Broadway’s Ciarán Sheehan will be in town from June 9 to June 19 to kick off Reagle Music Theatre’s 48th summer season with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” The classic musical tells the challenging love story of Julie Jordan, an innocent New England mill worker, and Billy Bigelow, a swaggering carnival barker. Ciarán stars as Billy opposite Boston’s own Jennifer Ellis as Julie.
The Dublin-born actor-singer-producer made his Broadway debut in “Les Miserables” – mentored by legendary producer-director Hal Prince (“Evita,” “Cabaret”) – and subsequently starred in more than 1,000 performances of “Phantom of the Opera,” both on Broadway and in Toronto.
His credits include roles at The Irish Repertory Theater and in Frank McCourt’s “The Irish And How They Got That Way,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” and “Camelot” (with Jeremy Irons). As well, he produced and starred in a sold out run of “The Molly Maguires” at the Kirby Center in Pennsylvania.
As a solo artist, the charismatic Sheehan has sold out Carnegie Hall, appeared at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, opened the dedication of the Irish Hunger Memorial in New York City, and sang at funeral services for Beau Biden at the request of Vice President Joe Biden. He also has three PBS musical specials under his belt.
In contrast to his success on stage, Sheehan has faced his own share of darkness. He was sexually abused as a boy. He later suffered a near death experience. Admirably, he has come through it all to survive, succeed and help others with their own pain.
While “Carousel’s” rich score boasts songs like “June Is Busting Out All Over” and “If I Loved You,” Billy Bigelow comes with a rough edge and Sheehan finds him to be a fascinating, multi-layered character. In a phone interview from his suburban New Jersey home, he said, “To me, he’s sort of a wounded innocent . . . In some ways, I know this guy really well. Because up until my 20s, my answer for a lot of things was my fist. So I understand his response to things. He doesn’t know how to function in the world. He really has no skill set other than as a barker.”
Billy falls in love with Julie, but romance is new territory for him. Sheehan said, “(Billy’s) life has been bouncing around as a carnival barker. He doesn’t know how to deal with Julie . . . That first scene (Jenn and I have) is so beautiful, so rich. (We sing) ‘longing to tell you, but afraid and shy. I let my golden chances pass me by’ . . . and I think that’s his story. That fear of being honest. That fear of communication.”
He paused. “Honestly, I love this piece. There’s so much about a soul’s redemption. I find that just beautiful.”
Born in Dublin, Sheehan was raised in New York in the Inwood neighborhood of northern Manhattan. His father was a restless soul and relocated the family on a regular basis. But no matter his location, Ciarán maintained a strong connection to his home land. While living in New York, he spent every summer with his grandmother in Ireland.
He notes there was always music in his life. His aunt was “The Girl With The Golden Voice” on Irish radio. His uncle, a dairy farmer in Limerick blessed with a tenor voice, serenaded his cows with “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.” Sheehan sang in the church choir.
Despite this, he never considered music as a career. At Rutgers, he majored in electrical engineering, which he hated. So he quit school, joined a heavy metal band, and moved to the Jersey Shore. There, on a fateful Sunday afternoon, he was in a horrific car crash that was so devastating, he recalls his spirit pulling out of his body and watching the wreckage from above the scene.
“It was a real wake-up call,” he said. “I was an angry young man. I was doing a lot of drinking and a lot of fighting and a lot of women and lots of everything. When I got hit, I remember thinking I had totally wasted this trip.”
Realizing how fast life can flash by, he reevaluated his personal journey and decided to study acting in New York. A chance meeting on the subway brought him to the Irish Repertory Theater. He volunteered around the theater, made friends, and was eventually asked to participate in the reading of a new play, “Grandchild of Kings.” Based on Sean O’Casey’s autobiography, it was written by Hal Prince, whom Sheehan had never heard of.
At the time, he said, he was working as a security guard. “To be honest, I wasn’t a big musical theater fan. I really didn’t know who Hal Prince was. I think that’s why he and I got along so well together. I wasn’t terrified by him . . . He became quite the mentor to me.”
Prince saw potential and set Sheehan up with voice lessons, which would open the door to a remarkable musical career.
Over time, he has used his considerable talents to help others as a Voice Healer. People often came to him after concerts saying they felt a physical sense of healing in his music. So he began developing workshops combining the power of music, meditation, and his own life story to facilitate spiritual healing for those in pain, particularly abuse survivors like himself.
“I’m game for trying anything that potentially will help anyone,” he said. “For me, it’s about finding a place for forgiveness. Not necessarily for that other person, the perpetrator, but for yourself. It just gets too damn heavy to carry.” He says letting go of the shame can bring a fuller, more settled life.
“I’ve done some really cool things,” the father of three said. “Whether it’s playing the Phantom or selling out Carnegie Hall . . . I was a kid living next to a coal room in a cellar on the upper west side of Manhattan and suddenly I’m getting to do some really wonderful things. And getting to do some wonderful things for other people. That’s the most satisfying.”
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.