In Chicago, the musical ‘Paradise Square’ nears its big pre-Broadway opening in a changed world

Producer Garth Drabinsky sweeps his hand across a recording studio in Midtown Manhattan. “You see the fiddler?” he asks. “Maybe the best fiddle player on Broadway.”

He shouts toward his videographer, whose job it is to seed the songs of a risky new $11.5 million musical called “Paradise Square” into the zeitgeist: “Be sure you get the harp.”

He leans in again: “She’s just a sensational harpist.”

There is the briefest of pauses as he answers another unasked question.

“Actually, this whole orchestra? Crème de la crème. Crème de la crème.”

The actors begin to sing a stirring anthem with roots in 19th century Manhattan but clear contemporary relevance following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It’s called “Breathe Easy.”

“Take a look at those lyrics. Alicia Keys should take this song and find a duet partner,” Drabinsky says, sliding over his script as he stabs at the words with his finger. “I think this is going to become a hymn for the world.”

Producer Garth Drabinsky at his desk during a rehearsal of

Producer Garth Drabinsky at his desk during a rehearsal of “Paradise Square” on Oct. 26, 2021 at the Nederlander Theatre. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Producers like the 71-year-old Canadian impresario used to walk tall, exhibiting their natural gifts for promotion, storytelling and self-belief, micromanaging every last detail as they reveled in not just their competence but their own expansive personalities. The smartest of them, and Drabinsky indisputably was among that number, made sure they stood for top quality: huge companies, epic production values, ambitious themes, emotional journeys, rich spectacles, colossal advertising budgets, blowout opening night parties, not so much shows as must-see theatrical events. Always for all demographics. Great producers would rather open a vein than admit their show was for one particular subset of humanity when all could be buying tickets.

Or, as Drabisnky succinctly puts it, “I only know how to do shows this way.”

In Drabinsky’s case, his producing chops have resulted in famous, lauded productions of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Show Boat,” “Ragtime” and “Fosse,” among others, along with the restoration of what is now known as the Lyric Theatre on Broadway, the home of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” And if one man could be said to be the father of the Chicago Theater District in the city’s Loop, Drabinsky is the closest to that guy.

He put Donny Osmond in “Joseph” at the Chicago Theatre, running it successfully for so long that Osmond moved to Wilmette and put his kids in school here. He restored the former Oriental Theatre (now Nederlander) to shimmering glory, snagging sponsorship from Ford Motor Company and sparking subsequent restorations of the Cadillac Palace Theatre and the former Shubert Theatre (now CIBC), restoring nighttime traffic to the Loop to the delight of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Along with Cameron Mackintosh, Drabinsky taught Chicago how to market long-running shows, to insist on Broadway quality for its signature attractions and embrace its status as the capital of Midwest live entertainment.

“Chicago,” he says, “always has been very hospitable to me.” The reality is that Chicago owes Drabinsky more than Drabinsky owes Chicago.

But Broadway has changed by its own design and the proud street has been shrunk by dint of near-impossible circumstances, mostly beyond its own control.

Producers mostly have been stripped of their personalities, replaced either by corporations or naturally cautious individuals wary of becoming a target by weighing in on something not to be weighed in on, and thus talking only off the record, carefully parsing every word, hyperbole replaced by fear. Instead of the boss pushing a project to a reporter, one superlative at a time, faceless marketing consultants have taken their place with data-driven, social-media strategies, shrouded in tech-driven anonymity.

And, in a minority of cases, producers have behaved badly, allowing rigor to morph into abuse and thus upending their own profession.

Drabinsky, in fact, went to prison for fraud and forgery, following a 2009 conviction in Canada, alongside his former partner Myron Gottfried, for operating a phony accounting system for his box offices and defrauding investors of some $500 million Canadian dollars. In essence, he kept two sets of books, a technique, it has been noted, not unlike that of Max Bialystock in “The Producers.”

Broadway’s focus of late has been on protections and better conditions for its workers; Drabinsky’s crimes mostly defrauded the already rich, meaning they haven’t exactly been at the center of progressive Broadway’s current slate of concerns. Still, Drabinsky was for a while unable to travel to the United States on fear of being arrested as a fugitive. And the rich have long memories. Sources say careful attention was paid to ensure “Paradise Square” had its $11.5 million budget in place.

It did. Thus, improbably, extraordinarily, remarkably, Drabinsky is back.

Time served. U.S. authorities fully satisfied.

Demonstrably, he is unbowed.

Not by changing times. Not by inflated costs. Not even by COVID-19 and its making the already daunting prospect of going out of town to create a new musical from scratch infinitely more challenging. No other producer has tried to create a massive new Broadway musical — with a cast of 38 and an orchestra of 14 — in these circumstances, let alone bring everyone “out of town,” in the New York parlance. Drabinsky’s peers have just been trying to stay alive.

Not only has Drabinsky returned to the theater he restored (the James M. Nederlander Theatre), but his “Paradise Square” begins tryout preview performances in Chicago Nov. 2 and opens Nov. 17. Its March 20 Broadway opening is set.

Unlike most musicals, the show is not based on a hit movie nor on the life and work of a pop star with a built-in fan base. Already it has had many gestations and artistic contributions but it is, in essence, the 1860s story of the people of Five Points, a depressed but culturally vital neighborhood in Lower Manhattan.

Located close to what is now known as Chinatown, Five Points was where poor Irish immigrants and free Black Americans coexisted in what the show posits as a unique, cross-cultural moment, where Irish step dancing joined with tap (a theme that was also part of the original “Riverdance” show) and interracial relationships flourished. In “Paradise Square,” Five Points functions as a kind of fleeting nirvana, a vista of what America might have been, only for the racism and ugliness of the post-Civil War era in America to effect its inevitable, subsequent destruction.

It so happens that Stephen Foster, the composer of such songs as “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” died in Five Points as a penniless alcoholic, just before the Draft Riots that became central to the show. It is with Foster’s music that “Paradise Square” began.

In the first version of the show, penned by Larry Kirwan, Foster was a character and the show, known as “Hard Times: An American Musical” was built around his music. That show was produced off-off Broadway in 2012 and it was how Drabinsky first became involved.

But it quickly became apparent that Foster’s music alone wouldn’t sustain what Drabinsky wanted to do, given that he saw in this piece something of a precursor to his other two epics of American historical change, “Showboat” and “Ragtime.” Before another staging at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019, he brought in new A-list people: the composer Jason Howland, the director Moisés Kaufman, the writers Craig Lucas, Marcus Gardley and Christina Anderson, the choreographer Bill T. Jones. Some of those creatives have come and gone through different versions and others have taken over their work: the complex credit in Chicago will read, book by Anderson, Gardley, Lucas and Kirwan; music by Howland; lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare; additional music by Kirwan inspired in part of Foster; directed by Kaufman and choreographed by Jones. Royalty checks will be split a lot of different ways.

“We’ve all been working this show for eight years,” says Kaufman. “Initially, Foster’s music was more present in the musical and so was his story. But it became apparent to us that the more interesting story here was in that saloon in ‘Paradise Square,’ the social experiment that was going on in Five Points and people trying to survive in that environment. In the end, Foster became a secondary character. What we see now is a group of outcasts who generated their own social contract, at a time when social contracts were nonexistent and, over the course of the show, we see that contract break down and have to face the reality of the outside world.”

And, although some of Foster’s music survived, there is now an original score.

“Frankly,” Howland says, “many of Foster’s songs were minstrel songs. The language now is untenable. And these songs are not the right songs to ask Black actors to sing. He stole this music and profited from its ideas. Foster might have been an important figure in American music, but we’re not going to get very far singing, ‘Doo dah, Do dah.’ Instead, we now have a score that gets harmonically more complex as the show gets more thematically complex. We have songs that talk about pain, loss, abuse and suffering, about the unfairness of poverty. But we’ve also tried to juxtapose the cultural narratives. You might get one person playing a fiddler, another a tambourine, another the bones. Musical elements and ideas come from both Irish culture and African-American culture. There was protest dance and protest music on all sides. We are aware of what’s at stake in terms of the stories we are telling and how we are telling them; it’s both a unique opportunity and a unique responsibility.”

COVID-19 has, without question, made everything harder. There is a rigorous (and costly) in-house testing regimen and a mask protocol. Just to satisfy COVID protocols, Drabinsky had to hire a staff of medical techs and jump through countless other hoops.

“Rehearsing in masks is difficult,” said Chilina Kennedy, the Canadian star playing one of the lead roles. “We’re in theater. We’re not accountants. But we can take our masks off when we are performing and everyone has been very, very careful. And, luckily, this is a very warm group of people. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I feel like we can get there.”

Kaufman says the whole experience has been like “trying to build a gigantic skyscraper in five weeks.”

“When we first got back into the room,” he says, “all of a sudden there was a room full of people, there was a sense of trepidation. Actors need to breathe to do what they do. I’m always trying to talk to large groups of actors and the masks get in the way of your ability to see people’s faces. It has not been easy.”

“The thing I love about this musical is that it now speaks to this moment.” says Joaquina Kalukango, a recent Tony Award nominee for “Slave Play” and now the star of “Paradise Square.” “Honestly, I didn’t think I would come back to the theater but then this wonderful musical came into my life.”

“This is a time for Black people when we just can’t catch a breath,” Kalukango says. “This cast is just so courageous.”

“The show looks back on the past in order to make the present and future better,” Howland says. “Isn’t that what we all are trying to do?”

That might be an understatement.

Weeks later, the company is crowded into a basement rehearsal room in Chicago, testing regimens complete, masks coming and going as the rules require. The show has, not unlike “Ragtime,” two distinct ensembles, one white and one Black. On this day, the Black members of the company are rehearsing “Breathe Easy.” The stresses of the song, and of the moment, are apparent. But the harmony abides. The mutual support is palpable.

Drabinsky now has an uphill battle to coax back audiences and sell tickets. There are discount ducats and even the promise of a free dinner with every purchase, all strategies designed to help Chicago audiences take a chance on an unknown show, and propel something forward.

But the show’s biggest asset surely is the belief of its old-school producer, a man with a compliment for every artist in the room, a stake in their futures, a determination to return to Broadway at a level no less than the one before his prior exit. And, above all, an unshakable conviction that this one show can change a lousy world.

“Looking back eight or nine months ago, I think nobody really could have anticipated just how hard this would be,” he says, smiling. “But I thought to myself, well, there sure won’t be many other new shows opening now. Not like this one. So why not?”

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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