Wednesday 21 March 2018

Making music on broadway

It will be a bittersweet moment tonight for Mel Mercier as he steps out as a Tony Awards nominee, writes Ciara Dwyer, because the show he was involved with, 'The Testament of Mary', didn't finish its run on Broadway

Mel Mercier, composer and percussionist.
Photo: Tony Gavin
Mel Mercier, composer and percussionist. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mel Mercier, composer and percussionist. Photo: Tony Gavin

Ciara Dwyer

This morning, when Irish composer Mel Mercier wakes up in New York, he will be facing a strange sort of day. He'll probably take a stroll in sunny Central Park. Maybe he'll have a sumptuous breakfast in a diner, if his stomach is up to it. All the while the tension will be building. Later this evening he will put on his tuxedo and make his way to the prestigious Tony Awards Ceremony.

As everyone knows, the Tonys are like the Oscars of the theatre world. Mel has been nominated for one for sound design for his music in Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary – a one-woman show that tells the story of Jesus from Mary's perspective. The show is also up for two other awards – best show and best lighting. Whether Mercier and his colleagues win or not, it will be a bittersweet affair.

After five weeks of previews – which is the norm on Broadway – the play opened in the 1,000-seater Walter Kerr Theatre, just off Times Square, on April 21. It was due to run for another five weeks but instead it closed a fortnight later. Mel had already won a New York Drama Desk award for his work on the show but such accolades make little difference when it comes to the complicated business of surviving on Broadway. Also, it is a highly expensive affair.

"I think everyone felt that there was always a risk," says Mel.

The head of electrics in the theatre had told him that they didn't usually have this kind of show coming in and that it felt more like an art piece. It wasn't a typical Broadway show. Tourists trekking to The Lion King and Annie wouldn't flock to this play. Instead it needed the New York intelligentsia as its audience and a newspaper like The New York Times hailing it to the hilt. (Neither of these happened.) On the night of the first preview, there was a group of protesters – about 50, including a few priests, carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary, claiming that the play was blasphemous. Naturally, that drew some attention to the play.

The show starred Cork-born actress Fiona Shaw, who is renowned for her intense performances, and this was to be no different. Perhaps the protesters had heard that as Our Lady, she would be naked for part of the play. The piece was directed by her friend and long-time collaborator Deborah Warner. They are known for their original and often daring shows. (Mel has worked with them since 2000, when he composed the music for their production of Medea, at the Abbey Theatre.) Some of the reviews were good, but they crucially needed Ben Brantley in The New York Times to urge everyone to go see it. He wasn't sufficiently impressed and so that review, along with poor top-price tickets sales, resulted in the producers making a call on it. They decided that the show would not go on. And yet now it has three Tony nominations.

When I meet Mel in Dublin's Morrison Hotel, a week before he leaves for the awards ceremony, I ask what he would say if he won.

He tells me that he'd thank the musicians and the rest of the team. What? No bitterness about the early closure?

"I suppose it is bittersweet in a way," he says, "At the end of the day I'm very happy with the work. We all are. You try to do the best work you can but you don't do this work to win awards."

When I tell him that he sounds incredibly philosophical about it all, he explains that he has reason to count his blessings.

"I enjoyed it immensely," he says. "It was like painting with sound and the material was so rich. It's not often that you get a chance to underscore the Crucifixion or a miracle, like Lazarus rising from the dead."

Also, he got to meet some of his acting heroes who came to see the play; people like Meryl Streep – "She looks and sounds exactly like she does in her recent movies – very warm" and in the distance he spotted another film star whom he had a crush on for many years – Jodie Foster – "I couldn't get over how tiny she was." Glenn Close was there too. But even though the show closed early, he is happy with his lot.

"I've no regrets about it at all," he says, and then adds his indomitable positive angle, "The other way to look at it is that 50,000 people saw it. That's quite something." When it's put like that, no wonder he looks on the bright side.

Perhaps Mel's mature attitude to all this comes from his background. Growing up in Blackrock, Co Dublin, he was surrounded by musicians; not least his father Peadar, who played the bodhran and bones with The Chieftains. (In 1966 he was brought in when the original bodhran player David Fallon couldn't take time off his farm to travel with them. He stayed until 1976.) When Mel watched his father perform with The Chieftains, he noted certain things which would prove to be important life lessons; they were very focused and they behaved professionally long before they were professional. His father worked in Cramptons Builders in Ballsbridge for many years before he finally packed in the day job to become a full-time musician. He had reason to rely on his steady wage before he made the leap. He had to provide for his vast family.

"My father had two children from his first marriage," says Mel. "His wife died when she was young and then he met my mother, Nuala. He went on to have eight children with her. I was their second child and my brother Paul (the well-known playwright) was the eldest."

"People were often fascinated by the idea of 10 kids at home. They'd ask if we ate dinner at the same time and where we slept. It was never an issue for us. I suppose we must have had our meals all at the same time. The boys slept in one room and the girls in another. It was great. You always had people to play with and even though there was quite a range in age, we were quite close. We still are."

At home, Mel remembers watching his father playing the bodhran and the rhythm bones. (In informal lessons, his father taught him how to play them.) Peadar used to make both instruments.

"The Irish bones are often made of rib bones from a cow. I remember when there was sunshine Daddy would have the bones drying out in the back or he'd put them in the bottom of the oven. Every so often you'd see a goatskin soaking in the bath or buried in the garden with lime. This was for the bodhran. He was always playing with his friends and every so often The Chieftains would come and rehearse in our house. When they went away to make records it was very exciting. Daddy would come home with the first pressing of an LP before it was released and we'd get to play it."

Mel still remembers the excitement of seeing The Chieftains perform on Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test.

"You felt that you were in the middle of a revival. It was a very heady time."

But he tells me that it wasn't all traditional music at home. Mel and his siblings were also listening to T Rex and Slade.

Peadar eventually left The Chieftains and he was asked to perform a piece of music based on Finnegans Wake with the American composer John Cage and some other musicians. He asked if he could bring his son Mel and they agreed. And so began a happy period when Mel toured and performed with his father and those musicians. It was then that they became very close, as he got to know his father as a man and as a working musician. They were in tune with each other.

"It was a privilege to play with him. He was a very charming man."

Mel eventually went on to study music formally, first in UCC and later in California, where he discovered world music. While home on a summer break from the States, Mel's father died suddenly in 1991. He was 76.

The death came as a terrible shock to the family. "He was hale and hearty," says Mel. "He loved to play snooker and that's what he was doing that evening with one of his pals. Then he came home and died very suddenly. I think it was a heart attack. My mother was away on holidays in England at the time with my sisters. We found them and they got home quickly.

"Looking back, I'm grateful for the fact that he didn't suffer. But I say that at the same time as missing him. We had a special bond and that was also because I stayed in music. I'm the only one in the family who has followed him by making music my career."

As well as composing music and performing the bodhran and the bones, for the past 20 years Mel has taught music in UCC. Now he is the head of the Department of Music and Drama. He enjoys it immensely and believes that his university life enriches his composing.

"I always carry my father with me because I've been playing his bodhran. Last year was the centenary of John Cage's birth and some of the remaining musicians got together to perform the music we had all played together. It was the first time I had played it without Daddy. I felt his absence but then I asked if they could include a recording of his playing. After that I felt he was there."

Looking back, Mel marvels at how his parents managed to bring up such a large family.

"They were hard workers. It was a very happy home. We were well-loved. How did they manage to feed us? It was a remarkable achievement and I appreciate it even more so now that I have a child."

Eight years ago, Mel met Cork-born theatre producer Maura O'Keeffe. They had known each other to see in UCC but he tells me that he always thought she was too sophisticated to be interested in him. Years later, after their student days were long over, they met at a play in Cork. They clicked.

"It felt right," he says." We just knew. There was an ease about it and I knew I wanted to be with her. We married a year and a half later. We didn't get married to have children but a couple of years later we had our little girl Nora Kate.

"I'd always loved kids, but I got to a point where I thought maybe I wasn't going to have any of my own. Nora Kate's arrival was an unbelievable gift and blessing. She has changed our lives dramatically. You discover a particular kind of love which is unconditional. You only realise the depth of it when something lurches in your chest and you feel that you would do anything to protect this person."

Has she followed in his musical footsteps?

"She likes to put my bodhran on the ground and dance on it. She uses it like a trampoline."

Far from being vexed, he sounds like a doting dad. When Mel was in New York working on The Testament of Mary, Maura brought Nora Kate to see the musical Annie. Ever since, she has performed Tomorrow as her party piece.

"This morning before I left, she stood on the window sill and asked me to announce her. Then I pulled back the curtains and she sang Tomorrow." No wonder he'll never regret his recent spell in New York. The excitement surrounding the possibility of a Tony Award seems meagre beside his daughter's prize-winning performance.

Irish Independent

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