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A Producer Seeks a Broadway Comeback, Mired in Offstage Drama

“When Garth Drabinsky is involved, people are rightly concerned that all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed,” said David Levy, an Equity spokesman. The problems were apparently resolved, but it was hardly the sort of incident anyone wants at the outset of a Broadway run.

Drabinsky blamed a delay in delivering final contracts for the dispute, and misunderstandings about what the actors were owed when the show transferred to New York from Chicago. “The Chicago contract froze the deal for New York,” he said. “There was no variation allowed. They were asking for something we were not committed to give.”

What’s more, Drabinsky stressed, he is not in charge of the show’s finances — an arrangement made explicit by the limited partnership formed to bring it to Broadway. “I walked away from every element of fiscal control of this show,” he added. “I don’t sign checks. I don’t get involved. I never want to live through the horror of what I went through in 1998 again.”

Instead, he’s been working to get “Paradise Square” in shape for Broadway. The show began life nine years ago with a small-scale musical called “Hard Times,” written by the Irish American musician Larry Kirwan, lead singer of the rock band Black 47. It is set during the Civil War, in the gritty Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, where Irish immigrants and freed Black Americans lived together — and where Stephen Foster (whose music formed the bulk of the score) resided during his final years. The show climaxes with the draft riots of 1863, when white working-class New Yorkers formed violent racist mobs following a draft lottery.

Drabinsky loved the concept, but shied away from anchoring the show in Foster’s music, with its romanticization of the slavery-era South. So he set about reworking the piece, hiring the composer Jason Howland to write a new score (only two Foster songs remain), a succession of writers to shift the story’s focus to the owner of a neighborhood saloon (played by the Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango), and a top-notch creative team, including Kaufman, as the director, along with the choreographer Bill T. Jones.

The themes of racial justice and the immigrant experience have long attracted Drabinsky, and their currency has only grown in the years of development, which included a 2019 workshop production in Berkeley, Calif. “When the show began to parallel what was happening today in America and the world, it was sort of freaky,” he said. “And it hasn’t stopped changing. Even to the point that days before our first preview, Russia invades Ukraine. Three million immigrants are now looking for a new home.”

Drabinsky also made an effort to diversify the creative team, hiring Christina Anderson, a Black playwright, to revise Craig Lucas and Kirwan’s script, and the composer-lyricist Masi Asare, who collaborated with Nathan Tysen on the lyrics.

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