2012 IS the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and the Galway Musical Society is marking the occasion with the Irish premiere of the irresistible, award-winning Broadway musical of his classic novel A Tale of Two Cities.
With music and lyrics by Jill Santoriello, this hit show has a rousing score and is awash with sound and fury. It is impossible not to be moved as the story and music plays out themes of young love, purity, vengeance, villainy, and valour against the turbulent backdrop of the French Revolution.
Audiences will find themselves caught up in the redemptive story of Sydney Carton and the heartbreaking love triangle involving Carton, Lucie Manette, and Charles Darnay in a show that delivers touching moments, brilliant scenes, and wonderful music.
For first-time author Santoriello, Tale of Two Cities is the realisation of a lifelong dream and its long and winding road from conception to final production is a saga worthy of a Dickens novel in itself. Born and raised in New Jersey and a self-taught musician, Santoriello fell in love with musicals as a young girl when her mother took her to Broadway shows like The King and I starring Yul Brynner. She was still in high school when she made her first efforts at writing a musical.
“I wrote several songs for a musical adaptation of Wuthering Heights,” she tells me. “My golden voiced brother Alex was just about to make his Broadway debut and he advised me to abandon the rather depressing Wuthering Heights idea and find another story that was a little more uplifting. Mom had read A Tale of Two Cities and thought that might do the trick. I read it and was completely swept up in the power of the story and its message.”
Santoriello started writing songs around the characters in Tale and became increasingly absorbed in the project, though she could not have foreseen that it would take 21 years to finally reach Broadway.
“I spent three months writing a first draft of the show and about 20 additional songs,” she says. “I entered competitions and applied for grants. I won a couple. I lost a couple. I received encouragement, commendations, and even cash - but the premiere production continued to elude me. I would shelve Tale for months and even years on end but I always returned to that story. It may have just been sheer naïveté, but I always held out some hope that, in at least some small scale, it was possible to get it staged!”
Santoriello got a job in programming and development with cable TV network Showtime and continued to plug away with Tale. Then came what proved to be a fateful meeting with Ron Sharpe and Babara Russell.
“Ron and Barb were Broadway singer/actors who were looking to produce a new musical,” Santoriello explains. “Alex invited them to come sing on a Tale demo I was finishing up and they fell in love with the show and asked me if they could produce it. The three of us then began an extraordinary journey where we all became best friends and something akin to the Three Musketeers - us against the world sort of thing! That friendship has been the greatest by-product of the whole experience.”
With Sharpe and Russell on board, Santoriello was able to raise the funds to put Tale of Two Cities onstage. The musical premiered at Sarasota’s Asolo Theatre, in Florida in 2007 and was enthusiastically received – it went on to win 10 Sarasota Magazine Awards out of 12 nominations, including being named ‘Best Musical’.
Buoyed by this success the show transferred to Broadway, where it opened in September 2008.
“That was a dream come true,” says Santoriello of finally seeing her show on The Great White Way. “I was so busy with preparations right up to the opening and so forth that I didn’t really give myself a chance to sit back and enjoy any of it, so I have been playing catch-up with the post-Broadway productions, going to visit as many as I can and really trying to appreciate the special gift of having my show living on like this. I’m very lucky, as theatre writers go, to be able to see my work brought to life and I’m really making an effort to enjoy that now.”
In envisaging a musical of Tale of Two Cities, people will naturally think along the lines of Oliver and Les Miserables. I ask Santoriello whether either of these were influences for her.
“Both were big influences as I love both shows and love the feeling you take from them as an audience,” she replies. “I never tried to copy anything from them, as A Tale of Two Cities was pretty wonderful and inspiring source material to start with, so I sure didn't need to take anything from any other sources. But in the sense of wanting to write something that moved people, I definitely was influenced by the way those shows made me feel, in addition to many other favourites like Man of La Mancha, The King and I, Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, and so on.”
What were the main challenges in turning the novel into a musical?
“Sydney Carton was always the focus of the story for me. I was just in love with that character and how he was really such a special, brilliant human being and didn’t seem to know it! So the challenge was finding a way to bring him into the story as early as possible and make everything in the show directly or indirectly about his journey.”
Santoriello goes on to explain how the GMS staging of the show came about.
“I had been in contact with Brian and Sean Power for about a year via email and I was always especially excited about the possibility of Galway because I’m half Irish - I know, you could tell from my last name right? - and shamefully, I have never made a trip to the Emerald Isle before, so I was thrilled about this production. I think I emailed them a few times along the way to remind them about the show, you know ‘hi there, remember me?’ sort of thing. The Powers travelled to Aberdeen to see a production of Tale last year and I think that was what convinced them to do it in Galway.”
GMS’s production of A Tale of Two Cities runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday March 20 to Saturday 24 at 8pm nightly. Direction is by Brian and Seán Power, musical director is Shane Farrell, chorus director Paddy Daly and choreography by Mary MacDonagh. There are 62 cast members Alan Greaney as Sydney Carton, Diarmuid Scahill as Charles Darna,y and Bláithín Walsh as Lucie Manette.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie