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The story of growing up as an Irish-American is one familiar to many Bostonians, and an experience that creates an immediate bond between anyone who has shared the culture. Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt’s claim to fame is in his ability to articulate this experience in his work, which includes the classic Angela’s Ashes. However, there is a crucial part to this experience that no work of literature can quite capture, the music. Frank McCourt’s musical The Irish and How They Got That Way is his attempt at capturing the experience from a musical perspective. With musical numbers ranging from recognizable Irish folk tunes played in the corner by old Irish gentlemen at any given pub in Ireland, to chart topping rock classics by Irish heavy hitters U2 played to sold out stadiums across the world, the musical leaves no gaps in the Irish-American experience. The cast of the show playing at Davis Square Theatre came to the WERS studio to perform their renditions of the songs.
The first song that the cast performed was led by the tight vocal harmonies of the group, a quality deeply rooted in the tradition of Irish folk music. Behind the harmonies were an acoustic guitar, piano, fiddle, and various clicks, clacks, and stomps, providing an organic and lively percussive edge. The song effectively evoked a fleeting sense of nostalgia that I could not quite pinpoint; it was reminiscent of a tune I vaguely remember my uncles chanting at family gathering years ago. In this way, the group is able to create an emotional connection with their audience on a subconscious level with music that one may not consider relevant to their life. The purpose of the show started to become clear, to present the Irish-American upbringing as a cultural experience that is imbedded in the psyche irreversibly.
The second song that the group performed was “Poor Paddy Works on the Railway”, another Irish-American folk standard, showcased the importance of storytelling in the music of the show. Despite clearly not being from 1843, the performance was so believable that it wouldn’t be hard to believe that the cast really does own “corduroy britches” to “work on the railway.” With the quick pace and sing-songy melody, the chemistry between the performers was highlighted by the fun the seemed to be having. This chemistry was not coincidental, when auditioning in New York City “they had us interact with each other to see what our personalities were,” said cast member Andrew Crowe. “Part of our job for this show was to play as a band and as a unit.” The cast also talked of their experience with the show as a way to “get in touch with our Irish heritage.” Music Director Jon Dykstra said, “ I grew up with these songs, it was great to rediscover them. Any great Irish song, they say, if you don’t know it by the beginning of it, you will know it by the end.”
Unfortunately, the cast saved the U2 song for the show, and closed with “Ode to Dublin City.” However, the performance was enticing enough to make up for the lack of Bono impersonations. It was the slowest, most somber of the songs, chronicling the longing for the homeland of Dublin city. While most of the audience of the show is probably 2nd or 3rd generation American’s, unfamiliar with living in Ireland, the song conveyed a universal feeling of longing not exclusive to the Irish-American culture. As specific as the Irish-American culture may be, the show’s appeal in not exclusive to that group. It speaks to a larger idea about the importance of culture and tradition in the modern American cultural landscape. The development of a cultural identity is inevitable, and The Irish and How They Got that Way is a demonstration of how surprisingly similar the process is to everyone regardless of heritage.