This post is about a MWC group theater outing ! Boy, it has been a long time hasn’t it? With no small amount of optimism AND trepidation we are going to forge ahead for the rest of this year as though it has been just like any other year. Not! But, no matter, we are going to see the brand new, original, musical PARADISE SQUARE on WEDNESDAY, MARCH 30th at 2pm. We have a good-sized block of seats in the front mezzanine for $95 each. These will be available on a first-come-first-served basis; if we have more sign-ups than tickets we will try to get more, otherwise refunds will be provided.
Can there be a more hopeful, optimistic, daring, audacious and scary act than opening a huge, brand new, ORIGINAL musical on Broadway during the end of (we hope) a pandemic which has decimated the theater industry? I think not. Yet, the new musical, PARADISE SQUARE, after ten years of development and out-of-town productions will be arriving soon.
This is an old-fashioned, big-scale effort (think Les Mis, Ragtime, Hamilton …) which marries historic sweep (the New York Draft Riots of 1863) with compelling original music and updated period pieces (minstrel, Stephen Foster) amidst a backdrop of poverty, racial tensions and political unrest. The role of dance, particularly tap, is also key to the production and specifically to this story. This work focuses on a particularly rich and resonant period in our city’s and American history and portrays issues we are still fighting with today. If you’re NOT a student of NYC history, skip to the last paragraph!
The ironically named PARADISE SQUARE was a park in the middle of New York’s still-infamous (and now obliterated) Five Points slum. In the musical, PARADISE SQUARE refers to a saloon/ dancehall where the characters and action intersects. The Five Points (also featured in the Scorsese movie The Gangs of New York) was an area in Lower Manhattan in what is now Chinatown / Foley Square and was where the city’s impoverished newcomers and alienated, typically Irish and Blacks, ended up. It was an exceptionally violent and unhealthy place where the varied populations there maintained delicate truces with each other as they all fought against endemic deprivations.
Most pronounced was the fetid physical environment which led to illness and early deaths. The latter was because Five Points was literally located where the Collect Pond had been. The Collect Pond had been a fresh water source for lower Manhattan but eventually businesses located on its shores (breweries, slaughter houses and tanneries) polluted the water supply. In 1811, unable to reclaim it for its water, the Collect Pond was filled in – badly. Methane was released into the air. No storm sewers were installed and the land sank. As a result, buildings shifted, there was mud and excrement in the streets and it was a perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Anyone who could live elsewhere – did! But if you were poor you had nowhere else to go.
Fast forward fifty years and the Civil War has started. The area is largely populated by Irish immigrants and free Blacks, two groups with exuberant musical history which is expressed in neighborhood bars and dance halls. But the Civil War wasn’t going to fight itself and in 1863 Congress passed the “Enrollment Act”, the country’s first national conscription law. But, unlike later versions of the draft, this allowed for the use of substitutes whereby would-be draftees could pay for someone to be their “substitute” and serve in their place. Almost 70% of the Union Army was made up of substitutes. No surprise then that, overwhelmingly, those substitutes were impoverished white men (Blacks were not citizens), many of whom were new to the country and recently enrolled as citizens – and voters! – by Tammany Hall. The still famous NY DRAFT RIOTS ensued during four days – from July 13th-16th, 1863 – and remains the largest urban disturbance in American history. Many of the white men who were going to be substitutes figured working class jobs would be taken by Blacks. What started as a protest against the draft quickly morphed into a race riot.
This new work uses this period and puts some current issues – racial tensions, the definition of who and what is “American”, income inequality – into historic relief. The creative team behind PARADISE SQUARE includes, among many others, the wow-o-wow choreographer Bill T. Jones, director Moises Kaufman, writer Craig Lucas and, in his comeback moment, producer Garth Drabinsky.
While any theater production is an act of faith, PARADISE SQUARE may be particularly so given its timing and topic. So let’s reward the creative and financial moxie this team has marshalled to tell us this special story about our history and, perhaps, to celebrate a return to normal.