Nearly everyone who has been involved with the show can attest that all the hard work that goes into “Riverdance” practically guarantees a hit.
Merle Frimark, who has been handling publicity for the show since its inception, is in a good position to tell its success story.
“It’s my baby,” she admitted. “There’s never been anything like it before.”
Originality seems to be the secret to the show’s triumph.
“The show is entertaining,” Frimark said. “It is one of the few shows that’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser.”
Frimark told of how at first, she worried that no one would be familiar with the music. She now credits fate that audiences would embrace the Celtic-tuned performances.
The music opened up a genre to people who had never heard of tradition Irish tunes before.
“Bill Whelan’s music was so phenomenal,” Frimark said. “It was all so new and fresh, especially to the theater community.”
Most composers with dreams of a Broadway show will spend years toiling over a song, while Whelan went off for three months and came back with an original hit.
Frimark said she knew she had a hit on her hands when she brought her friend, an Irish stage manager, to the show’s London debut. By the time the curtain rose on the ceili that opens the second act, her friend was sobbing, having recalled his own childhood.
“At that moment,” she said, “I knew.”
While the audience hadn’t seen anything like it before, the performers had never done anything like it before, either. Learning how to dance in unison as opposed to in competition with each other was a difficult task.
“The precision with which the dancers perform,” Frimark said, “people hadn’t seen anything like that since the Rockettes.
“It was really a case of right place at the right time. It works beautifully. People asked who would want to watch two hours or Irish dancing, but they loved it.”
Demand rose, and soon producers were looking for ways to accommodate the public’s appetite for everything “Riverdance.”
Until the show landed at the Gershwin Theater in 2000, there wasn’t a theater on Broadway big enough to show “Riverdance.”
The company has since split into three troupes, one that travels the U.S., another that travels through Asia and Europe, and a third that plans to open a summer run at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre in June.
“People were clamoring for tickets,” Frimark said. “The show couldn’t get places fast enough.”
With the second full-time company, “Riverdance” could book more venues and maintain a presence in the lucrative U.S. market.
“It is a very big market,” Frimark said. “You definitely don’t want to leave it out.”
Moving the 100 people in the cast and crew around the world is a huge task, compared to the typical Broadway show, which will only have about 30 cast members.
Also different from the typical Broadway production, the show has the luxury of being able to give the cast and crew three weeks off at a time during the summer and Christmas seasons.
Frimark calls it a “highly unusual” move for large-scale productions.
“The producers would lose money,” she said. “Broadway shows never shut down. What ‘Riverdance’ does for the cast is highly unusual, but very nice.”
As the show has evolved from its humble beginnings as a filler for Ireland’s Eurovision 1994 hosting duties, it has evolved in style as well.
“The feel and the message is the same,” said Frimark, though some parts have been added, tweaked and cut from the original.
The show has used its influence for good causes as well. The cast and crew of “Riverdance” all give time and effort to a variety of causes big and small.
Recently, cast members donated a portion of their recent Radio City Music Hall show profits to Gilda’s Club, named after “Saturday Night Live” alumnae Gilda Radner, who died of cancer in 1989.
They also donated a generous amount raised from an impromptu variety show to New York City’s Twin Towers Fund, a charity created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
The production also helps Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids and the Actors Fund, and gets countless letters and requests every day.
Frimark recalled the effort the cast members will make to meet with sick and handicapped fans that make the effort to get to the shows.
“The company on tour here is dedicated to meeting fans,” she said. “They are sincerely happy to see these people.”
“They are very caring and family oriented. It’s very rare you see that. I am constantly amazed and impressed how they go out of their way for fans.”
As “Riverdance” continues to tour and gain momentum, there is no end in sight and the people involved are just now starting to see the reach they have had.
“This leg of the tour has been incredibly strong for us,” Frimark said. “We are now referred to as getting our second wind.”
She added that people who saw the show years ago are now coming back with their children, introducing a whole new generation to the show.
“Riverdance” also enjoys a healthy string of repeat customers, not something many shows can count on after being around for 10 years.
“It does tremendous for repeat business,” Frimark said. “There are not many shows people would go to see again and again.
“It’s astounding. One day it just hits you — it didn’t dawn on us how big it became because we were so busy doing it.”