The new musical from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg rates a Mirren badge for the queens it gets on to one stage court. Indeed, Dame Helen won a 2006 Emmy as one of these: Elizabeth I — England's Good Queen Bess, who locked royal horns with her equally flamboyant, proto-feminist Irish counterpart, Grace O'Malley. Grace (Grania in Gaelic) was The Pirate Queen who led three galleons and 200 men against the English fleet during Ireland's fierce 16th-century fight for independence.
All of which is a long way from Paris, where Boublil, 66, and Schönberg, 62, first crossed paths 40 years ago. Schönberg's family had immigrated from Hungary, and Boublil came from Tunisia, but their backgrounds quickly melded into an appreciation of the same kind of music — which, it must be said, never before involved Gaelic pipes and whistles or Irish jigs. One wonders if they feel like strangers in a strange land on the Emerald Isle.
"No stranger than we felt as a 19th-century French fugitive or as an unwed Vietnamese mother — characters we had nothing in common with," Schönberg cleverly counters. "As long as we can deal with a character's humanity, we are not strangers. We understand it."
Good point, but Jean Valjean in their musicalized Les Misérables and Kim in Miss Saigon (the team's updating of Madama Butterfly) have a French connection — as does their 1996 Martin Guerre (which won the best-musical Olivier and toured the U.S.). The Pirate Queen came to them out of left field — a challenge, commissioned by the producers of Riverdance, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, who bought Morgan Llywelyn's historical novel, "Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas," believing that only Boublil and Schönberg could give the saga the soaring grandeur it deserved. The story of the pirate queen is the stuff of legend in Ireland but less well-known outside that country. "We were not starting on such strong ground," Boublil now realizes. "When you start with Les Misérables, you’re starting with the great Victor Hugo. When you work on Miss Saigon, you are working from the Puccini opera. You don't have to invent. You have to get rid of. You have to decide what you don't keep for the musical, and, depending on the choices you make, you get a good musical or not."
Lacking a classic blueprint, The Pirate Queen has had a pretty storm-tossed voyage to Broadway, with The Windy City blowing hot and cold on the show's launching last fall.
"We've never gone through this sort of thing before — never," says Boublil, smarting still from their first bitter taste of rewriting-on-the-road. "It was like all those stories you've heard about people in the old days doing out-of-town tryouts, dropping songs here, adding songs there. To me, that was madness. We had our shows done, ready to go, in London, and we only came to New York with shows already established in England."
Since their shows are largely sung-through, their big creative team-effort is at the outset. "We work together on the book, and when it's finished, I go off by myself and compose, and afterwards we exchange," says Schönberg. "But when I'm writing, spending days trying to find three notes of music, Alain doesn't have to be in the room — the same way that, when he's trying to find a title for a song, I don't have to be in the room with him."
"It is really the book that is the basis to everything we do, and I must say we had a little more work to do on the book before we considered it finished," Boublil confesses. "This is what we've been doing since Chicago." B.C., in fact: Before Chicago's opening, he and Schönberg sent a memo to the creative team criticizing their own work, anticipating much of the reviews that followed 20 days later, and outlining important changes ahead. "It was at that stage that Claude-Michel and I started rewriting, making the changes we wanted for New York. It was too late to change anything in the staging in Chicago."
Their book bore the brunt of the criticism, but almost all of the reviews had silver linings, encouraging asides to spur the creators on. The design team of Eugene Lee (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and Kenneth Posner (lighting) was praised for stepping up to the plate and making the proceedings properly spectacular, and the queenly clash of titans — Stephanie J. Block's Grace vs. Linda Balgord's Elizabeth I — pointed toward Tony possibilities, once the book focused more on the pair and supplied fresh lightning bolts.
In the four months since the juggernaut has been in the body shop for repairs, two proven hit-making pairs boarded The Pirate Queen. Director Frank Galati, a Tony winner for The Grapes of Wrath, waved aboard his Ragtime teammate Graciela Daniele to do the musical staging, and Richard Maltby Jr., who helped Boublil land Miss Saigon safely, has overhauled the book and lyrics ("70 percent," says Boublil). "In these collaborations, we are very lucky," admits Schönberg. "We have people coming on board at the right time for the right reasons, and they're coming so naturally and friendly at the same time."
Finally, after a choppy if not downright chaotic crossing, two Frenchmen trying to get their Irish up have found a calm, creative port of call. Les misérables, no more.