Roz Crowley

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Cian McCarthy – from Cork to Broadway and the West End

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It’s the hottest ticket in London, already booked out until May at least, The Book of Mormon has just opened in London’s West End Prince of Wales theatre. Irishman Cian McCarthy is at the hub of it all and has been part of the nine TONY award and Best Musical winning production on Broadway and its US tour.

Television programmes such as Glee and competitions such as How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria has brought musical theatre to a teen-plus audience. Add in South Park writers with clever musical innuendo and good, old fashioned big, belt-it-out numbers and the new rock and roll is born.

The Book of Mormon satisfies on all fronts. Composed by Bobby Lopez who co-wrote the score to Avenue Q, another Broadway success, the really big names that have kept the show on Broadway for two years are South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone who together wrote the libretto and collaborated with Lopez on the score. Their irreverent humour is unlikely to disappoint in the unusual tale of two Mormons brought together to spread the word in Africa. Broadway reviews suggest that while cutting, it could also be seen as an ‘affectionate’ look at this minority religion.

As Music Director, Cork man 28 year old Cian McCarthy has been seconded from the Broadway production and its first USA tour to oversee its conversion to the London stage. “I sit in the auditorium and make sure the sound is what it should be, that the composer’s intentions are on stage and that the jokes land as they should every night,” he says. “It’s not always as easy as it sounds”. Daily rehearsals echo a punishing regime during its run in New York. There are always performers coming and going, understudies to get up to speed, performers to keep motivated as they tire of the routine. No bother to the energetic McCarthy who has worked in NYC since graduating from Berklee College of Music where he got a scholarship for studies in jazz composition. This led to his working as a session musician and in buzzy clubs such as The Blue Note, Webster Hall, Birdland and The Bitter End, performing for Tom Cruise alongside Robin Thicke, Corinne Bailey Rae and ‘Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’. He has worked with Idina Menzel, Jane Monheit, Gavin Creel, Lea Salonga, Pentatonix and Marc Broussard. Full of youthful, but well focused energy, McCarthy works hard but hardly notices. Even on Mondays, his only day off from evening show and twice weekly matinee performances, while others sleep, he gets out and about, networking in studios and playing where he can. While in Los Angeles for three months he visited film studios, sitting in on the Jay Leno show and ending up doing session work for Sesame Street. “That was really fun”, he says. “Session work is my relief from Broadway. I love the variety you can find in New York of pop, funk, folk, jazz on the lower East Side and Lincoln Centre. I’m very lucky in that I haven’t had to audition for anything since my first time with ‘In the Heights’.”

This musical was his first big break and came in 2008 when at the age of 23 he worked as keyboard player on the show, set in Upper Manhattan in the Latin quarter. “Though I had studied jazz, these great Salsa rhythms were new to me, but I learned quickly all about Samba from Brazil and Bachata from the Dominican Republic”. In from the beginning of its Broadway run, ‘In the Heights’ turned out to be a spectacular hit, winning four TONY awards, including Best Musical. “That changed everything for me” he says. “It got me into the scene. Lots of people want be a Broadway Music Director, but it’s not so easy to break into it. I was very lucky”. From keyboards he moved up the music stave and, not long after, started conducting the show.

The youngest conductor on Broadway at the time, three years with that show included touring the US playing in huge theatres in Los Angeles and San Francisco. That was long enough and McCarthy moved on to the development stages of a new musical, ‘Tales of the City’, based on Armistead Maupin’s book where he took the job of Musical Director and conductor. “They let me come up with ideas. It was the first full production of the show, a world premiere, and hopefully it will soon come onto Broadway and maybe even the London’s West End. I’ll return to work on it then”. He’s excited about working again with the dynamic Jake Shears and John Garden of the Scissors Sisters who have written the music and lyrics with a script by Jeff Whitty, the TONY-winning librettist of ‘Avenue Q’ and ‘Bring It On – The Musical’. The director is Jason Moore, known for ‘Avenue Q’, ‘Shrek – The Musical’, and the recent hit movie, ‘Pitch Perfect’. “Scheduling a creative team takes time and people like me come and go at various stages…figuring out the time to say ‘stop’ and not add more songs is difficult. ‘In the Heights’ opened on Broadway in 2008 and took eight years of development.” Working with creative teams in NYC, he always wants to be Musical Director, but sometimes starts as an arranger or orchestrator and the work evolves from there. Or he breaks off from other work to simply arrange for a while. Life is never dull. “NYC and the West End in London are the two hubs for developing new musicals and theatre. For me, NYC is the place to be”.

Learning piano since the age of five with Kay O’Sullivan at City Music College in Cork until he was 15, he then studied music withJan Cap at Cork School of Music. He appreciates his time with the Montforts stage school and with Philip McTaggart Walsh who gave him his first job as musical director of a local show.  Playing at Cork Guinness Jazz festival further added to his musical versatility.

Composition has always been his main interest, though now orchestration and conducting are both interesting and what he is mostly offered. He enjoys every stage of production and every job he is asked to do. “It’s satisfying when at the beginning of a show during brainstorming sessions you make suggestions and they survive to the production.”  He initially wanted to do film scores and it’s still on his list of ambitions. “But I have ticked a few ambitions off my list already. Being part of a hit Broadway show was a big one.”

Once the London production of The Book of Mormon is set up, McCarthy will return to the US to join the first U.S. national tour in Detroit. After that he goes with it to Pittsburgh, Boston, Toronto, Washington DC. “And after that I go back to NYC to do some session work which is a big break from the pressure of the stage.” When asked about his next Broadway musical, McCarthy is tight-lipped. His contracts often have clauses which make sure he is. “All I can say is that it is expected to be on the NY stage soon”.

San Francisco is his favourite after NYC. “It’s laid back and creative. I lived in Hollywood for three months and was dying to get out.  That moment of being in a taxi in New York, heading for Brooklyn when the bridge comes into view with the sun setting, is when I know I’m glad to be back in NY. I have no plans yet to come home.”

This article appeared in the Irish Examiner 25 March 2013

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