Riding the wave of interest in all things Irish, the long aborning musical, The Molly Maguires, began a six-week New York City workshop May 3 and will culminate in June 8 and 10 presentations in New York City.
This will be the first chance for producers Bill Haber, with Kathleen Raitt, to see the musical drama -- about Irish coal miners protesting wages and conditions in 19th-century Pennsylvania -- on its feet with a new dance element: Irish step dancing.
Raitt told Playbill On-Line May 4 that the fact-based script was submitted to partner Haber last year and the producers were knocked out by the award-winning libretto by William Strzempek and music and lyrics by Sid Cherry.
The hope is that Molly Maguires will land on Broadway in 2000. Insiders say several million dollars are in place for a production, and that a target date of St. Patrick's Day 2000 is being eyed.
Begun in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop as early as 1990, the show has gone through many readings and workshops. Strzempek won the Ed Kleban Award for outstanding libretto for the project and Cherry was nominated for the BMI Jerry Bock Award for best score. The project won a Richard Rodgers Award which provided developmental money. The workshop itself is produced by Haber. A company of 25, directed by Dan Foster, is led by Ciaran Sheehan, the Irish-born star of Toronto's The Phantom of the Opera. "It's a serious musical that has wonderfully joyful, honest moments in it," Raitt said. "The Irish always seem to have an indomitable spirit."
She said The Molly Maguires is based on the true story of a man, James McParland, played by Sheehan, hired to infiltrate a subgroup within the Ancient Order of Hibernians in an eastern Pennsylvania coal mining town in 1877. The group, the Molly Maguires, has been sabotaging the mining operation to protest low wages and poor working conditions.
"[Employees] lived in company quarters and had to buy from the company store," said Raitt. "They were given scrip instead of money. The Molly Maguires were the frontrunners of the coalminers' union."
Sheehan plays infiltrator James McKenna, the pseudonym for McParland. Jane Bodle, late of Sunset Boulevard and Miss Saigon, plays love interest Mary.
Also in the cast are Karen Murphy (Zombie Prom), Martin Moran (Titanic), Chris Innvar (A New Brain, Floyd Collins), John Jellison (Titanic,A New Brain) and Ken Jennings (Side Show, Sweeney Todd).
The story is also the basis of the 1970 Martin Ritt-directed film starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris. Although the subject matter is dark, "there's a love story and a small child who is the catalyst in humanizing the leading man," said Raitt.
The Molly Maguires is not a pop-rock musical, but it does have pop elements, Raitt suggested. "It's a real, honest-to-God book musical," she said. "That's what's so attractive about it."
Raitt said although the show did have a small staging that played two theatres in Milton and Media, PA., outside Philadelphia in 1996, the collaborators have not had major shows produced in the past. If it appears on Broadway, as hoped, in spring 2000, it would be the writers' major debut.
"The reason we're doing the workshop is that Bill and I haven't seen it on its feet," said Raitt. "And a new element was added, a serious infusion of dance"
Joey McKneely (Smokey Joe's Cafe) is choreographing and the "serious infusion" involves Irish step dancing with the help of a lead dancer from Riverdance, the Irish entertainment phenomenon.
"We're doing the workshop to see it on its feet, to see if the dance element works, to show it to some of our friends and theatre owners (and) to see if we can continue the process," said Raitt.
Raitt's producing credits include The Scarlet Pimpernel with Haber and Pierre Cossette and The Civil War with Cossette and Pace. Haber's producing resume includes Titanic, The Iceman Cometh, Freak and more.
Designers attached to the project Eugene Lee (scenic) and Santo Loquasto (costumes).
Coincidentally, The Molly Maguires will have some Irish competition if it does emerge in early 2000: The dance sensation, Riverdance, is booked into the Gershwin Theatre for a limited engagement in the first months of 2000.
-- By Kenneth Jones