Shaun Purcell – The Man Behind The Musicals

There’s a new musical coming to Sligo: The Boy From The Far Side Of The Moon is on at the Hawk’s Well Theatre from the 12th – 14th of March. I met up with Shaun Purcell, who is the man behind the musical to find out more about him.

‘I started writing musicals 40+ years ago when I was a young guy. I was lucky that I was a teacher so I got the opportunity to get the shows performed, by my students, on a school stage to try them out.

It was lovely getting a cheque at the end of the month from teaching but in the 1990s but I decided to take a number of years off to go professional with the shows. The first show was The Raven Beckons which we did first in St. Anthony’s Little Theatre in Dublin, with a semi-professional cast. The following year we came back with the show but with an all professional cast, I stood back from directing myself and let someone else direct it. We ran that show and it was a big thing to do at the time, the pre-production costs were €100,000, so I had to raise that money which was very challenging for a youngish guy without any background in it but we did it. The show got rave reviews and we were on The Late Late Show etc but even though it was a huge success we lost a lot of money on it. 

The following year I had a show called Aisling and we took part in The Dublin Theatre Festival. Aisling was described as “An impoverished production but the best production in the theatre” by David Nolan of The Times. After that show I wondered where I was going with this to make a living.

However, I wrote the music for a show called The Man Who Knows with a guy called Humphrey Truman who was a very interesting character. In the 1960s Humphrey was a tennis player with Virginia Wade and he’d had such an interesting life he decided to write a book – The Man Who Knows – which was an allegorical tale. He was looking for a writer in Dublin to put the music to the show and I answered an advert in The Times so we got together. The Man Who Knows took to the London stage and got a great response from the audience.

I became a Chief Executive in the ETB and was based in the North West of Ireland. This was a big job, we had over 1700 staff, it was quite a thing to go from writing musicals and being broke to being a Chief Executive.

The love for musicals was always there and in the last four years we’ve put on original musicals in the Hawk’s Well Theatre. We began with Requiem for Julie and went from there, I think that’s unique. Three of the fours shows had been performed on a professional stage, apart from last years show – The Apprentice – which is more of a comedic show. I rewrote The Apprentice to suit Sligo as it was originally set in Dublin. So the characters Billy and Knuckles were Sligo townies, with the accents to match.

In March we are back in the Hawk’s Well Theatre with a show I’ve written called The Boy from the Far Side of the Moon. When I originally wrote this it was about a boy with autism, we’d done an amateur performance of it and it didn’t work at all so I rewrote it, not about a boy with autism but about a boy from the far side of the moon. It’s a cross between The Wizard of Oz and The Playboy of the Western World. I worked very hard on the language of it, so it’s set in the west. It has various forms of dance in it, including ballet, a dance of stilts and even a 9 minute choreographed hurling game, which is very unique. I’m directing it myself, Niamh Crowley is doing the musical direction and we also have Ingrid McLoughlin doing the choreography. 

Myself and Declan Walsh formed a company this year called The Mad Ravens and we are producing the show. We formed the company primarily to put on good shows but also to entertain ourselves and the public, as well as encouraging new talent, and to provide a living for musicians and artists in the theatre. We also raise money for charities and engage with the ETB so students doing various courses can gain experience with us.

I have lots of ideas for shows in my head but it’s hard to get them down on paper. In the very early years I would sit down at a piano with a lot of sheets pinned to it. I’d start at the beginning of the show with an idea in my head, for example with The Raven Beckons I’d read an article in The Irish Independent which inspired me to write the show. I locked myself away for a week and at the end of that week, the show was finished. 

The Boy From The Far Side Of The Moon is a premiere, it’s never been tested before but I know it’s going to do well. We have a great gang doing it and to have someone like Niamh Crowley scoring the music because I’m very slow with the dots. As Niamh said, if he could only get it out of his head and down onto the paper it’d be great!

Inspiration comes from everywhere, I might have a song that I’ve rediscovered from 40 years ago that I’ll put in the show, or characters like Billy and Knuckles that were originally Dublin characters. I would have a bank of original music and ballads but I was never really interested in just the songs. With The Boy I read articles about sport and hurling so I had an idea that a boy from the moon comes down to play on a hurling team and change their luck.

I cast the shows myself. If there’s someone in our Mad Ravens company who can do the part I don’t audition. We are a group that are very inclusive so we get new people joining us every year. The lad who plays The Boy this year has excellent stage presence, he’s new to our company but he’s perfect for the part. In the shows we have all ages, from 13 year olds right up to 70 year olds and there’s a place for them all.

I always have an idea of how characters should look. Sometimes I have to take off the blinkers and rethink things, I take direction from the actors playing the part and listen to their point of view. It’s great with this show as the actors love their characters, they spend a lot of time in their characters, with rehearsals taking place two evenings a week and choreography every Sunday morning.

Now that I’m retired I take more time. With this show I started last January and revised and revised it. 2019 was really a challenging year: I had a heart attack in February up at the top of a mountain, there were also a lot of bereavements, but we’re here, having come through it all. I’d just finished the last show when all this happened but I’m back on track again. 

I’ve always got new ideas, it’s not a case of me sitting down. I think I’ll be writing musicals for the foreseeable future. My latest idea revolves around getting older. Nobody ever writes songs for people who are older. I won’t say old but older, say love songs for 60 year olds or what life is like when winter is metaphorically there so I’m thinking of a project around that. Watch this space.’

This article was previously printed in Sligo Now Magazine 



Sligo Hub