Adversity, determination, humor mark ‘The Irish...And How They Got That Way’

Dawn Simmons is the director of Frank McCourt’s “The Irish…And How They Got That Way.”

by R.J. Donovan
Frank McCourt is perhaps best known for his gripping 1996 memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.”  Detailing the harshness of his upbringing in Limerick, the book remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 100 weeks and was honored with multiple awards, including a Pulitzer Prize. 

The following year, McCourt created the book for the musical “The Irish…And How They Got That Way,” celebrating the Irish-American humor, determination, and struggles over the previous century and a half.

The exuberant revue premiered off-Broadway at The Irish Repertory Theatre and was described as an ““irreverent but affectionate history of the Irish in America that mingles laughter and sentiment in a tapestry of classical songs and stories. The production encapsulates the most tumultuous times of the past century with the vibrant humor and bitter irony that had become the trademark of the author.”  

The Greater Boston Stage Company (formerly Stoneham Theatre) is presenting “The Irish…And How They Got that Way” from March 8 to March 25.  The cast includes William Gardiner, Nile Hawver, Michael Levesque, Kirsten Salpini, Nicole VanderLaan, and Ceit M. Zweil.

Although the show profiles a specific time and place in Irish history, the inherent prejudice and disrespect remain timely, with immigration as explosive a topic as ever.

Dawn Simmons directs the production.  BIR readers may recall that Dawn is a Buffalo native who traces her Irish roots through her mother’s grandfather.  She studied at Boston University, went home to Buffalo to work for the Irish Classical Theater Company, and then returned to Boston to pursue her career in the theater. 

For the past 14 years she has worked as a director, playwright, and arts administrator. She is currently Director of Performing Arts at the Boston Center for the Arts.

The musical numbers in the show range from “Danny Boy” and “Mother Machree” to “Galway Bay,”  “No Irish Need Apply” and “The Rose of Tralee,” among others.

“For me,” Dawn has said, “music drives the storytelling in this piece. It was clear early on that I wanted to create a band [for the production], something that calls on Irish tradition, but puts a modern spin on it. Kirsten Salpini, the Music Director, has been an incredible collaborator, drawing out the connections between traditional Irish music and American Folk music.”  With one exception, all of the actors play an instrument in the show. 

We spoke at length about the production during a break in Dawn’s busy day.  Here’s a condensed look at our conversation.

Q. What drew you to the production?
A. (GBSC Producing Artistic Director) Weylin Symes came to me . . . There was all this talk about what was going to happen with immigration, with immigrants, with dreamers, all of that.  It was just after Trump had been elected.  And Weylin pitched the project in a way that really made sense to me.  This is a really great way to get people to remember their own immigrant experience . . . We’re all coming here, or we are here, in hopes of making a better life for ourselves.

Q. Frank McCourt stands as an iconic Irish voice. How familiar were you with his work before taking on this project?
A. “Angela’s Ashes” is a pretty popular piece. It sort of set a tone for me to understand a little more of his tone with this show . . . It gave me a sense of how these characters should be speaking and the way they attack language and attack storytelling . . . Having a sense of his voice and his humor and some of the darkness in his humor was really helpful.

Q. Is it important for audiences to have a familiarity with the Irish journey?
A. It’s a really interesting question . . . There’s a lot of history in the song; there’s a lot of storytelling in the music . . . You’re going to have those people who come in and who know the stuff cold and who will be looking for us to tell the story authentically.  And we’re going to give them a little twist, so I hope they go with us.  But there are also going to be people who come, and they may not know anything of the experience, but I think there is enough in the script and in the music for people to understand and follow along . . . I think we’re in a good place.

Q. While we clearly know of the bigotry experienced by the Irish many decades ago, it’s impossible not to see it reflected, yet again, in the current political climate.  Finger pointing just seems to get shifted from one target to another.
A. Without a doubt.  It’s always, who’s in the spotlight at the moment . . . It very well could be you . . . We’re all quietly minding our business and then suddenly, Oh, we’re Enemy Number One.  It gets crazy . . . I hope that a show like this holds that mirror up to nature so we can all say, wait, we’re in it again.  Instead of treating each other like enemies again, find the commonality, find the hope and work through it.

Q. What do you hope the take-away is for audiences?
A. I think that shared commonalty, that shared humanity . . . Remembering that we’re all immigrants . . . That we all are pulling pieces from each culture that comes here to make up this really amazing American culture . . . If we can see it in the story of the Irish people, then we can see it in the story of the Italian people that come here, and we can see it in the story of Africans that come here, and the Latinos that come here . . . If we can just find a way to embrace it instead of being afraid of it.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of
“The Irish…And How They Got that Way,” March 8 – March 25, Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, MA. Info: 781-279-2200 or