ELLEN McCourt can still vividly remember the first time she set eyes on her future husband Frank in a pub on a chilly December night in New York.
The Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village was a much-loved watering hole for the city’s writers, journalists and artists, visited by literary giants like Norman Mailer and musical ones like The Clancy Brothers.
That night, one young man who dreamed of being a writer dropped by.
“I was in the bar with friends and it was a cold December night. He arrived down the steps in this big black and white coat which I still have, surveyed the bar, and said: ‘Are any of my ex-wives here?’” laughs Ellen at the memory.
Along with mutual friends, they ended up spending most of the night in the city, visiting a falafel place and taking in New York under twinkling lights.
“I’m not sure I believe in love at first sight but I was wildly enthusiastic and very intrigued,” said Ellen. Regardless of their 24-year age gap they formed a bond.
“I loved that he was an original thinker, that he didn’t take many things too seriously.
“For Frank, the most important thing was kindness. He was a pretty good cook, very funny, easy to live with. We had a lot of laughs.”
When seven years after they met, in 1996, Angela’s Ashes was first published, it became a literary sensation. Now McCourt’s stories chronicling his tough childhood growing up in Limerick are about to come to the stage as a musical.
Angela’s Ashes: The Musical will have its world premiere in Limerick next month followed by a run in Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, and aims to bring to life the humour and candour, as well as the pathos, of McCourt’s writings.
Ellen believes her late husband would be extremely proud to see his novel brought to life in such a vivid form.
“I grew up in California and he grew up in Limerick, we were a world apart,” she said. “It was hard to imagine the stories he told, they were almost Dickensian and so different to what I knew.
“The manner in which the stories in the book were told really captured the world’s imagination. Everyone knew people of that generation, of growing up with no electricity and no running water, stories that paralleled, even if they grew up in other countries. It takes a real poet to tell it the way it was.
“What would Frank have made of the show? I know he would be enormously chuffed, astonished, over the moon in my opinion. He never imagined the book would have both the commercial and critical success that it did.”
Ellen will come to Ireland to see the show when it debuts. “I’m very excited, it’s a great idea. There is practically no subject matter that is not suitable for a musical.”
Ellen has been on board with the idea ever since legendary Irish theatre producer Pat Moylan — who’s been bringing award-winning shows like Stones in His Pockets and The Shawshank Redemption to Ireland, the West End and Broadway for two decades — mooted the idea as a play.
It emerged that a musical production was already under way in England, and that it was a very good one.
“About three and a half years ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine and we were talking about Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes and it suddenly dawned on me — wouldn’t that make a great play?” Moylan tells me.
“I called Ellen McCourt and asked if it would be possible to talk about rights. She said: ‘You won’t believe this but I’m going to Derbyshire to see a student production of a musical’.
“When she came back she said: ‘I think you should have a look at the student production of this musical. I hear Frank’s voice, and his wit, and his humour throughout the script and in the music’.
“I said to myself: ‘There is no way I’m producing a musical, it is too difficult. I know how hard it is’.” Still, out of curiosity she watched the DVD of the show, which was penned by Adam Howell and Paul Hurt.
“I remember being in my kitchen on a Saturday afternoon, looking at the DVD, and suddenly I thought: ‘This music is sensational. The script is making me laugh, and I never laughed at the movie’. It worked. It wasn’t shaped into a big theatrical production.
“I met these two wonderful guys and I’ve been working with them for the last two years.”
Paul, who wrote the story for the stage, and Adam, who wrote the lyrics and music, have become a successful team and are also working on Blonde, a musical about Marilyn Monroe.
“I came across the book because my mum picked it up on the way home from a holiday, and I got hold of it. I thought there was great humour in there of the Irish experience, particularly around that time,” said Adam. “Around this time I’d got into musicals. The scenes in the book kind of sang to me, so I started working on this series of songs.
“Paul and I ended up working together in Derby and Paul being a writer thought it an interesting idea. He didn’t laugh at me! Everybody else did. The story’s got such great themes of family and his survival through that hardship. There’s romance in it. How complex his father is because he’s an alcoholic but a great storyteller and father to the boys as well. It’s really about family, facing adversity. The language is so lyrical.
“Because Frank in our story talks to the audience he’s really able to break that fourth wall and invite the audience in.
“Musically it has an Irish sound, but I think it also has a contemporary musical theatre sound to it, and I think it’s that combination, the mix of the two things, that make it work but also pays homage to Irish music as well.”
Difficult as it is to bring an original musical to fruition, Pat Moylan was quickly sold.
“I’ve always done things because I love them, not for any other reason. And my passion for this is through the roof. This is something I really wanted, particularly when I heard the music.” In a low-key rehearsal studios in Dublin’s north inner city, Moylan, her team and her cast are busy bringing the show to fruition.
It’s a busy, lively show, full of energy and movement, and crammed with spectacular songs such as Sing River Shannon.
At the heart of it all is musical legend Jacinta Whyte, who grew up on our stages and TV screens before moving to London as a teenager and landing a part in Les Miserables.
She’s had a successful career as a concert and musical singer every since, her work has taken her all over the world, but she is thrilled to be back in her native city
to work on such a prolific project.
What is it like to play such an iconic woman as McCourt’s mother, Angela? “Oh God! Exciting, daunting, terrifying, rewarding. I read the book when it came out and I think I read it twice, I loved it so much. The film I wasn’t so keen on, because the pure misery.
“The best thing about the musical is that it’s as funny as it is sad. It’s very evenly balanced. To play a role like Angela, first of all this woman existed, she was real. And secondly what she went through.
“It’s going back to my nana’s era, the things that they all went through. It’s Limerick based, but it could have been any Irish mother.
“Also to originate a role is to make something from the page as an actress, although I always classify myself as a singer who can act a bit. It’s such a wonderful thing to be able to create a role and bring her to life from our imaginations.”
There was just a small musical theatre scene in Dublin when Jacinta left school, prompting her to make a big move to London.
She still lives in the UK with her husband, Stephen Hill, who is a conductor, and their son Callum.
Her work has brought her all over the world, but she’s overjoyed at the opportunity to kick off a new musical in her home country.
“I’ve been living in the UK since 1988. I went because there was no work here for me. I’d done as much as I could do here. I packed the bags, took £500 out of the bank, and off I went and started auditioning. I was very lucky, I went into Les Mis within a month the first time round.
“Coming home is always fabulous. And there are some great actors and singers in this company. I think it’s going to be really exciting. And that it starts here is quite special.
“I’m hoping that this story follows through and who knows where we’ll end up? I hope it has a life outside of Ireland as well, to tell the tale of what it was like in those days.”
A big draw for the actress was the opportunity to work with acclaimed director Thom Southerland, whose passion for the project in infectious. His credits include a highly successful touring run for Titanic and well as numerous West End shows.
“We’re setting the scene for what is Frank McCourt’s story. It’s been very, very exciting,” he says when we speak during a break in rehearsals. “The cast have been spending the first week learning this new material and learning all the songs, and now it’s about putting it on its feet and finding a language of how this story lives on stage.
“The story has so many elements to it. There are so many tiny vignettes, so many moments. when you’re looking at creating that as a musical you’re thinking how do we do that?
“We have to see this as Frank’s memory coming to life around him as he revisits the past.
“It’s like a memory that revolves around him and he’s swept up on it. We’re spanning twenty years, there’s a we have to cram into an already emotionally intense show.” There are great pleasures on bringing an original show to the stage for the first time, he says - but it brings many challenges, too.
“The challenge of this for me is to honour not just Frank’s story but what is the story of many, many people, many families. And not just in Limerick. The story transcends time and place and geography and speaks about anybody who’s ever felt oppressed, or felt that they’re stuck in a situation.
“Hopes and dreams and aspiration and ambition – to try and make a musical speak about something which is so universal, hopefully, is the big difficulty.”
Like most involved in the project, he’s used to people’s initial surprise at picking such a story for a musical. While people remember the movie adaption for the rain - and indeed, there’s a sequence involving umbrellas in the musical adaptation - Southerland strongly believes that any story with strong universal themes can really come alive through the power of song.
“I’ve, as a director, always tried to stretch the realm of musical theatre. In song, you can portray emotion far greater, and in fact in a far more condensed and quicker way than you can just by text alone.
“It has to be a musical, it has to sing.
“We have to sing about these times, we have to dance, we have to move. To replicate, and bring back the atmosphere of what this place was like.
“These people were absolute heroes, survivors, to fight to struggle every day to put bread and food on the table.
“So many of the cast have said: ‘I can see my mother, my father or my grandmother in this. I know who that person was’.”