin ships and emigrants destined for paupers’ graves may strike chords with them that may not be matched elsewhere.