Discover the true stories that inspired ‘Paradise Square’ on Broadway
Learn about the real events, people, and places featured in the Tony-nominated musical.
Paradise Square is the second-most Tony nominated show this season (alongside MJ The Musical) with 10 nods. Led by Tony winner Joaquina Kalukango (who won Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical), Paradise Square is based on true events from a part of New York history that not many Americans know about.
The musical is set in 1863 during the Civil War, in Lower Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood. This real-life neighborhood used to house free Black Americans and Irish immigrants, who lived together, worked together, and married each other. Kalukango’s character Nelly owns a saloon called Paradise Square, where most of the musical’s action takes place.
Paradise Square features music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Masi Asare and Nathan Tysen, and a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Larry Kirwan, and Craig Lucas. After seeing this stirring new musical, and being thoroughly moved by it and Kakulango’s explosive performance, you'll want to learn more about the historical events that inspired Paradise Square. Here’s what you should know.
Paradise Square’s setting is real, even if the saloon is not.
In Paradise Square, Kalukango’s Nelly owns a saloon in the Five Points neighborhood, which was established in 1820 in lower Manhattan. It was called Five Points because the intersection at its center looked like a five-spoked wheel. There was also a public park called Paradise Square. The neighborhood was built over a filled-in freshwater lake. The buildings placed on top of it would sink and sag, and were notoriously damp, making it a breeding ground for diseases. Because of this bug in its design, housing in Five Points was cheap, making it a destination for new Irish immigrants and freed Black Americans.
Paradise Square has two interracial marriages at its center. Nelly has a white husband, an Irish man named Willie (Matt Bogart). Her sister-in-law Annie (Chilina Kennedy) is married to a Black pastor named Samuel (Nathaniel Stampley). Although the particular characters in Paradise Square are fictional, their circumstances are based on real events.
This was common in 19th-century New York. Though many states had anti-miscegenation laws, New York never had laws banning interracial marriage. Said producer Garth Drabinsky, “Irish immigrants, who at the time were relegated to the lowest rung of American social and economic status, were welcomed by their Black American neighbors. These two communities not only coexisted, they lived together, loved each other, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures.”
Paradise Square shows how tap dance was created.
In Paradise Square, the Irish characters and the Black characters share space in Nelly’s saloon, drinking and dancing together. Bill T. Jones’s choreography (which received a Tony nomination) showcases Irish step-dancing as well as African juba. Those styles then blend onstage to create tap dancing. No one in the musical remarks on that blending, but it is historically accurate.
Tap dancing can be traced back to one man, William Henry Lane, also known as Master Juba. Born to freed African slaves, Lane lived in the Five Points neighborhood, where he would dance in the saloons and dance halls for food and coins. Even Mark Twain saw Lane dance in 1841 in the Five Points, calling him “the greatest dancer known.” Lane would later be the one of the first Black performers to perform for white audiences, as part of minstrel shows.
As part of his signature style, he combined the Irish step dancing that he saw in the saloon halls with African shuffle, walkaround, and juba. Many scholars and dancers credit Lane as the “father of tap dance.”
Paradise Square contains a real historical figure.
Paradise Square is based on a 2012 musical by Kirwan called Hard Times, which was set in the Five Points neighborhood and featured the music of Stephen Foster. Foster was a 19th-century composer who wrote more than 200 songs, including “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” Foster also resided in Five Points in the last years of his life. He was an alcoholic who died from a fall at age 37. His music has been criticized following his death for idolizing the South and appropriating Black culture. Foster’s songs borrow from Black stories and were used in blackface minstrel shows.
Paradise Square has come a long way from Hard Times, but Foster is still a character in it; he’s a pianist at Nelly’s saloon. To find out how he figures into the plot and how his music is still a part of the score of Paradise Square, you will have to see the show for yourself.
Paradise Square deals with an ugly event in history: the Draft Riots.
Paradise Square dramatizes a historical event that affected Five Points: the Draft Riots of 1863 (which was also dramatized in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York). In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a draft, where all male citizens between 20 and 35, and unmarried men between 35 and 45, could be called on to the front lines of the war. They could buy their way out of the draft by paying $300 ($5,800 in today’s dollars), an impossible sum for the poor and working class. African-American men were exempted from the draft because they were not considered citizens.
On July 13, 1863, angered by the draft, working white men and women began rioting, beginning in Lower Manhattan and then moving up the island. The riot would last for three days and would come to a halt with the arrival of 4,000 federal troops. The mob targeted Black businesses and Black residents. The Draft Riots caused millions of dollars in property damage and left 3,000 Black New Yorkers homeless. In total, 120 people were killed.
After the Draft Riots, free Black men were allowed to form their own Civil War military regiment. Many Black residents of Manhattan also left the island, moving to Brooklyn and beyond. In 1860, there were 12,414 Black New Yorkers. By 1865, that number was 1,865.
Paradise Square shows a racial mecca that is disrupted by violence, showing that progress is always at the risk of being undone. The musical also shows that the great American experiment is still being conducted to this day, to see if different groups of people can truly live together and love each other.
“The Five Points is known for violence, poverty and destruction,” Kalukango told Forbes. “But we also show a different side — including love and community between these different groups.”
She also added, “Our show is about community, power and what America truly could be.”