County Wexford singer Michael Londra burst on the scene as the lead singer in the United States tour of Riverdance, the cultural phenomenon that itself inspired all of the Celtic and Irish groups and shows that have also swept the country over the years. He was, by many standards, something of a late bloomer. He was 31 when his career began in earnest.
Since Riverdance, he’s performed in many venues and shows, from Broadway to an acclaimed PBS special in 2011. He’s also a producer of musicals, which has kept him off the road recently. But Londra’s back, and he’s performing—including a show, Michael Londra and the Celtic Fire, at Annenberg Center Live March 16.
We recently interviewed Michael Londra about his life and career. Here’s what he had to say.
Irish Philly: What’ve you been up to? It sounds like you’ve been busy for a while.
Michael Londra: Yep. You know, I guess I’ve always kind of walked a fine line between being a performer on stage and a producer off stage and the producing kind of took over over the past two to three years. I partnered with a company called Venuworks and we started building musicals and stage productions in various parts of the world. Producing a musical is a formidable task and it kind of took up every ounce of my time for the past, particularly in the past year and a half.
I produced a show called Noël by the Irish author Eoin Colfer and the Irish composer Liam Bates. Eoin is the writer of the Artemis Fowl series and he’s a huge book seller. I think he sold about 25 million books. But we’ve been friends since we were children in school. We were in the same class since we were about 5, and we always wanted to work together and he wrote a musical with another Wexford composer called Liam Bates and that musical was Noël. We produced it back in the National Opera House about two years ago in a concert version and then kind of built a full stage musical and then we did a national tour of the U.S. there last year.
Now I’m coming up for air and realizing that I’m still a singer and it’s time to go back out and remind people that I can sing in tune.
Irish Philly: Well, I’m curious, before we get on to that, what does producing do for you that performing doesn’t?
Michael Londra: You know, I think I’ve always been fascinated with the, not quite the business of it, but how you build something. When people go to see any show in any big theater anywhere I don’t think they realize the amount of work that’s needed to kind of navigate the talent and make sure that the piece that’s been written or the piece that’s on stage is the best that it can be. And I like that idea of taking something from paper and making it real. There’s something really cool about going into a rehearsal room with a bunch of actors, a director, a choreographer and being the lightning rod for all of them to kind of come together and be brilliant. That’s always kind of excited me as much as singing.
You know, Wexford, where I’m from, is home of the National Opera House and I kind of grew up … my earliest memories is of peak performers and directors from all over the world coming to sing in our local theater. That really influenced me. I think, in general, people from Wexford town are … they’re theatrical by nature. It kind of filtered through the Opera House out into the streets and people are all very involved in theater somehow in that town. That’s always been very exciting for me.
Irish Philly: Well, it sounds fascinating. It also sounds hard.
Michael Londra: Yeah. It’s funny. I’m kind of a reverse performer. Usually singers have a day job. My day job is, I sing and I just happen to produce shows as … that’s kind of my dream job. And luckily for me … and I still don’t know how I’ve done it, but I’ve managed to be able to balance the two and it’s worked out really nicely. You know, singing’s been very good to me over the years. I’ve gotten to sing all over the world and it’s given me lovely opportunities but I always want to be excited by new projects and this kind of production company’s really given me big projects to work on for the next few years. We have another new show in development for next year and in the meantime I’ll sing to make a living.
Irish Philly: Well, what prompted that? So you’re back touring again. What made you decide that you wanted to do that?
Michael Londra: I guess … It’s just who I am, you know? I love my band. I love touring with my band, and I also feel like a representative of Ireland here in America. America’s been very good to me. I got to live that so-called American dream. I feel a bit of a responsibility as a singer from Ireland to get out there and be the best that I can be and kind of represent my county and my country and I guess I feel it’s a responsibility.
Irish Philly: You’ve talked about your county many times at this point. What … And I’m not sure I would bring up my county, Philadelphia, all that much.
Michael Londra: Right, right.
Irish Philly: I’m just curious about Wexford.
Michael Londra: I know people who go to Ireland and I host a tour there every year and … Wexford made me a singer. It’s in the blood in that town. I left 30 years ago but I’m still home in Ireland about six or seven times a year. I’m an official ambassador of my town and county. I’m super proud of it and I want people to see how great it is. I take it seriously. It’s just part and parcel of who I am. And I wouldn’t … as I said, my music career’s been very good to me and I wouldn’t have that without where I come from, my family. We’re all singers. I guess there’s a little, probably an element of guilt as well, that we all have as emigrants that we left our county behind, our town behind and so maybe there’s a bit of that there.
Irish Philly: So it sounds like you really don’t want to forget where you came from.
Michael Londra: Well, I couldn’t. My parents, my family and friends, would soon let me know if I wasn’t home for that long. In fact, this, at the moment now just because of touring and I head to Australia next week and just after my Philly show actually I head straight off to Asia and Australia. I won’t be at home in Ireland until June. I’m filming a PBS special in June at the National Opera House and so it’s a long time. It’s the longest … usually I’m home every two months or so but this’ll be nearly six months. Oh, they’ll remind me as soon as I get there.
Irish Philly: So what’s new about this tour?
Michael Londra: This tour’s kind of odd because these dates are kind of random. The best thing about our concert tour … I’ve kept the same band for many years and when you do that there’s great things in that you can rely on these lovely people. A singer always picks their band for two reasons: they’re talented, but equally they’re really nice to hang out with. Because you hang out with them like 24 hours a day when you’re on tour.
So, what we do is we always, at the top of any dates that we book, we meet and we always put new songs into our show. Because you need to keep things fresh and exciting and it should always be a good time, especially if you’ve worked together for years. Luckily we’re not a band that kind of are with each other for the whole year. We’ve all got various projects. So when we get together in a room we just create new music. I always kind of look to one, what’s kind of new in Ireland, or I will bring in new songs that I write. We write a lot of our songs. So this time we’re going to test out some new songs, some brand new music that hasn’t been heard. And looking at traditional songs, there’s a kind of revival of Thomas Moore back in Ireland now and so we’re going to freshen up a couple of songs from the 1800s and make them somewhat modern and accessible.
Irish Philly: Well, it sounds like you also have some serious dance talent.
Michael Londra: Yeah. I was in Riverdance on Broadway. I was the lead singer which is a very … it’s a great job but the reason that I loved it so much is that I sang the beautiful high tenor songs and walked off stage and promptly turned around and looked at the amazing dancing. And I became obsessed with Irish dancing, mainly because I couldn’t do it myself. So because of Riverdance, because of those circles, I have access to the best dancers in the world. We have the current world champion, Owen Luebbers, who’s a Pennsylvania native, and his sister, Cassidy.
We’ve a couple more world champions actually with us this time from Chicago. Some of the best dancers the world are here in America. Yeah, I know my Irish dancing and I only pick the best. Yeah, that’s one thing I know. People don’t get bored at my shows because as soon as you get sick of me singing those Irish ballads, there’s always something fresh coming on to distract you. Actually it’s great for younger kids as well. Kids really love the Irish dance in the show.
Irish Philly: Oh, it’s great.
Michael Londra: Yeah.
Irish Philly: You’d mentioned the PBS special. Tell me again when that will happen.
Michael Londra: Yeah. June 7th at the National Opera House. We’ll tape that. We’re trying to mix it up a bit. I have some singers from the west end of London who are going to come and join me. The best thing about it is that I’ll be singing for my audience at home so the audience will be a lot of friends and family and my annual tour to Ireland, so fans who come on this tour, they’ll get to be part of the show this year as well. I have no idea what songs we’re going to sing. I’ll get to that as soon as I get back from Australia and we’ll put together something nice.
I did a PBS special about six or seven years ago that did really well and was this huge big spectacle. We filmed it in LA and it was like two and a half thousand in the audience. You know, a big sweeping orchestra and I was a little uncomfortable with it all. It was all a bit too bright and shiny and big. So this time it’ll be a bit more acoustic and more laid back and easy going and that’s probably who I am. So it’ll be a lot of fun, particularly doing it in my home theater.
Irish Philly: Well, we talked about producing. And I’m wondering what performing does for you that those other ventures don’t.
Michael Londra: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, because I really only started to appreciate that now and I didn’t really appreciate it when I started singing. I didn’t start singing until I was 31. I didn’t sing professionally until then. So I never realized the kind of impact that my singing or my songs has on people until, I guess it’s only in the past five or six years. So I now kind of have been open to it and kind of realize the emotional connection that you can have on people in a live room. That has kind of transformed how I feel about singing now, particularly … I spent a lot of time in Nashville over the past 10 years and I wrote with really great writers like Marcus Human
Seeing the impact that those songs have on people, that’s huge for me. That’s what I love. I love that somebody will come up to me and tell me, you know, repeat back the lyrics of a song that I wrote or kids send me versions of the songs that I’ve written that they’ve put on a YouTube video and so it’s things like that that are just … That impact that you can’t find anywhere else like except being a performer. Just music has this real power that I guess I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.
Irish Philly: It sounds like you feel really fortunate.
Michael Londra: I can’t tell you how ridiculously lucky I am because I’m surrounded, but particularly because I work in the field of Broadway and so I come across these amazing talents that are just, you just don’t get a chance to hear. And they may get one Broadway show and never work again. They’re waiting tables. I, for whatever reason, haven’t stopped working since I became a singer 20 years ago. I’m the most fortunate man in the world. It’s just … there are very few people who get to do it. So, yeah, I’m very lucky. Luckiest man ever.