How did a celebration of Ireland become a New World smash?

By Jason Cochran
October 18, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT


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Maybe David Letterman began the Riverdance invasion.

It hasn’t been very often that the studio audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater has leapt to its feet for a guest act, as it did when Riverdance made its American TV debut in March. But something extraordinary got into the crowd — perhaps the pile-driving tap rhythms, or the musical friction of the fiddle playing, or the sexual tease of couples, backs stiff, feet flying, locked in a furious courtship jig.

Riverdance and Pearl Jam — they created the biggest feeling I’ve ever felt from our audience,” says Late Show talent executive Joanna Jordan. ”Dave, like all of us backstage, was wrapped up in the moment.”

Or maybe it began at Radio City Music Hall during St. Patrick’s Day week, when, in its U.S. stage premiere, the 80-person extravaganza drummed up an astounding $2.2 million through eight sold-out performances. The day after promoters announced a return engagement, the show grossed a million more. It’s a raging phenomenon, and on Oct. 3 it launched a five-month, six-city American conquest to prove it. The second New York stint, a three-week run now at the 5,874-seat Radio City, is virtually sold out; the Detroit leg, coming up in January, pulled $170,000 in single-ticket sales in two days; and its January Boston shows made almost $800,000 before any ads appeared.

Riverdance attacks America!” laughs the composer of the show’s music, Bill Whelan, who’s collaborated with U2 and Kate Bush. But it’s no joke — there’s more Irish on tap these days than just Guinness.

Riverdance — which before Dave would have seemed to suffer the triple poison of being anonymous, ethnic, and a dance show — is now an American merchandising dervish. The recording debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s competitive world music chart in March. Souvenir sales crushed Radio City records. And last week, Columbia TriStar rereleased a video version to high expectations — considering that it has sold more than 2 million copies, making it the all-time best-selling music video in the U.K.

How did this happen?

Like Ireland itself, Riverdance started small. The show began life in April 1994 on the Eurovision song-contest telecast, beamed to 300 million viewers worldwide, when Whelan, producer Moya Doherty, and Doherty’s husband, John McColgan, presented a seven-minute, Irish-themed diversion while the judges voted. Its Irish authors wanted to avoid shopworn images of shamrocks and green hills — or ”Paddyism,” as some journalists call it. So they concocted a leaner, more joyous take on an oft-overlooked aspect of Irish tradition: its tribalism. Their alchemy spawned a single that claimed the No. 1 spot on the Irish charts for 18 weeks.

Whelan and his collaborators hammered out the full-length Riverdance in three months and rushed it to the Dublin stage by February 1995. Two sold out London engagements later (the third is still running), Riverdance dipped its terpsichorean toes into the U.S. market, stunning promoters with crammed houses, the first Letterman triumph, and a second smash Late Show appearance on Oct. 1.


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