‘Paradise Square’ gives a history lesson from ‘the margins’
Black Americans and Irish immigrants in 1863 meld their cultures in the new musical opening in Chicago on its way to Broadway.
If you’re never heard of Five Points, New York, or the draft riots of 1863, you’re in for a potent history lesson courtesy of a new Broadway-bound musical opening in Chicago this fall.
The Five Points of this musical was a real place — one of the poorest and run-down tenements in 19th century Lower Manhattan (the same gritty setting for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”). By all historical accounts, it was not a pretty site, but it was, for a brief moment in time, a place where, in spite of the hardship and the racism of Civil War-era America, two diverse cultures lived and thrived together. Until some of the bloodiest riots in U.S. history raged for four days in 1863.
That’s the setup for “Paradise Square,” receiving its pre-Broadway engagement at the James M. Nederlander Theatre Nov. 2-Dec. 5. (“Paradise Square” has been in development for the past decade and was produced in January 2019 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.)
As the war between the states boils over, newly arrived Irish immigrants and free-born Black Americans and others who had escaped slavery in the South are living and working together amid the worst of conditions, but making the best life they could. Two cultures melded. Blacks and Whites married, had children, worked hard and believed in the American dream. Dance halls and bars dotted the neighborhood (the show’s title is one of the local watering holes, and setting for most of the action) and dance battles broke out. Irish step dancing and African Juba obliterated genre lines, ultimately birthing tap dance. And the music of Stephen Foster (a character in the play) set the tone for the milieu.
The show, conceived by Larry Kirwan and based on his 2012 musical “Hard Times: An American Musical,” has morphed into a wholly new iteration from the Berkeley Rep version, with a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan, who also contributed to Jason Howland’s score, along with Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones created the powerhouse choreography.
The musical also marks the big-time return of Tony Award-winning producer Garth Drabinsky, one of the leading Broadway impresarios of the 1990s, who was convicted of fraud and served time in a Canadian prison (all charges in the U.S. were subsequently dismissed). Drabinksy is no stranger to the Chicago theater scene; his now-defunct Livent production company brought “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with Donny Osmond in the title role to the Chicago Theatre for a record-breaking run. It was Drabinsky’s Livent that brought the battered Oriental Theatre (now the aforementioned Nederlander) back to life in 1998, ushering the rebirth of Chicago’s downtown theater district.
“I said to this cast, of all the shows I’ve done, this is the first time I’ve come into rehearsal with the script and music being so exquisitely sculpted and prepared, and frankly it’s because we’ve had the time in the last 18 months not to grieve and be depressed but to refine and make better and finally bring to fruition the essence of everything we were doing,” Drabinsky said of working on “Paradise Square” amid a pandemic, and his fervent desire to tell the Five Points story.
Moises Kaufman, the director of “Paradise Square,” added, “I’ve lived in Manhattan for 30 years and I never knew that Five Points had that kind of intensity,”
“I was very taken in by the story,” Kaufman continued. “In my work I’m interested in the intersection of the personal and political, whether it’s [Kaufman’s other stage works] ‘The Laramie Project” or ‘I Am My Own Wife’ or “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,’ I’m really interested in this idea of what happens when what society deems to be ‘the other’ becomes the recorder of history. What happens if we look at history through the eyes of these people who were at the margins of a certain culture? What do we see? … I immediately felt like this [show] was something that I wanted to do.”
That Five Points existed in this manner 150 years ago is something Kaufman said should resonate with all who encounter the production. “What’s encouraging and sad is that a lot of what’s happening in our streets is happening on our stage,” Kaufman mused. “... And we started doing [this production] way before Black Lives Matter.”
The people of Paradise Square (it too is a real place) co-existed because they had to in order to survive, he said. The violent Civil War draft riots, though not the core of the show, hammer that home, as do the show’s powerful anthems of anger, hope, despair and promise.
“The riots (led by working-class Irish immigrants) went north, uptown, because they wanted to hurt the rich people who could avoid the draft altogether by paying $300,” Kaufman said, the fee signifying an out-of-reach sum for immigrants (Blacks were not considered citizens and therefore not subject to the draft). “Then they came back downtown to attack African Americans” as well as white abolitionists and business owners.
Kaufman is adamant that the show does not romanticize the subject matter. “This is not ‘Camelot,’ ” he said with a chuckle.
The production also exemplifies the need for increased diversity on theater stages and also behind the scenes (“Hamilton” comparisons have been made).
“Our team is Black, Latinx. It’s exciting,” said composer/lyricist Masi Asare, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she teaches a course in musical theater history. “There are people of a lot of backgrounds on the show and I have to say it’s an interesting time to be a Black woman writer of musicals. The projects I signed on to and have been really excited to join are those where there has already been a long history of having women in the room, people of different races in the room; and that is certainly the case with this project.”
Asare said she was tapped to help with major rewrites this past year, lending a key Black voice to the Black voices of the show, in addition to bringing her historical perspective to the Stephen Foster character.
“Audiences can now very clearly see how [Foster] took up material from Black artists that he met and repackaged it as his own in ways that he and the music business at the time profited from those uncredited contributions of Black artists.”
Added Kaufman, “The musical takes a look at the social conflicts that are still the basis today of how we live in America. These people at this time and place believed that some of these social contracts could actually work. … They saw a new kind of world that was possible. It’s an exploration of what it took to create what they created, not just an ode to what they did.”