A new musical by the composers of Les Misérables passed us all by? Maybe it’s because it is one of Broadway’s most expensive flops of recent years.
Dramatic and romantic subject matter, two of the world’s most successful composers, the team behind the worldwide smash hit Riverdance – what went wrong?
Many music theatre fans will know that Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg followed up their massive hits Les Misérables and Miss Saigon with the much less successful Martin Guerre, which never made it to Broadway, let alone Australia. Less well known is their 2007 Broadway flop The Pirate Queen, which began life after a suggestion by Riverdance producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan.
Grace (Grania) O’Malley lived in the 16th century and was described as the most notorious sea captain in all of Ireland. Doherty and McColgan could see the opportunities for further storytelling through Irish dance while Boublil and Schönberg were drawn to the twin threads of Grace and Tiernan’s romance against a stormy backdrop and the complex rivalry of two strong women: Grace and Queen Elizabeth I.
The epic plot begins with 18-year-old Grace stowing away on her father’s ship The Pirate Queen, on which her childhood sweetheart Tiernan is a crewmember. Grace proves her place, particularly in battle. Following the sudden death of Mary Tudor, Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth ascends the throne and learns of Grace’s conquests. Grace’s father, Dubhdara, arranges her wedding to Donal to unite their clans yet Tiernan still vows his love.
Dubhdara is fatally wounded in battle and passes his chieftain ring to Grace, who dissolves her marriage to Donal by dismissing him. Donal betrays Grace to the English and in the ensuing battle he is killed and she is captured. Tiernan offers himself to Elizabeth I in exchange for Grace, moving her to release Grace. The meeting of the two powerful women is the stuff of legend. Elizabeth I grants Grace her ships and Irish land, where she returns with Tiernan whom she finally marries.
The transition from out-of-town tryout in Chicago to Broadway reveals some of the cracks in the armour of the musical. Richard Maltby was brought in to re-work the book and re-write some of Boublil and John Dempsey’s lyrics. Broadway choreographer Graciela Daniele (Once on this Island, Ragtime, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life) was brought in to supplement the choreography of Irish dance choreographer Carole Leavy Joyce.
The talented cast were not chosen for their marquee value. Stephanie J. Block (pictured above) had played Liza Minnelli in the Broadway season of The Boy from Oz in which all the attention was directed at leading man Hugh Jackman. Block had earlier suffered bitter disappointment when replaced by Idina Menzel a few months into readings of new musical Wicked in 2000. Happily, Block kicked off the first national tour of Wicked and later followed the setback of The Pirate Queen’s dismally short run with a year as Elphaba on Broadway. More recently, Block originated the role of Judy in the Broadway premiere of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. Unfortunately, this was another resounding flop.
English actor Hadley Fraser (pictured above) played Grace’s great love Tiernan. Fraser returned to England after The Pirate Queen and was seen on the world’s cinema screens last year as Grantaire in the 25th anniversary celebration of Les Misérables. Subsequently he joined the West End cast as Javert, where he continues until June 2012. Last weekend he took a break from Les Miz to take part in another high profile celebration: Fraser will be seen worldwide as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary staging, filmed at Royal Albert Hall.
Savaged by critics and completely ignored by Tony voters, The Pirate Queen’s high running costs and fast diminishing box office receipts led to the show’s quick demise. The Pirate Queen played 14 weeks and lost producers some 16 million dollars.
Success for the Broadway production would have certainly lead to a London season, where it would quite possibly have been received much more warmly. The mega-musical style of the 1980s has the gone the way of shoulder pads and acid wash denim. Still, there are some suitably stirring ballads and ensemble numbers. Maybe an adventurous company in Australia will one day take to the high seas and have a crack at The Pirate Queen.
Man In Chair previously presented: