Sally Hayden speaks to Sean Ferris, producer of the forthcoming historically based 1916: The Musical
“Divine Inspiration”: this is how Sean Ferris, the creative producer of the forthcoming 1916: The Musical, describes the moment when the genesis of an Easter Rising musical came to him – at a time when he didn’t even know what the Easter Rising actually was. If you’ve ever wanted to see Tom Clarke and Padraig Pearse singing and dancing in unison on the steps of the GPO, you’re in luck: the team behind this monumental conception plan on making the Rising a “360 degree experience”, including a concert tour, a documentary, a reality TV talent search and the “all-singing all-dancing extravaganza” that will crown it all when it hits stages in 2011.
It wasn’t by coincidence that otwo met Sean and his co-executive producer, Amadin Ryan, in the Shelbourne Hotel – it’s a landmark of the historical event, from which British soldiers machine-gunned rebels who were occupying Stephen’s Green. Though based in London, Ryan and Ferris are over here on an information-gathering mission, to discover the views of the Irish people. Both British, though Ferris’ mother was from Derry, otwo can’t decide whether they are incredibly clever, or incredibly naïve – or possibly both – to have taken on a subject as historically weighty as 1916 as an artistic project.
As an occasion that culminated in many casualties and deaths, that still impacts on modern politics (with anti-Lisbon posters last month declaring 1916 as the year that Irish democracy began, and with the recent renewed Programme for Government even mentioning it), otwo asks whether the producers, as Englishmen, fear animosity for their decision to turn this into a musical.
Ryan answers: “I would say it’s an international story; the Irish are all over the world. There are many subjects that have been brought up over the years. I mean, if you think about slavery, so many things have been done from the arts point of view, and yet this is still a contentious issue. I think if you’re telling a story it’s never too soon, there’s still going to be pain attached but that story should still be told.”
Ferris adds to this, “The Rising’s just in your face in Ireland, in Dublin especially. I mean, when I came for the first time I suddenly realised how important and how significant it was and how very sacred and controversial it was, but theatre is about freedom of expression. I’m not into doing safe musicals, I’m not into producing safe theatre; I’m into doing something that’s going to cause debate and a bit of a stir.”
The plot revolves around a British soldier and a feisty Irish girl who encounter love and betrayal to the backdrop of the Rising, but will also feature Clarke, Pearse and a touch of James Connolly. Not only this, but the casting of the two lead roles is to be done through a TV talent search, working title Stars in the Rising. Auditions will be held in five venues in Ireland and Britain, hitting TV screens in autumn 2010.
And then there’s the music, described by the producers in a way that sounds suspiciously rehearsed: “It’s definitely not Riverdance. Orchestral cinematic sound, a very full-on epic philharmonic symphonic sound, and I’m mixing that with raw contemporary Irish sounds, and bringing it out with a West End vocal, without any warbling but raw Irish natural voices, and mixing that all together to create an inspiring, totally unique sound.”
It is true that sometimes it takes a foreigner to approach a sacred cow. Though otwo feels slightly concerned when Ferris mentions that they want to stage some sort of centenary celebration in “your big GAA stadium” (Croke Park, where 14 Irish citizens died after being gunned down by Black and Tans in 1920), the commercial brains – considering the looming centenary – have to be noted, as well as the fact that nothing disperses tensions quite like a musical.
“We want it to be inspirational and give people an opportunity to be able to express themselves using this as the subject. You can look at the negatives, but you can also look at how far we’ve moved on. Maybe looking at it from this perspective will give new generations a better understanding of where they might like to go, and what they might like to do with that information.”
With a rumoured funding of €11 million so far and a 15 year roll-out plan, Ferris and Ryan are thinking mammoth: Broadway and West End. However, only time will tell whether this will be a commercially successful venture.
“You can’t stage something like the rising on a stage without it being epic, it just doesn’t work. 1916, although some people laugh and joke about it, was actually the catalyst for greater things to come.”
Register your interest at www.1916themusical.com to get involved.