MR riverdance steps up a gear
John McColgan is nervous, but excited... he's got a new dance project on the runway and he's eager to see it fly. Here he talks to Ciara Dwyer about the thrill of success, and the Broadway flop that was The Pirate Queen
In John McColgan's office there are several framed posters and awards for Riverdance, the world-renowned Irish dance show that he dreamt up with his wife Moya Doherty. By now everyone knows how it began – as a seven-minute interval piece in the 1994 Eurovision Show which Moya was producing. That night the international audience of 4,000 was enthralled – they leapt to their feet to applaud. Observing the rapturous response, Moya and John took a gamble. They developed the segment into a spectacular show with Bill Whelan's beautiful score. (It went on to win a Grammy.) Short of investors – and more specifically, three-quarters of a million pounds, they put their family home on the line, (even though it wasn't worth anything close to that), and took a deep breath
"It never stressed me really," says John. "Moya would say that I'm a big risk-taker, but I think she is the same. I knew that it would work. I think I know what an audience likes. I was trying to create something that made an emotional connection with the audience. You have to go with your instinct."
Riverdance opened in the Point Theatre in February 1995 – the five-week run was sold out within three days of the tickets going on sale – and then it went on to wow the world. Since then, over 23 million people have seen it live and it has played to a global television audience of two billion people. The world tours are relentless and, now, even the Chinese can't get enough of it. (Riverdance has just finished its sixth tour there.) The show is 18 years old and still going strong.
"We're extraordinarily lucky to be as successful as we are," says John. "It's been a lot of hard work but we care passionately about it and we're passionate about maintaining standards. Our motto is – every night is opening night."
Riverdance changed his life dramatically.
"It was a roller-coaster. You gain an enormous amount and you have to be grateful for that and then you give up a certain amount because it's all consuming, it's life-consuming. It's exhilarating, stressful and time-consuming and it does change your life. You wouldn't change it but at the same time it partially eats you alive because you're so busy. It's a huge machine to maintain. For the first four years I was on the road with it all the time."
But there were plenty of perks too.
"We built a beautiful house in Howth overlooking the ocean and we're still there. We've had a wonderful time there hosting dinner parties with family and friends. It's nice to share. We've tried to use our good fortune to support others."
They believe in philanthropy and have supported many arts institutions here – including theatres, galleries, and many theatre companies. John was reared adoring theatre shows and over the years he has produced magical tribute evenings to some of our legends – Eamon Kelly, Maureen Potter and Fred O'Donovan. There is a generosity of spirit to him in the way that he has honoured these people. And he has a great razzle-dazzle, show business instinct – we have him to thank for nagging Gay Byrne into doing his brilliant one-man show. (They worked on it together.) John McColgan may enjoy the fruits of the good life, but he wants everyone to be happy too. It's nice that he has stayed so grounded. That's not always the way when success comes.
"We've had homes in various places, which we no longer have. Now, we have a small cottage on the beach in Martha's Vineyard. Financially, we've had lots of fun. Some of the downside of Riverdance is that we were working together. You've all the stresses of work and you bring them home. That puts a strain on the relationship." The children – their two boys Mark (23), an illustrator and Danny (21), an actor – were very young at the time, so it was balancing home and work. (John also has two older children – Justin and Lucy – from his 10-year marriage to actress-turned-barrister Virginia Cole. He is very close to them all.) "In any big operation, there are crises, weekly crises – things like people getting injured. It takes its toll but I think we managed it well."
Indeed they have, and they look well on it. On the day I meet John, he tells me that he and Moya have been together exactly 31 years to the day. It all began on her 24th birthday, when they were both working in RTE – she as a reporter and presenter and he as a producer and the head of entertainment. He left a bunch of freesias on her desk to mark her special day.
"It wasn't meant to be romantic," he says. "It was a gesture for a work colleague, but that was the beginning of our dating."
As time passed, he left RTE in search of fresh challenges. He could see colleagues becoming cynical and institutionalised and he didn't want to go the same way until he was given the gold watch at retirement age. Instead he went over to London to work on TV-am and, months later, Moya followed him over, carving out a successful television career too.
"We married in London on Christmas Eve in 1986. Then we moved back to Dublin because we wanted to start a family and to raise the children in Ireland."
They are a dynamic couple. When Moya appears momentarily, an elegant figure in a beautiful bottle-green dress, the air is charged with her energy. John is 67 but he doesn't seem it. He is very fresh-faced and equally full on. He has worked since he was 14 and so, you might imagine that he would start to take it easy. (Yes, there is Tyrone Productions, their television programme company, to run but they seem to have a large staff.) With all those riches, why not loll about drinking champagne until his eyes bubble? Not a hope. They're at it again. They have dreamt up another big show – Heartbeat of Home – which will open in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on September 25 for 21 performances, before embarking on a world tour that includes Beijing, Toronto, Chicago and Boston.
Why do it? Couldn't he just rest on his laurels?
"I could and sometimes I wish I did," he says with a laugh, "but I've learnt so much from our Riverdance journey. We've a huge fan-base and I want to bring them something fresh. I want them to feel the same excitement with our new show – Heartbeat of Home. I enjoy this business and I enjoy creating shows and working with creative people. I'm at my happiest when I'm with composers, choreographers and lighting; when I can put a team together that I can excite and enthuse by a concept. In this business, you have to have a vision. You're believing in something that is ephemeral and you have to have a passion for what it's going to be. You don't know if it's going to work until it's up in front of an audience."
He is keen to point out that this new show is not Riverdance part two. Yes, there is music and dance but there is a new team and it has a different concept. He asked Bill Whelan to compose the music, but he was busy working on an opera. Now they have Meath-born, Golden Globe nominated composer Brian Byrne, along with choreographer David Bolger and writer Joseph O'Connor has written the narrative and lyrics. John has devised the show and he will be directing it, while Moya will produce it. Two years ago he saw the beginnings of this show in his head.
"My first thought was to create something that was a fusion of Irish music, with Latin- American and Afro-Cuban. It's about people who have left their countries and gone to a new world – it could be the Americas or Australia or Spain – and they create a new life and a new sound together. It is like The Gypsy Kings meets Moving Hearts. The cast of 38 includes a 10-piece band and dancers and singers. We will even be auditioning online."
Last October they did a 40-minute showcase in Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre for promoters from all over the world – including China, North America, Germany and Spain.
"They are mostly gentlemen of a mature age," says John. "Some had white scarves and one man had black and white shoes. It looked like a meeting for The Sopranos." Based on that slice of the show, which was very polished, the promoters were so impressed that they booked it. Hence the confirmed global tour before the show is even fully finished. It sounds like John and Moya might have the Midas touch again.
"It's a risk and you don't know if it's going to work," says John. "I'm nervous about it."
But risks are nothing new to him and not all his work has been deemed successful. In the Nineties, he was chairman of Radio Ireland, which was labelled Radio Direland, with its failing ratings, before he turned it around and helped rebrand it as the now successful radio station Today FM. After Riverdance, The Pirate Queen, their musical based on the Irish pirate Grainne O'Malley, opened in Broadway to an awful review in The New York Times and it had to close early
"I never want something to fail. I work as hard as I can to make sure that something will work. That show didn't work to the expectation level that we had for it, but I'm still very proud of it. If you look at any promoter in our business, a lot of people wear failure as a badge of honour. That's how it's perceived in the States. You get knocked down seven times and you get up eight. You learn from it."
But John has always listened to his gut. As a 14-year-old in school, his Christian Brother teacher whacked his hands with a leather strap for not knowing his Latin grammar. So swollen were his hands that he couldn't cycle home. As he pushed the bike the six- mile journey home, he vowed that he would never return to school. He wasn't bitter but simply clear about the direction of his life. His father was not impressed with this decision and didn't talk to him for two years. As the eldest of nine, he wasn't setting a good example for his siblings. But he stuck to his guns. Ever since, he has carried on listening to his own instincts.
"I believe in the sanctity of work. I started out delivering telegrams in the GPO and then I had all sorts of jobs. I worked in Saxone and Best's on O'Connell Steet. I was a messenger boy too. I never believed that those jobs were going to define me for life. I was a dreamer and I always believed that I was on the way to doing something, to being something."
He was right.
A world premiere from the producers of 'Riverdance' – 'Heartbeat of Home' – a music and dance spectacular. Opening October 2 at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre (special price previews September 25–October 1) 21 performances only. Tickets on sale from Thursday, March 21, at 9am. Tickets from €15 www.ticketmaster.ie In person at Ticketmaster outlets nationwide 24hr Credit Card Bookings: 0818 719300