Riverdance founder and supremo John McColgan talks to Andrea Smith about his life in show business ahead of the opening of new show 'Hearbeat of home' in Dublin
'I'm in a state of excited anxiety and not sleeping as well as I'd like, and Moya is the same. We're both calm, but we're anxious. It's an expensive show to put on, and we've been working on it for three years, but there is so much riding on the roll of the dice. We won't know that we have a hit until we see the audience reaction on the first night."
I'm in the Westbury Hotel having tea with the very charming and acclaimed producer and director John McColgan (67), who conceived and created Riverdance in conjunction with his wife Moya Doherty. They are just about to launch their brand new show Heartbeat of Home and, given the events of the past 20 years, you can see why they are both anxious and expectant.
As everyone knows, Riverdance started off as a seven-minute interval act at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. It elicited such a positive response around the world that John and Moya turned it into a massively successful two-hour show, which still travels the world today.
"The 4,000 people in the Point jumped to their feet with a primal roar," he recalls. "It was an electrifying moment, and we knew that something very magical had happened. I think it was a case of alchemy and synergy, glued together by experience, where you had Moya producing it, Bill Whelan's amazing score, and Mavis Ascot creating the 'line' of dancers, which hadn't been seen before."
At one point, there were three different Riverdance companies crossing the globe and, to give you a feel for the scale involved, last Saturday in Killarney, drummer and percussionist Mark Alfred from Carrickmacross and lead dancer Caitriona Coyle from Galway became the 60th Riverdance couple to tie the knot.
While Riverdance was one of the biggest successes to ever come out of Ireland, John and Moya's production of The Pirate Queen didn't fare as well.
Expectation was huge, with the dream team of the Riverdance producers and a musical score by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, the duo behind Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.
However, it opened on Broadway in 2007 and closed after 85 performances and 32 previews, hitting John and Moya hard, both professionally and financially.
"The Pirate Queen was a great show, and l'm very proud of it, but we're in a very creative, high-risk business," says John. "The audience reaction was great, but the New York Times didn't like it and that sort of killed it. It was the wrong place and wrong time, I suppose, and it was painful – there's no way around that.
"It was like being in an accident where you have to go into a corner and lick your wounds and dust yourself down. You have to re-evaluate and reassess your opinions, and your confidence is knocked for a while, but then you heal and you have to believe in the next show. As Claude-Michel said, 'You get knocked down seven times, and you get up eight'."
John attributes his self-belief to the love of his late mother Annie, and you get a sense of how much he loved her too, and how her encouragement was the key to his success. After all, she supported him when he left school at 14, even though his father Barney was very disappointed and didn't speak to him for a year.
"I have eight younger siblings, and my mother provided us all with a lot of love," he says. "I remember she would tuck us in at night, kiss us on the forehead and say, 'I love you, a ghra'. It was a gift of love that stayed with me forever and, in some ways, it probably contributed to my naive belief in myself, which was entirely unwarranted when I was young. She always told me I was great and, even when I left school, she said, 'You'll always be alright, a ghra, I believe in you'. This allowed me to believe in myself, which was an amazing gift, and I was very lucky to have it."
John was born in Tyrone, and his family moved to Wexford when he was four. He loved his little primary school in Tombrack and did well in his primary cert exam, but when his family moved to old Ballymun in Dublin, everything changed.
He was put into an Irish-speaking class at St Joseph's in Fairview, but struggled with algebra and geometry as it hadn't been covered in his previous school. He also started Latin classes, and these were presided over by a lay teacher who ominously wielded a leather strap, striking fear into the boys as they were tested on their Latin declensions.
"I was so nervous one day, and every time I missed a declension I got a hard slap on each hand with the leather and had to start again," says John. "I got 12 slaps, and I remember that I didn't cry, but I grew very cold in my heart and thought, 'This is not right'. My fingers were so swollen that I couldn't cycle, and had to wheel the bike five or six miles home. And on that journey, I made a very calm decision that I wasn't going back."
He was only at the end of first year, so John's parents were very upset, and even when the Christian Brothers came to the house saying that he was a bright kid and offering to take him back for free, he still refused. "When I look back on it, I think I must have had some nerve, although it didn't seem so at the time," he smiles.
"My mother was very understanding, and I explained to her that I believed I would make something of myself, and would get a job and go to night school, which I did. I worked in factories, shoe shops and bars, etc, until I got a job aged 16 as a messenger boy in the old Radio Eireann on Henry Street."
At the time, John thought he would like to become an actor, and had joined the Young Dublin Players. He eventually auditioned for a part in a children's series on Radio Eireann and was successful, which is understandable as he has a gorgeously mellifluous voice, but he got fired from his day job as a messenger boy after his personnel manager observed him "fraternising with the actors". As luck would have it, he received a letter the very next day from the newly-launched RTE television station to say that his application to become a vision mixer had been successful. Thus began his 20-year career in RTE, where he rose through the ranks as cameraman, floor manager, producer/director and, finally, head of entertainment.
While he loved RTE and says that some of the happiest days of his life were spent there, John wanted a fresh challenge and left to go to London to work with TV-am.
"I tend to be impulsive, and I realised that I didn't want to get a gold watch from RTE," he says. "I felt I would be repeating myself there until I retired, so I went to TV-am, which was going down the toilet at the time. It had started off with big names, but it bombed and, by the time I arrived, it was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. For the first few weeks, I wondered if I'd get paid, but I didn't find it necessarily worrying, as it was exciting in a perverse kind of way."
John successfully turned the show around and spent five years at the station, rising up to weekend editor and controller of programmes. While he worked with people such as David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Anne Diamond, Chris Tarrant and Roland Rat, he and Moya decided then to set up their own company, Tyrone Productions.
John met Moya at RTE, and thought she was very beautiful, bright and extraordinarily astute. There was chemistry between them from the very beginning and they were married on Christmas Eve 1986.
Prior to that, John had been married to actress Virginia Cole, with whom he has two children, Lucy and Justin. He and Moya have two sons, Mark and Daniel, and he says that becoming a father was one of the great highlights of his life. His children range in age from 21 to their early forties.
"I was 21 getting married the first time, which is a little too young," he says. "In hindsight, it was not the wisest thing to do, and not to be recommended. Nevertheless, I have no regrets, as we have two beautiful children, and what happens happens, and you move on. My children and I have always been very close, and Moya was very good at facilitating that, because it wasn't easy in the beginning.
"Justin came to live with us when he was 17, and stayed until he emigrated to LA, where he is married and has his own business. Lucy is a freelance producer and is currently working in Tyrone Productions. Mark graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and works as an illustrator in New York, while Danny is an actor, and recently launched his beautifully illustrated graphic novel at ComicCon."
As a father, John says he was soft and possibly too lenient, which he thinks may well have been a reaction to his own father's austerity. Barney had been in the Irish army, and then became a manager at Philips in Clonskeagh. He was a very clever man, who was involved in local government and wrote very long and articulate letters to the Irish Times about all sorts of political issues.
"I think he felt that he never achieved his full potential, and that was an underlying sadness in his life," John reflects. "He was a sort of Victorian father in terms of discipline, and he was of a generation where some fathers felt it was their duty to put manners on you. So slapping would have been normal, or cutting a twig off a hedge to give you a little leathering.
"I do remember thinking, like Scarlett O'Hara, that, as God was my witness, when I was a father I would remember what it was like to be treated like that and would never do it to my own children.
"So the pendulum swings, and maybe I was too lenient, but I love my children and get enormous pleasure from them."
John's father passed away 10 years ago, and his mother died 20 years ago, following a car accident. She had serious head injuries, but seemed to be recovering and then, sadly, died the following month from a heart attack.
It was in January 1994 – right before the Eurovision act that would make her son world famous.
"My mother was very strong in a low-key way, and was the most extraordinary woman, with a great sense of humour," he says. "I started Tyrone Productions with three amazing women and, at one point, the women came to me and said, 'John, you're going to have to think about your recruitment policy. You're going to have to hire a man at some point'. It wasn't deliberate, but maybe I had a predisposition to favouring women because of the influence of my mother and my six sisters."
Right now, John is gearing up for the opening of Heartbeat of Home next week at Bord Gais Energy Theatre. It comprises world-class dancers choreographed by David Bolger and John Carey, and features the dynamic, vibrant components of traditional Irish, Latin and Afro-Cuban music and dance.
A 10-piece band will create a new and electrifying sound written by Golden Globe-nominated composer, Brian Byrne, with lyrics and narration by award-winning writer, Joseph O'Connor.
It will have its Asian premiere in Beijing immediately after its run in Dublin, and will commence a North American tour in January next year.
Fifteen promoters will visit during the Irish run to hopefully book the show and take it back to their territories, so it is understandable that John and Moya are currently enduring sleepless nights.
"I'm very proud of the fact that we have an all-Irish creative team, and world-class dancers and musicians and, while having the best team and the best will in the world doesn't guarantee a hit, I feel quietly confident the audiences will love it," John says.
The world premiere of Heartbeat of Home will take place at The Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin on Wednesday October 2. It will run for 21 performances only, with special price previews from Wednesday September 25. For details, go to www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie