The Pirate Queen played in Chicago to packed houses and enthusiastic audiences and although it was acclaimed in Variety as one of the most successful out-of-town tryouts, in general the critical reaction was very mixed. The creative team also felt there was work to be done before the Broadway opening.
Alain Boublil: We didn’t go to the opening night in Chicago thinking our work was finished. We knew that although the show was the best it could be at that point, there was a lot of work still to be done, as someone said, “You don’t write a musical, you rewrite it.”
John McColgan, Producer: You can’t tell what’s going to happen till the last member of thecast comes into the theatre – and the last member is the audience. And they tell you what’s working and what’s not working – and they did.
Claude-Michel Schönberg: We knew what we still needed to do on the show, to rework and to rewrite it, in terms of the story and the depth of the story, to put more focus on the relationship of the two women, to develop the characters more fully and to heighten the love story.
Alain Boublil: Before going back to work you need to have new ideas and new blood coming into the mix of what you are trying to do. Graciela Daniele, a long time associate of the director, Frank Galati, took over the musical staging and Richard Maltby, who worked on Miss Saigonwith me, joined us for the substantial rewrite process.
Richard Maltby, Lyricist: The Chicago production was ravishing, with a sensational cast, a great story, wonderful music and a strong ending but at times the story was being told rather than us seeing the event itself. In Les Misérables and Miss Saigon it was action, action, action, with events moving the story forward, interspersed with moments when we stopped and heard from a character’s soul. So there was need for more dramatized scenes containing actions that happened before our eyes. It didn’t need to add time to the show, after all Les Misérables proved that showing events happening actually takes less time than describing them. In order for the scenes to become more active they needed greater complexity and more specific detail to avoid them seeming generalized. The Pirate Queen was more pageant-like and I didn’t feel it was as driven by passion as much as their other works. Passion translates itself into speed of story telling whereas in The Pirate Queen there were more set pieces and not enough stage action, which was a shame as Claude-Michel is a stunning theatrical dramatist. It was a hard show to do and we needed to concentrate on the story telling rather than grand spectacle, but I enjoyed working on this powerful story immensely.
Carol Leavy Joyce, Irish Dance Choreographer: The great thing about the end of every show in Chicago was listening to the audience reaction coming out of the theatre and absolutely everybody said they wanted more dancing. That was the challenge for coming into New York.
Graciela Daniele, Musical Staging: I love Irish dancing because of the extraordinary rhythms and I felt the show could take more of what it had, and build it in such a way that it would help clarify the story. I thought it was extremely important that we meet Grace O’Malley immediately and give her a little physical scene with her lover Tiernan, so that the audience gets to know them and roots for this woman as soon as possible.
Alain Boublil: Graciela Daniele made the Irish Dance sound like Flamenco at times – and that’s exactly right because it needed that kind of passion brought to it.
Summary of the major changes made to The Pirate Queen for the Broadway opening:
The name of the ship was changed from The Ceol Na Mara (Music of the Ocean) to The Pirate Queen.
Grania and Tiernan appear on stage at the very beginning, already in a relationship and kissing passionately.
There is a completely new song “Woman”, which Grania sings just before she boards the ship in disguise, and in which she forcefully rejects the role of a traditional woman that is being forced on her.
Her presence on the ship in disguise is more obvious as she is given frequent commands: “Boy! Secure the hold”, “Boy! Fill the water buckets” and so on.
Dubhdara’s relationship with Grania is tougher. Although he still adores her he is much stricter. After the storm he is furious that she has disobeyed him and feels she has made a fool of him. He agrees to let her stay, but only conditionally, until the end of the voyage, and he places her under Tiernan’s command.
Tiernan is overjoyed that Grania will be with him on board and wants to ask her father for permission to marry. But Grania wants to wait, knowing her position as a woman on board will be difficult enough.
After the first battle at sea when Grania proves her outstanding skill, bravery and leadership skills, Dubhdara promises to train her to be a captain.
The first battle is more stylized and choreographed than before and there is no model Galleon.
There is a new character, Chieftain O’Flaherty, Donal’s father. This gives the story an additional dimension and enables a scene where the O’Malley and O’Flaherty clans meet. There is considerable tension and edginess and the young men are on the brink of a fight when Chieftain O’Flaherty proposes that the only way for peace between the clans is for his son and Dubhdara’s daughter to marry and produce an heir. This is just one instance where the telling of what happened is replaced by an active scene.
After their anniversary Donal is told by his father that the English are attacking and he commands Grania to remain at home. She rails against her fate as a woman and sets off with the other women to fight. The song “The Woman That I Am” was cut.
The attack by the women on the English was changed from a fight to a brilliant seduction scene. Bingham is bested by Grania through her feminine wiles rather than by the sword.
The relationship between Elizabeth and Bingham was enhanced to bring in more humour and a degree of light flirting.
Donal’s character was further developed. He shows his arrogance when he first meets Grania, expecting her to kneel before him. When Dubhdara is dying he clearly expects to take over as chieftain and protests strongly when Grania is named as heir.
In the song “If I said I Loved You”, Tiernan and Grania now proclaim their love to each other instead of being on opposite sides of the stage each dwelling on their own thoughts of love.
When Elizabeth finally meets Grania, at first she is furious that Grania has left Ireland to visit her, and she is insulted by her presence, until Grania explains her mission.
The show now ends with Grania and Tiernan’s wedding and a reprise of “May God Bless The Bride And Groom.”
These are the specific changes made but there were also more general changes. Although there was only one completely new song there were many subtle and not so subtle lyric changes and a little more spoken dialogue. There was more dancing and a greater emphasis on scene instead of description. The story was tightened up and made clearer and the characters were further developed. There was more emphasis, too, on the way Grania railed against the prescribed role for women at that time and on the general women versus men theme, which even appeared at times in the choreography.
New York response to the The Pirate Queen:
The previews of The Pirate Queen at the Hilton Theatre began on March 6, 2007, with the official opening night on April 5. Each night there was an overwhelming response from the audience, who, on leaving the theatre had nothing but praise for the show. The critical response, however, was somewhat different.
All but a few critics were unanimous in their dislike and animosity towards the show, but often for different reasons, with such comments as: It’s a mulligan stew of a musical … an ornate but empty treasure chest. (Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News.), Abandon ship before encountering ‘Pirate’. (Clive Barnes, New York Post) or: It’s not that it’s especially bad, but that despite its dense action and wealth of conflict … for all its inflamed passions, it never ignites. (David Rooney, Variety)
Other critics believed that this type of big through-sung musical is simply outdated: The Pirate Queen registers as a relic of a long-gone era. (Ben Brantley, The New York Times.) or: This soggy melodrama does little to stir the pulse, to say nothing of rehabilitating the rusty image of the pop opera. (Eric Grode, The New York Sun)
While some critics made it clear that they have never liked Boublil and Schönberg shows anyway: The Pirate Queen is the latest bloated opus from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the duo behind Les Misérables and Miss Saigon; and the best thing that can be said about the new show is that it makes their previous ones seem like models of grace. (Elysa Gardener, USA Today)
There were the occasional good reviews such as: For Les Mis fan devotees, The Pirate Queen will be no disappointment. The stirring score once again inspires the under classes to rise up … The Gaelic undertones of the score are a welcome touch without being overdone, giving a soft lilting feel to the ballads. (Andrea Carpenter, New York Theatre Guide), and: Bravura performance and thespian fireworks. It may be the most beautiful musical I have ever seen. (Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star)
Meanwhile, Mike Murphy for The Irish Times, attempted to explain the generally negative response: The team who created Riverdance, John McColgan and Moya Doherty, have audiences rising to their feet nightly on Broadway in a wave of appreciation for a brand new show, The Pirate Queen. And it has been like that throughout the reviews at the Hilton Theatre. The official opening night last Thursday was no different. Those of us who have attended countless opening nights could attest to the genuine enthusiasm of the audience as they rose and cheered and clapped. The audience, mainly American, just loved the show.
But next morning the critics waded in. Having read the first batch of reviews I was struck as much by the vitriolic tone as I was by the overall negativity. Had we attended the same show in the same theatre on the same night? Were those who lauded what they had witnessed indiscriminating and naïve? Are there reasons for this critic/audience dichotomy?
When Riverdance arrived on Broadway a decade ago it was already an international phenomenon … a magical music magnet for audiences of all ages and cultures. The manner of its emergence had, in effect, by-passed the critics. Audiences had voted with ticket purchases, the critics and their reviews were largely irrelevant. They carried little, if any influence. Prior to Riverdance, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg had likewise paraded onto Broadway with Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, both already major hits on London’s West End and both eagerly awaited by theatre-goers in America. Again the critics were marginalized.
Then last week we saw the combination of eminently successful composers (Boublil and Schönberg) and producers (McColgan and Doherty) arriving in town – this time, ostensibly, needing a positive critical reaction. Was the temptation too inviting for the “wielders of the lethal pen”?
It would be both foolish and churlish to suggest anything remotely resembling a conspiracy. Or would it? The peccadilloes of human nature? Hubris?
So is there an alternative view of The Pirate Queen to that delivered by the critics? Yes, there is. The show is thrilling, pacy, sensationally costumed and choreographed and, in the main, brilliantly performed by the principals, especially Stephanie J. Block (Grace O’Malley) and Linda Balgord (Queen Elizabeth). This show is a crowd pleaser – a huge, swaggering, fast-moving, visually splendid Broadway musical.
Is the day of such musicals over? Did it all end in the 1980s? I don’t think so. The Lion King is still attracting huge audiences and yet not many of us can hum any of its songs. Certainly the current trend on Broadway is towards the juke-box musical … However, it would be a rash judgement to declare that audience numbers are diminishing for the big spectacular Broadway musical.
Can The Pirate Queen defy the critics and survive to become a long-running success?”
The answer to that last question sadly seems to be “no”, at least not on Broadway. However, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg have proved in the past that their stubbornness and belief in their material can overcome any predictions of doom, as they’ve done with Martin Guerre. They kept working and re-writing in the shadows both to improve the show and to re-imagine it from a different perspective, very often going back to the roots of what gave birth to the original project and trying to understand and eliminate peripheral influences which might have blotted out or perverted it during its journey from page to stage. For The Pirate Queen long discussions are now taking place between Alain and Claude-Michel in the same direction pending future projects.
Looking back to the opening night of Les Misérables in London in 1985, the reviews were just as bad, if not worse, than these reviews for The Pirate Queen. But the audiences made up their own minds, ignored the critics and proved strong enough and committed enough to ensure that Les Misérables became the longest running musical in the world.