The Pirate Queen: What Went Wrong?
18 June 2007
The Pirate Queen closed on Broadway yesterday after only 32 previews and 85 performances. During that short run, I haven't even had a chance to finish the biography by Ann Chambers, which I was inspired to order from Amazon after seeing the show.
Personally, I enjoyed The Pirate Queen and I was taken aback by the needlessly scathing reviews many prominent critics doused upon it.
Most notably, Ben Brantley in The New York Times said, "Timing is against this musical in a more significant sense as well. The Pirate Queen registers as a relic of a long-gone era, and I don't mean the 1500s. The big-sound, big-cast show pioneered by Messrs. Boublil and Schonberg is now as much a throwback to the 1980s as big hair and big shoulders. The crushing tidal waves of music that emanate from the stage, eardrum-tingling as they are, seem to come from distant shores indeed."
More disturbing, though, was Elysa Gardner, who slapped one meager star on her review in USA Today.
When I saw the show in previews on March 31 (opening night was April 5), I thought Stephanie Block as Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen, was a lock for a Tony nomination. Instead, the show was ignored altogether.
That didn't help matters any.
Granted, the show wasn't perfect. For starters, the songs, try as they might, weren't as instantly identifiable and relatable as the more famous songs from Boublil and Schonberg's Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, particularly American Dream, Movie in My Mind, I Dreamed a Dream, and One Day More. A recurring sensation was that of artists struggling to top their own masterpieces and fumbling in the process. In The Pirate Queen, Here on this Night tried for the romantic sweep of The Last Night of the World while Boys'll Be Boys aimed to be a bawdy roof raiser like Master of the House.
Another area that needed more work involved the swashbuckling fight sequences. They could have used a little more shiver in those timbers. More generally speaking, based on the preview performance I saw, the show could have been tightened up and the first half could've been tweaked for a smoother flow.
Overall, though, it was an interesting, albeit at times odd, mix of Broadway showstoppers, swordplay, and Riverdance-style traditional Irish music and dance. The show, after all, teamed Boublil and Schonberg with the Riverdance production company.
Conceptually, it should've been a massive hit; it simply needed more time to get its act together, so to speak. Of course, it doesn't make things any easier that The Pirate Queen had enormous expectations to fill based on the awesome successes of Les Mis, Miss Saigon, and Riverdance. They offered soaring melodies and exuberant Irish dancing. How could a blend of those elements possibly miss? Well, apparently The Pirate Queen will fall alongside Martin Guerre as a secondary project for Boublil and Schonberg to keep on the back burner in perpetual redevelopment.
The Pirate Queen deserves a better fate and perhaps it will find a new life abroad. It offered a great, great story of female empowerment. Grace O'Malley broke the taboos of her era; she fought her way from being a "simple woman" to ship's captain in an age when it was deemed bad luck to have a woman on board a ship at sea.
As Queen Elizabeth I sought to expand her reign, Grace worked to unite the Irish tribes and, in the process, agreed to marry a more politically-attractive mate than her long-time true love. (OK. That bit appears to be a poetic liberty, as that story line is nowhere to be found in the Chambers biography. But it makes for a good show, mate.)
Ultimately, The Pirate Queen becomes the story of two strong women: Elizabeth and Grace. With their negotiations and heart-to-heart conversations artistically shown in silhouette behind a curtain, the show achieved a certain level of elegance.
Indeed, the staging was quite spectacular and marvelously colorful.
While Les Mis offered the magical carousel staging and the barricades of the French Revolution and Miss Saigon recreated a helicopter landing in Ho Chi Minh, The Pirate Queen skillfully recreated a 16th century ship being tossed about in stormy seas.
As the show progressed, the costuming became more colorful as scenes shifted from the dark, earth-tone colors of the Irish pirates to the eye-popping decadence of Elizabethan gowns. There was a giddiness in anticipating the next appearance of Elizabeth in her increasingly extravagant and impossibly cumbersome wardrobe.
But perhaps the show's premature closure was simply a matter of fate.
In what I describe as a major milestone in Mattopian history, I secured press tickets for Friday, April 6. The confirmation arrived by e-mail after I had already arrived in New York. The news prompted an immediate change in my itinerary, pushing the airfare back a day, since I was to fly out that very same Friday night. Of course, additional hotel accommodations had to be arranged as well.
Thankfully, the process was accelerated via in-room Wi-Fi at my otherwise not-so-great hotel.
With arrangements in place, I basked in the achievement and went on a brief side trip to Philadelphia in order to do a personal Rocky Balboa tour. While on a lengthy hike from my Philly hotel, directly across from City Hall downtown, to Rocky's original house, I received a message on my cell phone. It was from the show's PR team.
Stephanie Block fell ill the night before, during the opening night performance, and the remainder of the weekend's press tickets were being rescheduled for the following weekend.
Krikey! Stretching the vacation by an additional entire week would not be possible.
At least I'll have fond memories of that preview performance. It was particularly sweet because I dilly-dallied afterward and, after bouncing from the show store to the lobby swag table and back, I wound up purchasing a poster and they even put it in a sturdy cardboard envelope for better travel-ability. (No programs were yet available, but the guy in the store said an online shop was set to open within a couple weeks. It never did.)
Once done, I unwittingly meandered out the back door at precisely the same time the cast was leaving. That poster got autographed by all the leads.
I asked Linda Balgord, who played Elizabeth I, about the cumbersome outfits she had to wear. They're not comfortable, she said, but they're fun.
As Marcus Chait, Grace's politically-driven playboy husband, signed the poster, I commented that at curtain call his final, apologetic grimace and bow were funny.
But the biggest and best memory is meeting Stephanie J. Block, the Pirate Queen herself. A teen groupie took our picture together. Stephanie gave a friendly rub to my back while the picture was snapped. Naturally, when a gorgeous Broadway star as nice and talented as Stephanie is so gracious and fun, I can't help but have a big ol' smile on my face. Yeah. I look like a frickin' Muppet, but what a great moment!