20 years on song for Cork musical team

As they mark their 20th anniversary at the Everyman this Sunday, the popular Cork Sunday Songbook team recall how it all began
20 years on song for Cork musical team

TEAM WORK: Alf McCarthy, Linda Kenny, Damian Smith and Alan Carney from The Everyman Sunday Songbook team at The Metropole as they celebrate their 20th anniversary concert. Picture: Darragh Kane

IT started out as a very simple idea prompted by a discussion in a Dublin hotel two decades ago.

Now the popular Sunday Songbook entertainment team are celebrating their 20th anniversary in Cork, with a homage to the Swinging ’60s at the Everyman Theatre.

With a broad and varied past show list, the hugely talented team shows no sign of letting up! Their busy touring schedule will takes them to major theatres all over the country in 2023.

Linda Kenny explains how the idea came about.

“Growing up, one of my favourite television shows was The Good Old Days with Leonard Sachs. Corkonians were raised on a similar diet of singalong and the longevity of productions like Summer Revels and The Swans proved the tradition of supporting such homegrown shows was woven into the cultural fabric of Cork.”

“I had an idea for a series of concerts whose starting premise would be to use the same performers from one show to the next, rather like the repertory companies of old, adding a guest or two only when the requirements of the show theme demanded more voices,” Linda explains.

“Aimed at an older demographic, those people who were not being catered for by other theatrical endeavours, the shows promoted instantly recognisable themes and music, and, most significantly, had a very defined audience interactive element.

“We would give out word sheets for the audience singalongs, finish the night on the same song, and before the end of each show, we’d give a little teaser for the next one.”

It was a beautifully simple formula which the legendary director/writer Cathal MacCabe instantly embraced.

Former Head of Music at RTÉ, he had directed Linda as Laurie in the Cork Opera House production of Oklahoma a decade before, and worked with her and Damian Smith, first for Gaybo’s tribute to Percy French on RTÉ Radio 1, and subsequently in a number of concerts at the National Concert Hall with RTÉ’s Kevin Hough.

Damian and Linda’s voices blended seamlessly, he was a natural fit for the shows. Cork audiences instantly warmed to him, even forgiving him for his Dublin birthplace!

Michael Twomey as MC was a given from the get-go. Gifted, highly respected, and a link between the golden era of music in Cork and the current day, audiences adored him.

Michael Casey, beloved Corkman, and a renowned arranger, orchestrator and exquisite musician, joined the team as musical director and the fourth and final core performer.

The Everyman was the natural home for such a venture. Steeped in history, its walls reverberated with the echoes of past performers.

Pat Talbot, then its Director/CEO, believed in the project from day one and gave it his full support, kicking off the first season of Sunday Night at the Palace with a concert a month.

“It is extraordinary that an idea we had back in 2004 to create a themed musical show for a short season of Sunday nights not only still exists but is thriving 20 years later,” he said. “It is a tribute to Linda, Cathal, and the entire team that they have kept the concept fresh and alive.”

Linda stresses: “Without Pat’s support and the continued faith of subsequent artistic directors (Michael Barker Caven, Julie Kelleher, and current director Sophie Motley), and the belief of the entire Everyman team down the years, the shows would have run aground long ago. We are so grateful to them all.”

Team and family are words used often when the Sunday Songbook gang get together. The number of core members has grown to seven on stage and two behind the scenes - director/writer Cathal MacCabe and stage manager Yvonne Cronin.

“When our beloved Michael got sick, the shows became extra important to us,” said Linda. “We realised how our love was bound up in each other and in the productions. We obviously had disagreements over the years. After all, creativity is sustained by differing opinions and vibrant thought. However, we realised we were a family, and were going to lose someone who was the backbone of that family.”

Damian says: “I can vividly recall the first show without Michael. It was the Vera Lynn Story. That night was so emotionally charged for us all. We could feel his presence on stage with us.”

Cathal adds: “It was very important to everyone on and off the stage to respectfully pass the baton to Alf McCarthy without ever forgetting the journey we had shared.”

“Following in Michael’s footsteps was a little daunting,” admits Alf, “but a great honour for me. To be accepted into the team and to appear regularly on the Everyman stage, my home from home, is sheer bliss.”

“The audience bought into the Songbook from that first show”, says Linda. “They invested in the team, rather than the theme, and became more vocal and confident about singing along with the performers.

Alf chips in: “Now, when we meet them all in the foyer after each show, we are overwhelmed by the outpouring of joy.”

Many, like Breda Crudge, have been coming to the shows since they began.

“My mother was in her 80s when we started going to them. She really enjoyed them. Then, when she couldn’t go any longer, I started going with my friends. I have really enjoyed every minute of the shows.”

The Sunday Songbook has evolved from a simple concept of themed music shows and they are now a very finessed production. Using a giant screen, they project video clips, photos and the all-important lyrics. Not that the audience needs them!

The story itself is also important. Detailed research is one of the defining characteristics of the production. That, and the way in which Alf, the man of 100 accents, brings the story to life in his own inimitable way.

Alan Carney describes himself as a “relative newcomer”, joining the group 10 years ago, initially as pianist and musical director.

“It’s amazing to be part of something so special,” he says. “Right from our own craic at rehearsals to the warmth of the audience after our show. I genuinely feel so lucky. As the baby of the group, I also feel like the spoiled younger sibling!”

Alan’s band-mates, Songbook stalwarts Jimmy Hynes on percussion, Brian Hyland on bass, and John McGrath on lead guitar, have also been with the shows for years and bring them to life with their brilliant musicianship and creative flair.

“We’ve had a wonderful 20 years,” says Damian, “it’s been great to see the team evolve into a fantastic creative group.”

Many guests have joined along the way. Among them Celtic Thunder’s Emmet Cahill, Westend/Broadway star Killian Donnelly, showband legends Art Supple and the late, great Declan Ryan, jazz aficionada Laoise Leahy, tenor Ryan Morgan, and rising opera star Niamh O’Sullivan.

“The local support we got over the years from people like Jo Kerrigan, John Dolan and Rory Noonan in the Echo and Elmarie Maugh on 96FM’s The Art House has contributed to the shows’ longevity,” says Alf.

Declan Hassett, former Examiner arts editor and enthusiastic supporter of the Songbook from the off, says its success “is not so surprising, when it is recognised that this city has maintained that passion for musical theatre for more than a century”.

The Everyman Sunday Songbook kicks off its 20th anniversary year with The Swinging 60s on Sunday, April 16, 7.30pm. Limited tickets on 021 4501673 or www.everymancork.com

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