Composer and lyricist Sean Og Donnelly in the shadow of New York's Great Hunger Memorial.Irish Voice

Tell the truth -- what do you think of when you hear that there’s a new musical about Ireland’s Great Hunger on the way? You think of two million dead and you tell yourself it will be a total train wreck. Until you actually see the show and are floored by the sheer talent that created it. CAHIR O’DOHERTY takes in The Great Hunger, a new Irish musical by Sean Og Donnelly currently angling for a New York run.

HOW far can talent carry you? Very far indeed. But good contacts will carry you farther, faster.

That's a real world truth that most starry-eyed Irish artists could really do with learning. No one ever makes it on their own.

Take Sean Og Donnelly, 26, for example. The emerging young Irish composer started out about as far from the bright lights of Broadway as it’s possible to get.

Hailing from Benburb, Co. Tyrone (population 598) there is nothing about his home place that suggests a career as the composer of new musicals will ever be a common choice.

But talent has a way of making itself known and Donnelly’s is becoming increasingly evident as his star ascends. So right now it’s really a case of what happens – and more importantly who he meets – as his talent emerges that will make all the difference to his emerging career.

“I grew up in a rural area with not much happening,” Donnelly tells the Irish Voice, with typical northern understatement. “So I get interested in music early on. My dad wanted me to study science but I told him I was going to the Academy of Contemporary Music in London instead.”

That kind of determination early on is often an indication of exciting things to come, but returning with a brand new music degree to recession-hit Ireland was cold water to the face of his early ambitions.

“There were no music jobs so I did an education degree and that led to teaching young people around Ireland. Along the way I decided to finally write the show I’d been talking about for years. The Great Hunger is the first musical I’ve written,” he says.

It’s an auspicious debut. Donnelly’s score wowed an invited audience of Irish theater professionals at the Irish Arts Center in New York this week, where Belfast-born Rachel Tucker, currently playing the lead role in Sting’s Broadway musical The Last Ship, gave a show stopping rendition of one the show’s anthemic numbers.

In a show with the Famine as it’s theme it would be all too easy for the history to overwhelm the show, but The Great Hunger succeeds because its focus is on families, on the everyday Irish people caught up in life changing events. It’s something Donnelly knows about from experience.

“My mother died about three years ago,” he explains. “Her passing provided me with the need to go ahead and do the things I had only previously been talking about. That led to me putting on a show with young adults around Ireland that did really well. Since then as a producer and composer I’ve been working flat out.”

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland recognized the quality and promise of his work and flew him out to New York this month to get his show seen by potential producers and especially the Irish theater community.

The timing is fortuitous, since stories about the Great Hunger have been all over the news in recent weeks. “With all the bad press that Channel Four’s proposed comedy series about the famine Hungry created people are talking about the history again. Our version is entirely respectful and nonpolitical and it concerns itself with the human lives that were lost. In a way we think of it as Ireland’s version of Les Miserables,” Donnelly says.

Arriving in New York to perform the score to industry professionals here during theater producers’ week is a smart move.

“We hope it will excite the interest of producers and philanthropists here in the U.S., people with major resources, to bring a full production of it to a theater here later in the year. That’s really the idea in a nutshell,” says Donnelly.

Tucker, who hails from Belfast, is already a Broadway and West End star and was the ideal voice to demonstrate Donnelly’s credentials. “She agreed to come over on her night off from the musical and perform with us,” he explains, with admiration for her support.

In performance Tucker demonstrated what happens when a first class singer meets a gifted composer. The show instantly took flight. The sophistication of Donnelly’s musical frames of reference belie his age, with Tucker finding every nuance and adding her own.

So the question for Donnelly isn’t if, it’s when will he catch the break that could bring him and the show to New York City? Among the audience was George Heslin, the director of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival, and Lorraine Turner of the Northern Ireland Bureau, which suggests support for Donnelly’s project will be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, he wants Irish American audiences to know that although The Great Hunger is deeply respectful of the historical records it won’t be a one note history lesson.

“The Great Hunger has never been explored in the musical theater genre before. That’s why it grabbed me so much as a potential theme. It was very good to write about from multiple perspectives,” he explains.

“We -- the show’s director James Huish and I -- have carefully explored people’s relationship with God and with politics of the period. We have learned a lot about the culture of the time. And what we’ve done in the end is create some characters who reflect the era and who the audience will come to know.”

There’s tragedy ahead for everybody. From starvation to American wakes to the coffin ships, all of that’s unavoidable. But after five years in the making The Great Hunger has somehow emerged as more than the sum of its historical parts.

Music and song connects you to what is most deeply human after all, and it may be that Donnelly has found a way to give voice to a subject that has traditionally met with only stunned silence.

Hidden in the musical’s title and slowly revealed onstage in performance is the notion that hunger isn’t just physical. It is not only about the search for food. It can be spiritual too, in the quest for connection and love.

What makes Donnelly so interesting is that his songs and music convey that dual notion effortlessly.

“I personally feel the guys (Donnelly and Huish) need a break to develop this show,” Tucker tells the Irish Voice.

“The lyrics and the story are there, and boy can he write a tune. They need the money now to give them the time to take the time. It’s so important to get people behind them, and I just hope this showcase goes really well.”

By giving a voice to the most painful chapter in Irish history the show is doing something that really hasn’t been seen before. It opens up some of the private struggles of our ancestors in a way that startles the audience with its passion and immediacy.

In the end the only question you’ll come away with is, why wasn’t this done before? In a nation famous for its songs and singers it seems incredible that it has taken this long for the great hunger to find a voice.

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