A woman stands center stage at the wheel of a sailing ship, built with two-story rigging, masts, and white sheets billowing in the wind. Within moments she leaps onto a rope ladder, swings down on the deck, and brandishes her sword to help the ship's crew fight off a dreaded enemy. But this isn't a Broadway version of "Pirates of the Caribbean." The character, Grace O'Malley, is based on the 16th-century Irish chieftain who defied the Navy of England's Queen Elizabeth I. Fittingly, the 42 performers in "The Pirate Queen," a new musical opening next week at the Hilton Theatre on 42nd Street, infuse their dance moves with Irish steps, to melodies that pulse with the strains of lilting Irish folk music.
If the musical seems like a first cousin of "Riverdance," well, it is. The show's producers, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, launched that Irish music and dance spectacle 12 years ago. Now, the duo is making a bold, not to mention expensive, bid to translate the aura of "Riverdance" into musical drama by telling the story of O'Malley's fight against the English subjugation of Ireland.
"After 'Riverdance' opened, the promoters asked us to do another one. We have a worldwide structure in place, but we asked ourselves, 'What could we do that's creatively challenging and satisfying?' " says Mr. McColgan, prior to a recent preview performance at the Hilton theater. "We are never driven by money; a Broadway musical was what we wanted to do," continues Ms. Doherty, who is married to McColgan.
The pair, veterans of Dublin television and theater, set about looking for an appropriate subject, "Something that would be from our history," recalls Doherty. "O'Malley was a strong woman – ahead of her time." The Irish leader, portrayed by Stephanie J. Block, inherited the leadership of her clan following her father's death and continued his legacy of menacing the British navy. When she was captured, the chieftan wrote to Queen Elizabeth (Linda Balgord) to request a meeting. After their encounter – which is portrayed in silhouette behind a screen – O'Malley was granted her freedom, her lands, and her ships "for the duration of her life-time."
Creating a musical with elements of Irish step dancing has proved to be as ambitious an endeavor as "Riverdance," which has attracted audiences of 18 million people around the globe and has four troupes still on the road. "The thing most challenging for us was to integrate the dance into the story," admits McColgan. One solution was to incorporate dancing into scenes such as a funeral ritual, a wedding, and a christening. The dancing corps is led by eight champion Irish step dancers who also have "Riverdance" credits. The other American cast members had to be taught the Gaelic stiff-postured patterns. "The modern dancers were so excited when they put on the hard shoes," says McColgan.
Also in the cast: Áine Uí Cheallaigh, an award-winning traditional Irish singer. The score was written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, the writer-composer team of "Miss Saigon" and "Les Misérables." "I sent them dozens of albums of old-style Irish singing," McGolgan says. The writers were hooked by the Celtic sounds and wrote the musical for Irish instruments.
After last fall's uneven try-out in Chicago, the show was retooled for Broadway. The question for the producers is whether the half-million hits to the production's website, ThePirateQueen.com, will translate into ticket sales. Doherty and McColgan, however, are satisfied with the musical's take on this significant chapter of Irish history.
"We tried to stay true to her story within the confines of a 2-1/2-hour musical," says McColgan.