The Jig Is Up

Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

And now for Ireland, the musical. Though the Irish have contributed their fair share to the century's list of distinguished playwrights--from J.M. Synge and Sean O'Casey to Brian Friel and Hugh Leonard--the Irish stage musical has remained a category waiting to be filled. Even "Riverdance," the new step-dancing sensation that comes to the Pantages for 21 performances beginning Nov. 15, is a breed apart, a musical whose story is told chiefly through dance yet whose star is its composer, Bill Whelan.

"Riverdance," a hit in Dublin and London in 1995 and New York's Radio City Music Hall earlier this year, might be said to be a nontraditional musical based on traditional Irish music, the sort once relegated to the quaint venues of folk dancing and pubs where Guinness stout is served. Except that what Whelan has done in the way of rhythm and orchestration has remade the music into something else again. He's taken the jig and the reel, for example, and rewired them with time changes and timbres altogether modern.

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Whelan is nothing if not versatile, having worked with Irish pop stars U2 and Van Morrison, done film scores and written music for the musty plays of W.B. Yeats at Dublin's historic Abbey Theatre.

"People say 'Riverdance' is not traditional music," Whelan says. "It isn't. It's new music, apart from one piece. All I've done is used the forms of traditional music. But as long as you respect the fact that it comes out of a place that's very special and old and expressive of a history and a culture, then I think you should feel that behind you like a wind in your sail and feel that you can move forward and not that you have to be so careful that your own expression just dies."

As he spoke on a visit here last summer, Whelan had just taken a look at the Pantages stage for the first time. He pronounced it "just great" to a man from the Nederlander chain that owns the building. He was pleased that there's plenty of room at stage right to build a platform for the show's 15-piece band (including traditional Irish instruments like the uilleann pipes and bodhran, as well as electric keyboards and guitars). He was also pleased when he craned his neck and looked up to take in the theater's two balconies and 2,700 seats, because with a cast of 85, "Riverdance" needs all the seats it can get.

"There is a big, big salary bill," the composer says. "There aren't a lot of theaters where it can work."

He needn't have worried; as of a week ago, about 75% of the seats for the 17-day run were sold out.

The show is still running in London at the Hammersmith, a cavernous rock hall. The company coming to Los Angeles is the first touring company, arriving here after a return engagement in New York and a run in Chicago.

It all began with a six-minute song that producer Moya Doherty commissioned in 1994 from Whelan for the annual European song competition known as Eurovision. The song, which remains in the show as the title piece, segues from a stately chorale into a racing reel for uilleann pipes and percussion that recalls slightly the 28-year-old Mason Williams hit for guitar and orchestra, "Classical Gas." "Riverdance," the single, went to No. 1 in Ireland after its release.

Much of the show's music is purely instrumental, with only a few vocal turns. The numbers are designed primarily as the framework for the various groups of dancers to act out what is loosely the evolution of Irish dance (and by extension, Irish culture itself) and its influence on other countries. The step-dancing, or hard-shoe, hard-kicking style of tap that feverishly expresses the lower body while keeping the torso in a state of improbable calm, is essentially traditional--though pumped up here by eight choreographers to unprecedented volume and exuberance.

"So much Irish dance is not meant for theater," Whelan says, remarking on the novelty of what he and his collaborators have done. "It's meant to be done in a room or a pub. It's not meant to he expository. It's more internal."

Or it was until now.

"It's an impressionistic approach. We're not telling a story in a conventional sense. It's not a love story. It's like a journey, and then the homecoming. That's it."

The journey is simply the story of the Irish diaspora, the massive emigration from the island after the potato famines of the 19th century. In the original Gaelic, or native Irish tongue, the title "Riverdance" means "Water of Life," Whelan says.

"These native people were forced, for political and social reasons, to move away from their place and go to another place and interact with other cultures--to be exposed to other cultures and yet keep their voice at the end of it all," he says. "It's about the trading that takes place in cultures and how much we influence each other. If you listen to Appalachian music, you know where that came from [the British Isles], but it never comes back quite the same. Something has happened to it out on its journey. I mean, Irish music is now performed with drums and jazz rhythms and all that kind of stuff."

After the original song hit No. 1, Doherty and Whelan reconvened and imagined a larger work, bringing in Doherty's husband, John McColgan, to direct and work with the choreographers. Their imagining was fueled in part by the long-simmering revival of both Irish folk music and dance.

"What's happened in the last 20 years," Whelan says, "is that folk music has moved from very much a rural occupation that smart city people didn't involve themselves with to a position where most Irish people are now somehow or other defining themselves in terms of their relationship with traditional music. It's phenomenal."

And the same for step-dancing: "There's a fairly deep vein there that seems to be producing an unusually large number of very fine young Irish dancers, people who have devoted their youth to learning the art. Surprisingly, because in fact when I was growing up, Irish dance wasn't something that was particularly popular. We listened, you know, to the Beatles. But you didn't do Irish dance."

And it's not just in Ireland that Irish dance has stirred such interest. The two principal dancers in the original company, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, are Americans. (Flatley has since left the show in a contract dispute, but Butler has remained.)

"The most amazing thing to me was the English experience," Whelan says. "Because, you know, obviously there are many, many more Irish in America than in Ireland, so I always hoped and believed that America would respond well to 'Riverdance.' I wasn't so sure about the U.K. I thought that once we'd played to the Irish audience in the U.K., it would not cross over. But that has not been the experience. It's not an Irish audience [in London] anymore."

Whelan, 46, grew up in Limerick on Ireland's west coast, exposed to a broad spectrum of music from an early age and influenced by such writers across the sea as Jimmy Webb, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. His mother was a classical pianist and his father a folk musician who played harmonica. After he graduated from the University of Dublin with a law degree, Whelan tossed the degree aside and went immediately into music, struggling to support himself as a songwriter and session keyboardist.

"My own writing got somehow swept to one side in my attempts to earn a living in the industry in Ireland," he says, noting that the industry was considerably less developed then than it is now. "I can remember when there was one 16-track studio, that was it. Now there are a whole collection of 24-track facilities, U2 and Windmill Lane [studios]. We've got hit records being made in Dublin. It's unrecognizable from what it was 15 years ago."

Whelan worked increasingly as an arranger and also found a role for himself as a liaison with Hollywood, persuading Elmer Bernstein and other film composers to record in Dublin with Irish orchestras. U2 manager Paul McGuinness approached him to produce a couple of tracks for the band's "War" album. He collaborated with Van Morrison on the film score for the 1985 independent movie "Lamb," starring Liam Neeson as a murderous Irish priest and based on a novel by Bernard MacLaverty, the author of "Cal."

"It was a very tough film," Whelan says. "Van wrote the title music and then I went down and scored the picture. But he and I worked together quite a bit, and then ultimately I put a band together for him and did a little touring.

"In 1990, I had a kind of 'Road to Damascus': I said to myself, 'What am I doing? I've been producing a lot and arranging a lot, but my own writing has been put on the back burner.' I was playing with Planxty, an Irish traditional band, and I was very keen to marry traditional music with orchestras."

Subsequently, he wrote two large orchestral suites, "The Seville Suite," performed in Spain in 1992, and "The Spirit of Mayo," for a symphony orchestra and 200-piece choir, which was performed in Ireland. He also became the musical director of the Abbey Theatre, composing music for 15 plays by the late father of the Abbey, poet W.B. Yeats. In 1992, Whelan scored a stage musical version of Leon Uris' grand Irish novel "Trinity" for a New York workshop production. (The producer still hopes to take it to Broadway.) He has also done the score for the upcoming Helen Mirren film "Some Mother's Son," about the hunger strikers in Belfast jails during the 1980s.

But it is "Riverdance" that proved Whelan's breakthrough. Besides the single reaching the top of the charts in Ireland (No. 9 in Britain) and the show selling out in London, a video of the show has sold more than 2 million copies in Ireland and Britain. When the CD was released in March, it entered Billboard's World Music chart at No. 1, and a 70-minute version of the two-hour show aired recently on PBS.

There are those who have questioned the music as being neither purely Irish nor purely folk. To this Whelan says: "I believe that Irish music, the tradition, is so robust, so strong, you can sit and hear somebody play a slow air on a tin whistle and it can move you, but you should equally be able to take that out and express it in a contemporary way without damaging the tradition. Otherwise we just restate the past.

"I'm part of a group of composers living in Ireland now using Irish music as a springboard for their creativity, as the source for their inspiration, which really wasn't done." He mentions the names Shaun Davey and Micheal O'Suilleabhian. "Orchestral writers were always looking toward the Western European classical tradition. So now, we're trying to define where we are. It's not rock music and it's not classical music, and yet it's orchestral music."

The wide-ranging sound of "Riverdance" stretches from the bass rumble of ancient Celtic drumbeats, moody and meandering lines of the dirge-like uilleann pipes to urgent attacks of modern electric violins and guitars. (And through much of it the sound of all those purposeful shoes talking to the floor.) Reflecting the music's travels, Whelan has incorporated Eastern European, Spanish, Russian and American idioms as well.

"There's a commonality ultimately," he says. "If you listen to Bulgarian-Macedonian folk singing as performed by someone like Marta Sebestyen, if you were in the next room you would think it was Irish singing. And obviously the Celts wandered all over Europe as well. Even some of the Middle Eastern chanting is very like stuff you'd hear on the Aran Islands [off Ireland's coast]."

While the cast and members of the band include Americans (notably virtuoso violinist Eileen Ivers) and other foreigners, the show is largely of and by the Irish and so is a matter of pride as a cultural export.

"I think Irish people regard themselves as Europeans more than they did and seem more confident expressing themselves on a world stage," Whelan says. "They don't necessarily feel that you have to make it in England before you make it anywhere else."

Whelan, who lives in Dublin with his wife and four children, has watched the city grow from musical anonymity to the place the Rolling Stones, Kate Bush, Nanci Griffith and so many other established artists want to record. It's all a bit much to comprehend for someone who once thought of leaving the country because there wasn't enough work.

"I love Ireland," he says, "but there were times when things were really tough, when I considered having to live elsewhere."

Time, as it turned out, was on his side. By refusing to join the Irish diaspora, Whelan stayed around long enough to dramatize it for the rest of the world to hear.

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"Riverdance--The Show," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Nov. 15 to Dec. 1. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. $46-$66. (213) 365-3555.

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