Curtain comes down on Bryan Flynn’s inspiring life

Waterford-born theatre director Bryan Flynn passed away recently after a battle with cancer. Picture: Claire Keogh
Waterford-born theatre director Bryan Flynn passed away recently after a battle with cancer. Picture: Claire Keogh

Colette Sheridan pays tribute to the late musical director and legend of Irish theatre, Bryan Flynn.

FOR Bryan Flynn, the acclaimed musical director who died last Friday, the dictum by which he lived was that the show must always go on.

So much so that Waterford-born Flynn worked on his Cork Opera House box office-breaking production of Grease until the curtains came down three weeks ago. The slick production had been brought back following its first production last summer. Despite being ill, Flynn chose to turn up at work, making sure the show went smoothly.

In a life tragically cut short by cancer at 43, Flynn, a music graduate of Waterford Institute of Technology, packed a lot in, directing and designing over 80 productions. They included everything from Oklahoma, Chicago and The Sound of Music to 12 pantomimes for Cork Opera House.

One of the highlights of Flynn’s career was his original musical on Michael Collins. Gerry Barnes, former artistic director of the Cork Opera House, commissioned Flynn to create an original musical drama. In 2005, Flynn embarked on Michael Collins – The Musical which he developed over a three year period.

He created two other original musicals; a comedy about the GAA called The All Star Wars which premiered in 2011. His other original musical was Pentimenti — the show that brought him to the attention of the theatrical world 16 years ago. While working on this production at the Theatre Royal, Flynn began a long collaboration with musical director, David Hayes, who became a close friend. Hayes left his job as musical director of Riverdance to work with Flynn.

Devastated by his friend’s death, Hayes recalls a particularly happy occasion in Flynn’s life when he managed to meet his idol, Harold Prince, the American producer associated with numerous Broadway musical productions.

“Even though Bryan was ill at the time, he is glowing in the photographs that were taken that day,” says Hayes. “Bryan understood the enormity of the exchange. It’s incredible that he was able to meet him. It was like a business person getting to meet Bill Gates.”

Hayes was a huge admirer of Flynn’s high production values and “constant striving to stage shows that shouldn’t have been possible as they were so ambitious”. But he says that Flynn probably wasn’t recognised nationally to the extent he should have been.

“There’s a bizarre dichotomy in this country. So many children go through the whole stage school process and yet there isn’t a formal recognition of musical theatre here. One of the problems arising from that is that there isn’t the audience to justify the production values. But Bryan didn’t see that as an obstacle. He just made things happen. Together, we fought for whatever we wanted.”

One of his champions, CEO of the Cork Opera House, Mary Hickson, says that Flynn’s legacy lies “not only in the beautiful work he envisaged and brought to life but also his ability to recognise and enable the potential of so many talented artists. In every sense, he was an exceptional director; he took his role very seriously and invested hugely in everyone he worked with.”

As a testament to his popularity, Flynn was the subject of a show, Hey! Mr Director at the Cork Opera House in March 2013. The show, featuring a cast and orchestra of over 200 performers, celebrated Flynn’s decade of musical theatre at the venue. It was the brainchild of Cork Opera House line producer, Maria Young and was directed by Michael Sands and Trevor Ryan.

Actor and director, Ryan, starred in 13 shows directed by Flynn over 10 years. “I found him visionary and incredibly humble about his talent. It came so effortlessly to him. There was always an open dialogue between the actor and the director. He knew everybody’s name, whether you were a front line star or a child in his pantomimes. I did six pantos with him. Every single year, he knew every single child’s name even though there could be 50 kids in a show. He treated everyone equally.”

Opera singer Cara O’Sullivan played the Mother Abbess in Flynn’s production of The Sound of Music two years ago at the Cork Opera House.

“I’ve worked with a lot of directors both for theatre and opera. With some of them, you could be running around in circles. But Bryan was ultra clear about what he wanted. He is a huge loss to musical theatre in Cork. It will be a while before we realise just how much he is missed.”

Flynn kept his head down and “wasn’t into the carry-on that is often part of the theatrical world. That sort of thing wasn’t his style. He worked harder than everyone combined. I know quite a few musicians and actors and singers who would have lain down and died for the man. They absolutely worshipped him”.

O’Sullivan recalls the depth of feeling among the cast of The Sound of Music when Flynn was unwell. “I was singing ‘Climb every mountain...follow every rainbow/ till you find your dream’. Carol Anne Ryan, who was playing Maria, started crying on stage. We all became emotional.”

Flynn followed his dream, nurtured at the Theatre Royal, where, in an interview last year, he said he spent so much time. “I spent every waking moment watching everything from ballets to comedians and operas and musicals. I ended up loving the idea of telling stories through music.”

Bryan Flynn is survived by his two children, Ben and Ruby, his partner, Yvonne Cronin, his parents and three siblings.

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