As the curtain came up just after 8pm in the Lime Tree Theatre, Malachy McCourt’s eyes were glued to the stage but his thoughts were in another time and place, with his brother Frank.
It would have been 3pm back home in New York.
Frank McCourt died a few minutes after 3pm on July 19 in Manhattan - exactly four years to the day and the minute that a musical of his life took to the stage in Limerick. Here they were - at the opening night of an extravaganza about the miserable Irish childhood that made him famous. It was lucky that Frank loved irony, he intimated, because it seemed to find him at every hand’s turn.
The McCourt legacy lives on, but here it was tinged with sadness that the creator wasn’t present to see the latest inspiration of his work, which keeps on giving after 17 years. “I do miss him and I missed him a lot last night,” said Malachy the next day.
On stage in conversation with his brother Alphie, Frank’s widow Ellen, and New York based theatre director George C. Heslin, for the first time, larger-than-life Malachy was short for words. He playfully dismissed his tears saying “my bladder is near my eye”.
“It’s not many people that would have the privilege of Frank McCourt as a brother and a friend. I’m immensely grateful for that. He was a great friend and always will be.”
Ellen, Alphie and Malachy were of course here to see Angela’s Ashes: A Musical, as were many fans from London and Florida. After receiving great praise in Derby, where it was staged last year by a local theatre company, this was its first showing in Limerick.
The Minister for Arts & Culture Jimmy Deenihan has hinted that it may return to Limerick next year as part of the City of Culture.
Alphie, who was bowled over by the performances and the standing ovation it received, had just one criticism - and that was with the title. “I think of it as ‘the’ musical, not a musical, because I don’t think there will be another one,” he said on the steps of the Frank McCourt museum on Hartstonge Street. Mr Heslin was hoping people would see it on its closing night on Saturday, “because the next place you’re going to see it is on Broadway or the West End.”
Nearby, Ellen planted a kiss on the bust of her late husband and wrapped her arms around him. Sitting in row F (ironically) an hour later she dabbed away the tears with the back of her hand, and put on a smile. “The musical has brought Frank to life on stage. Let’s hope this is the beginning and not the end,” she said at the after party in South’s pub, where Frank famously had his first pint.
Bill Whelan, the Riverdance composer, was there; Denis Allen got out the guitar and sang Limerick You’re a Lady, and the cast of 22 in the musical took the mic and burst into song, much to the surprise of those nestled in corners, having a heretofore quiet pint.
“They say Limerick is a lady, but to me she was a right ‘oul whore for a time. Now she’s a glitzy, glamorous thing,” said Malachy.
Angela’s Ashes: A Musical proved to be what many people thought impossible, and more. It was funny, poignant, sad, with some spine tingling moments, and a sterling young cast who took this story to their hearts and made it their own. It reminded people of the epic story of survival it really is. “Whether you believe in God or not, this was divinely inspired,” said Malachy of the book, adding that the musical is “outstanding”.
Many people remember Angela’s Ashes for the controversy it brought, but this brought home the real hardship and struggle the McCourts faced, as did many families in the Limerick of the 1930s. The struggle was just not financial, it was very much emotional - with the death of three young children, Margaret, Oliver and Eugene - and the powerlessness of their mother Angela to stop them being taken from her, or to stop her husband taking to the drink. “All the years of struggle and strife went into that great masterpiece,” said Labour councillor Tom Shortt, deputising as Mayor of Limerick on the night.
Asked about its enduring appeal, Malachy said: “America is addicted to happy endings”. In Limerick, it was beautifully bittersweet.