In 1994, Riverdance took the world by storm.
It has since made Strabane-born producer John McColgan, and his wife Moya Doherty, from Donegal, multi-millionaires many times over. The show continues to tour the world as popular now as it was when it started.
Now as it celebrates its 25th anniversary with a new tour, the Irish World’s Michael McDonagh asked John to put this extraordinary success into perspective:
“For a long time, we had three shows running and we had about 80 people, between cast and crew, on the show but we don’t have quite as many now.
“So far Riverdance has played before 25 million people, we have been seen on television by 500 million people and we played in 40 countries around the world and it still gets the same reaction Michael, as it did in the early days.
“We tell the cast(s) of Riverdance to think of each show as the opening night, to sell it and communicate as if it were the first night.”
IW: In 1995, you and Moya mortgaged your house to finance the show. And then you fired your star dancer after the first night in London. Could anyone then have predicted that it would make show business history breaking all records and become such a phenomenon around the world?
“We knew after the Eurovision, you know, the seven-minute dance in the middle of that Eurovision show that Moya produced, that the stunning performance had caused a great reaction – from the audience response in The Point on the night, to the papers the next day, that we had something special.
“The newspapers said it was ‘seven minutes that changed the world’. I don’t think it actually changed the world but clearly, there was an instant impact not only in Ireland but in England and all over Europe, bigger than anything we had seen before.
“We released a single that went to No 1 in the UK and we released a seven-minute video that also sold exceptionally well.
“Suddenly from that night we collectively knew, creatively that we had something that had never been seen before. I had been in television for 27 years and neither Moya nor I had experienced a response like it.
“We sat down in the week after and, spent a lot of time talking about how we could turn those seven minutes into something more as a full-length show.
“Raising the money was difficult. People said ‘Oh yes’ and RTÉ was good, they did invest, but others who had said they would invest went missing when we tried to collect their cheque.
“We did put our house up and people may think that was a big deal, and maybe it is, but I had no doubt that it would be successful.
“If nobody had turned up at The Point for a couple of weeks, we would have lost the house but when it opened, we needed to do about 70-80 per cent business – we did 100 per cent business.
“We were on a Late Late Show just before Christmas that year and Gay Byrne said ‘This is the ideal Christmas gift for families’, so the ticket sales just rocketed.”
IW: In 1994, before the full show had started you also did the Royal Command Performance in front of Prince Charles, introduced by Terry Wogan. Then in 1995 you opened the show in London and had that amazing opening party but within days you were in crisis as you fired your leading man. That took a lot of bottle.
“That’s right the party was at the Natural History Museum. I did not actually fire Michael Flatley – he, sort of, fired himself.
“He is a fantastic dancer and very charismatic, but he had never been a star before, he’d been doing cabaret with The Chieftains, so I would have contributed to flattering him and complimenting him, and we were paying him huge money for that time.
“He had got into his head that he wanted to run the show himself. After the first night, he presented us with a huge list of 40 demands – he wanted to choose the leading lady, he wanted a bigger car, to select the cast and all kinds of stuff.
“If we had succumbed, he would have run our show and he would have turned it into Lord Of The Dance so we had to stand firm.
“It was nerve-wracking because some of the promoters were saying if Flatley is not in it would be no good, as the show ‘was all about Flatley’.
“He was on TV all week saying ‘nobody can do what I can do’ but…we had Colin Dunne rehearsing.
“It was very fraught for everybody, but we went on that night…and it did not make a blind bit of difference.”
IW: In hindsight, he did you a favour as it made no difference to the audience who just loved the show and it meant you were now able to put more than one team on the road.
“That’s true. At one point I had three shows going and I could never have had three shows if we had sold Flatley as the star, as people would have said ‘Oh Flatley’s not in it’.
“We were very fortunate that the dancers that we had were extraordinarily talented and the show itself which in its own right was fantastic. We were able to go on, and on, around the world for all this time.”
IW: You are here with a new show Heartbeat Of Home which has just played at the London Palladium.
“Yes, we have a new show which we have toured in the USA and Canada to great reviews and we have toured it in Germany and China. We just did two shows here at the London Palladium last weekend, as a showcase, and it got a tremendous response.
“We have been approached by three or four promoters, including Live Nation who are interested.
“This morning we launched the 25th Anniversary tour of Riverdance (and) the showcase for Heartbeat was to launch a profile for it here.
“We are hoping to be touring but we can’t be competing with ourselves by having two shows at the same time and we have some of the same dancers in both shows.
“Nowadays we are very fortunate as we have a lot of great dancers we have worked with and so many of them now were not even born when we first began, it is amazing.”
IW: Ireland has changed so much in those 25 years and when it began it was so innovative and in making Irish dancing sexy it was very symbolic of that sea change in Irish culture and society, so does the new show reflect Ireland now?
“Exactly, back then it was just on the cusp of Ireland changing and Irish people were very proud of it. At the time Irish dancing was a tradition which we were not proud of, it was a folk activity that didn’t have much impact.
“Moya said we will have black short skirts, no embroidery, no ringlets and great choreography by Michael Flatley and Mavis Ascott.
“We were thinking showbusiness, Busby Berkeley, a big hard shoe line and big kickers. It made people’s mouths drop.
“Heartbeat Of Home is now a second show. What the dancers can do now they would not have been able to do 25 years ago. Today they are finely tuned athletes, so we have taken the new show to the next level and integrated it with African and Latin American and lots of different cultures.
“Brian Byrne is the composer this time and he has written a fantastic theatrical, exciting, score.
“It takes where Riverdance starts and takes it on to a new level. It does not replace Riverdance, as that will always have a special place in people’s hearts.
“It occurred to me five years ago when I first started to think about the show, and you look around Dublin and it is such a multicultural city now than it was 25 years ago.
“I felt that if I could satisfy two audiences, the one that loves Riverdance and wants to see something similar, then the younger audience who may think Riverdance is passé and want to see something new.
“If there is a big audience that will go to see something, then commercially it makes sense to put a show on.
“At one point there were 20 dance shows on the road at the one time as a result of the success of Riverdance – including a lot of really bad shows some in Germany with no Irish dancers in them at all. They did muddy the pool but our line was always that ‘the original is best’ and that’s what the reviewers said, too.”
IW: You did have one show that you tried that did not work, that must have been very disappointing for you.
“We put on Pirate Queen in New York and I was very proud of it. It had a cast of 40 with great costumes and a great score and audiences loved it, but Ben Brantley in The New York Times gave it a negative review and that sort of killed it in its tracks, which was very disappointing.
“At the time you sort of go into a depression but then after a while, you have to dust yourself down and pick yourself up and start all over again.
“I always try to be optimistic and embrace a new challenge and I still do that now that I am 73. It is just rocking and rolling I enjoy the business and the creative process.”
IW: When you started you were a bit of an actor?
“Yes, a little, but I left school at 14 and worked in factories, and pubs, and in Easons, and Saxone, in O’Connell Street. Then I ended up as a messenger boy at RTÉ radio and went from there to RTÉ Television as a vision mixer then went on to be a cameraman, floor manager ending up at as Head of Light Entertainment. Then I came over here to work for TV-am.”
IW: You are now so well known for Riverdance people perhaps don’t know that you had a very successful TV production company in Ireland.
“When I left TV-am, I set up Tyrone Productions and we have done countless programmes. We did the Irish version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire with Gay Byrne and we produce the Irish language soap which goes out twice a week.
“Then we do lots of pop documentaries and serious documentaries and we did a co-production drama series with the BBC called Quirke with Gabriel Byrne, based on John Banville’s books.
“Right now, we are working on a very big feature film, a Riverdance animation. Bill Whelan is re-working the score and Pierce Brosnan is narrating. It is a £30 million production in association with a French company, so we have been very successful with Tyrone, which has been going for 30 years now. I like being busy.”
“We walked back together to Wogan House at the BBC, remembering what a great guy Terry was, musing about old times and the old characters we both knew in the business now long gone.
“Both of us now with grey hair at 73 and sporting green scarves to keep out the chill. John said they are planning Riverdance ahead for the next five years, but it’ll probably will be at least 10 – and John McColgan will still be around to mastermind it.”
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