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RTÉ was looking for a warehouse for the Toy Show musical set while TG4 was at the Oscars

TG4’s breakout film, An Cailín Ciúin, cost less than half of what RTÉ’s musical frittered away

When Rory Coveney, RTÉ's head of strategy, attempted to reiterate his bumbling defence of the Toy Show musical at the Oireachtas media committee last week, the delusion and hubris hung in the air like a bad joke. Last year, as the musical was fumbling its way into a venue that isn’t even built for theatre, everyone I spoke to working in live events in Ireland was aghast.

As ads blanketed RTÉ's own airwaves, the show imploded. €2.7 million was spent. €2.2 million was lost. Twenty-seven performances happened, each costing €100,000, with over €81,400 lost per show. Were that an independent team rather than an organisation crying poor yet availing of a seemingly bottomless treasure chest of public funds, those who signed off on it would, as the old show business adage goes, never work in this town again.

When the broadcaster’s former chairwoman Moya Doherty was asked about this disaster at the same committee, I was interested to hear what she thought. Doherty fudged her answer, but she was uniquely positioned to understand the risks of ambitious stage productions. In addition to her commercial successes, she was one of the producers of The Pirate Queen, which hit Broadway in 2007 and which was subsequently reported by the New York Times to have lost about $16 million. That was a production with personnel of high pedigree. Flops happen. But what did she really think about RTÉ's multimillion mission of staging a musical at scale with hair-raising targets that were downright fantastical? Did it ever come up in one of her Montrose corridor chats? There wouldn’t have been a single other person in the building with Doherty’s level of expertise in this realm.

Large theatre production costs can run into hundreds of thousands in Ireland, but people unfamiliar with theatre budgets need to understand that €2.7 million is a ludicrous amount of money. On RTÉ's Morning Ireland last Thursday, the playwright and director Phillip McMahon calmly informed listeners of the extraordinary nature of this spend.


How Toy Show: The Musical went wrong for RTÉ

Listen | 30:53

McMahon knows what he’s talking about. In April 2012, the theatre company he runs with Jennifer Jennings, thisispopbaby (of which I am an associate artist), staged an ambitious contemporary musical in the Abbey Theatre. The risk was high. There hadn’t been a musical in the national theatre for over two decades, and this was an original piece of work. Alice In Funderland was a roaring success. Fifty-six per cent of its audience had never been in the Abbey before, marking a turning point for the theatre’s engagement with a new generation of show-goers. It’s not like Alice arrived fully formed. It was in development for over four years, and tested at work-in-progress readings at Project Arts Centre over a year before it opened.

While RTÉ was embarking on its version of Fyre Festival meets Fitzcarraldo, back in the real world TG4 was developing indigenous Irish-language cinema. Putting things on screen, not stage, is a broadcaster’s remit. Its breakout film, An Cailín Ciúin - which could have failed, like any creative project, were it not realised in the extraordinary manner it was - cost less than half of what RTÉ's musical frittered away. But TG4 didn’t single-handedly make that film; it enabled its production. If TG4 had announced “Strap yourselves in, we’re going to make the next Avatar ... in house!”, the Irish film industry would have told them to have a lie down. How come everyone in the theatre industry knew the Toy Show endeavour was bonkers - yet RTÉ, with zero musical theatre experience, thought it knew better? While TG4 was at the Oscars, Coveney was off finding a warehouse to store a set - which is now gathering dust.

RTÉ should immediately provide a detailed breakdown of the production’s costs, and not just the broad brushstrokes budget it gave to the Oireachtas committees. The figures are bizarre. For example, the marketing budget ballooned from €156,020 to €339,634, more than a one hundred per cent increase, an escalation that demonstrates a reckless panic spend. This means for every ticket sold (11,044), RTÉ spent €30.75 on marketing a ticket sale. Ticket prices started at €25. Who on earth oversaw this chaos? It was also obvious a Toy Show musical could never tour internationally, nor gain a tourist audience. Sure, the specific can be universal, but this was a parochial idea necessitating an experience of the Toy Show as a cultural meme.

This was also not about supporting the arts. It was a cynical commercial endeavour seeking to leverage the one bit of goodwill RTÉ generated in recent years, the Toy Show brand. Even Ryan Tubridy - who, along with agent Noel Kelly (who looks like he walked straight out of a Graham Knuttel painting), is well accustomed to dealing in large sums of money - didn’t want any part in it. The artists involved are not at fault. A gig is a gig. This is about yet another layer of wild incompetence at senior levels in RTÉ.

Throughout this saga, the interim director general, Adrian Lynch, has been at pains to frame RTÉ's omni-scandal as a governance issue. Questions are rightly being asked about the RTÉ executive management’s control over governance and finances. But this disaster demonstrates the issues also extend to creative projects. The failure speaks for itself. With Coveney now gone, it’s time anyone at a senior level in RTÉ who didn’t shout stop provides more detail on what was spent and where - and then swiftly exits stage left.