Jigs and Juba reunited in NYC

A new African-Irish musical based on immigrants in New York could rival Hamiltons Broadway success, writes Julian Brouwer

Julian Brouwer
18 July 2021

This week saw the Broadway musical Hamilton muscle its way up the Emmys list, scooping 12 nominations for the live-streamed version of the stage performance. The show has grossed over $612m to date and also won 11 gongs at the 70th Tony Awards. The musical, it seems, is back with a bang and the hunt is on for the next extravaganza.

Step up Paradise Square, which will be one of the most anticipated stage musicals to make it to Broadway since the pandemic began.

The new musical tells the story of how Irish immigrants fled the horrors of the Famine and settled in New York in the mid-1800s, living side by side with Black Americans in a racial powder keg, a slum called Five Points. The same area in downtown Manhattan was immortalised in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York.

Set mainly in a dance hall, the show traces the mix of African and Irish traditions that contributed to the development of tap as a dance form. According to the producers, it depicts a multiracial community “bound together by misery and music.”

Through their shared cultures, expressed in dance contests at local dance halls, tap dancing – a combination of Juba dance and Irish step dancing – evolved.

The action takes place in 1863 when the communities living in Five Points were disrupted by class, race, and economic tensions associated with the Civil War, and which eventually led to the New York City draft riots.

The idea for the show originated with Wexford-born musician Larry Kirwan, who was for 25 years the lead singer with Irish-American band Black 47.

He says he drew inspiration from stories his Irish grandfather told him about Five Points and its thriving dance halls.

Kirwan, who lives in New York, says: “Paradise Square is about two brutalised peoples, Irish and African American, one fleeing famine, and one fleeing slavery, who meet in the Five Points.

“They bond with each other through dance music. [After the African Americans first settled in Five Points], you got this big swarm of Irish immigrants who joined them in 1845 because of the Great Hunger.

“There are definitely parallels with Hamilton. Both deal with race and immigration, which are huge topics in America. Both are historical and musical. In Paradise Square, two groups of people get together and created a new society and it can happen again.

“At that time the Irish were actually lower on the social ladder than the African Americans. Many of the African Americans and the Irish intermarried and became what was known then as Amalgamationists.

“I used to read old books about the era. I would see pictures of Irish fiddlers playing Irish jigs, while the African Americans played with them. They were coming up with a new music. I began to look at pictures of the dancers – it was always the same – a Black man and an Irish woman. The look of joy in their faces beamed across the years. There was something special between them. The harmony between Irish and Blacks would only last 18 years until the Draft Riots claimed the lives of a dozen black people, who were lynched.

“Some of them stayed in New York but gradually it wasn’t cool any more to be an Amalgamationist,” says Kirwan. “It was dangerous to be one. The movement, such as it was, faded away.”

The writing team on the production includes Kirwan and veteran playwrights Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas.

They are working on rearranged and re-lyricised songs of 19th-century composer Stephen Foster, who spent the final months of his life in Five Points. Direction is by Moisés Kaufman, who is also directing Seven Deadly Sins this summer.

The production will star Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango – who is best known for another Broadway show The Color Purple – as lead character Nelly Freeman, and Chilina Kennedy.

The show also represents a comeback bid by the controversial producer Garth Drabinsky, who won three Tony Awards in the 1990s, including for Kiss of the Spider Woman.

“The public will tell me whether this is a comeback – I can’t predict anything – but I am certainly exhilarated,” he said. “I’m just thrilled to be back where I always longed to be, and doing what I always longed to do, which is to creatively produce theatre.

“Listening to this music I know is 150 years old and sounds like it was recorded yesterday, I got really excited about it.”

Kaufman said the show is particularly timely, as America grapples with its attitudes toward immigration and race.

“I’m fascinated by how we can discover the ideologies which we live under, so this was perfect for me,” he said.

“Five Points seemed like a really interesting social experiment. It wasn’t an ideological utopia – they were there because they could only afford to be there – and yet they were doing this thing that we all say we’re interested in doing, and it interests me to think about why it blew up.”

Paradise Square will open at Broadways Barrymore Theatre next February, after a test run at Chicagos James M Nederlander Theatre