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Irish Music, British Crimes

Date: Feb 18, 2014


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Larry Kirwan has become a fusion artist. For one thing, he's not only the lead singer of the political rock band Black 47, but also the composer of the new musical Transport, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Furthermore, to tell the story of a female convict ship transporting women from Cork, Ireland to Sydney, Australia in 1838, he's combined two types of music he knows well---Celtic and musical theatre.

Kirwan, who has been developing the show with Australian writer Tom Keneally for about a dozen years, was interested in taking music from the story's period and injecting it with a show tune sensibility. "If I was doing something that might sound like it's from a musical, then I would fuse it with a Celtic melody to link it back to the 1830s," he says. "I was always very conscious that you're writing for an Off-Broadway theatrical project, but you have to link back through music across the century, through these women and what they might have been thinking."

The Celtic part comes naturally to Kirwan, who was born in Ireland and moved to New York City in the 80s. However, he's hardly a stranger to musical theatre. "Growing up in Ireland, radio wasn't Balkanized the way it is here," he says. "So you might hear 'Some Enchanted Evening' next to The Beatles, and then you might hear 'Maria' next to The Chieftains. I was very familiar, and everybody in Ireland was very familiar, with show tunes, the really popular ones. So this play was a great opportunity to write in that manner."

West Side Story, a favorite of both Kirwan's and Kenneally's, was a particular influence, especially the idea that "somewhere there's a place for us."

But even with this new style, writing for Transport was similar to writing for his band. "Music is not that different," he says. "People try to make it out as being different, but it's all about good lyrics and good melodies. You can talk about the differences until the cows come home, but no matter what field the composer is working in, you're going after that---good melodies and good lyrics."

Plus, Black 47's songs are also character-driven. The band---which has announced it will break up in November---has been explicitly political since it formed in 1989, confronting everything from the conflicts in Northern Ireland to the daily struggle of living in New York. "To write a political song, unless the song has a deep personal root, it's just polemic and it doesn't really work," Kirwan says. "What you have to do is just to touch people with the situation and in that way you bring the politics in, but you don't hammer and nail it. You take a personal situation and then you cloak it a little bit with the politics."

The same ideas apply to Transport, which suggests the British Empire wronged these Irish women, whose only crimes were stealing small amounts of money or food. "But at the same time, we don't actually say that in any of the lines," Kirwan says. "It's more you get into the women's situations and personalities, and you work outwards through that. And in that way, you're being political because you're showing what these women suffered."

He continues, "You're making a statement that the British Empire wasn't all about PBS and Channel 13 and Downton Abbey. There was another side to it, and our people were the ones who bore the brunt of that side. But you don't have to say that. You do it through the personal. Because no one wants to go and listen to a political rant for two hours. I definitely don't."


Get to know Irish Repertory Theatre in this Meet the Theatre film:


Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as PataphysicalSci

Photo by Carol Rosegg