Eamon Friel needs a leading lady for his first musical comedy. Garbhan Downey talks to the BBC presenter before auditions in the Derry Playhouse
Eamon Friel is without question the most prolific songwriter I’ve ever interviewed - and also possibly the wittiest. Besides his six albums (he’s currently working on his seventh), he penned funny, topical songs for RTE, BBC Radio Five and Radio Ulster’s Talkback every week for 11 years. He has no idea how many he performed in all – 'I was a song factory!' – but it’s somewhere between 400 and 500.
As a musical satirist Friel is up there with Richard Stilgoe. Although,
he now confesses that if deadlines were tight, he wasn’t beyond submitting the same tune to the two national broadcasters, confident in the knowledge that there was little or no audience crossover. 'It only happened maybe once,' he laughs. 'And I think the statute of limitations is up. At least I hope it is...'
For all his good humour and prodigious output, Friel is also very talented. No less an authority than Mike Harding described him as 'a great singer and a writer of wonderful songs'.
Moreover, as a presenter, Friel has been a Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle mainstay for more than 20 years. Indeed, in 1993 he won a Gold Sony Award for Best UK Music Programme – beating off competition from Radio 2 and Capitol Radio.
'I didn’t expect to win it. But I l heard afterwards that one of the judges was a major blues fan – and of Jesse Fuller in particular. And by sheer chance, I’d played a number of Fuller tracks in the programme we submitted for the awards. To this day, I lift that album and kiss it every time I put it on!'
Currently, Friel is about to debut his first musical-comedy, Music Makers, which has been commissioned by the Derry Playhouse. Rehearsals start in September, and while the six supporting parts have been snapped up, he still needs an actress for the lead role.
Auditions for the part of Mrs Madrigal take place this month at the Playhouse (beginning June 11), and Friel is keen to get exactly the right fit. 'It’s the big part and requires a woman who can act and sing. The character is a middle-class American – New York or maybe Chicago – who’s the director of a crazy new musical, which very probably is going to be a disaster. She’s a martinet, somewhere between 40 and 50, very driven and possibly insane.
'I’ve never actually hosted auditions before. But I promise to be gentle. There’ll be no buzzers or flashing ‘X’s. I’m not a cruel Cowell-type!'
Music Makers is actually Friel’s second incursion into theatre. In 1992, he was commissioned by Derry City Council to write The Port Pageant, a very successful historical drama for outdoor performance. It proved so popular that it was restaged in 1998 and 2006, again to large audiences.
The new work, however, is a comedy, and you can sense that Friel is hugely enthusiastic about the milieu. 'The idea to try a ‘proper’ musical came from a man in Colorada,' Friel recalls, 'who bought my album Smarter and contacted me to say that the title track sounded really like a show-tune. That set me thinking. And once I’d got the central idea for the musical, it almost wrote itself. It features a few of my best songs, from my lost four albums, and there are also seven new songs as well.'
One of the central themes of the musical is the importance of culture to a society, an idea Friel incorporated after reading the Russian poet Josef Brodsky. He originally intended to call the musical The Spiritual State, but felt it might sound too po-faced or preachy. 'First and foremost, Music Makers is a comedy. It is a musical of ideas, but there’s a lot of scope for humour, ranging from satire to knockabout visual stuff that can be very funny too.'
The play will open in Derry in November, after which Friel and his musical director Eddie O’Donnell ('the man is nothing short of a genius') hope to take it on tour.
The writer is particularly pleased that the Playhouse – recently re-opened after a £4.6 million refurbishment – will host the premiere. 'It’s a brilliant theatre, intimate and acoustically excellent. It was the stage there that I had in my head as I wrote the stage directions, so I was delighted that Pauline Ross and Niall McCaughan of the Playhouse were so interested in, and so charmed by, the musical.'
The BBC is also looking at Music Makers in terms of a radio production, after which Friel intends to get cracking on 'that difficult second musical...'
It’s all a long way from his days as a teacher, at St William of York School in North London, where Friel first tried his hand at song-writing for the school show in the early 1970s.
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, had been a pupil there before he arrived – one disgruntled form-master commented prophetically in Lydon’s report: 'Might do better in a small group.' But, much more importantly for fans of Irish soccer, Friel did have the privilege of teaching Ray Houghton, 'a very bright and very reliable youngfella. I put in 15 years as a teacher. But music – and my topical songs - allowed me to leave and make a living doing what I love.'
Auditions for Music Makers take place in the Derry Playhouse from June 11. Smarter is available to purchase in the CultureNorthernIreland amazon store.