First-time 'Paradise Square' Tony nominees on why hard work and dedication pays off
Six of the show's cast and creative team members got their first Tony Award nominations in 2022.
It's a banner year for new Broadway talent. For the 2022 Tony Awards, 68 nominees are first-timers, and of those, 40 are nominated for their Broadway debut, according to a Broadway News report. These newly minted honorees are scattered among many of this year's top shows, such as Best Musical nominees A Strange Loop, Six, and MJ The Musical.
However, there's a particularly large concentration of first-timers — six of them — in Paradise Square, another Best Musical nominee that's tied for the second-most nominations with 10. (MJ also has 10, and both trail A Strange Loop's 11.)
This original mega-musical with a 40-person ensemble dramatizes the lead-up to the Draft Riots of 1863 amid the Civil War. The story is centered at a fictional Lower Manhattan tavern called Paradise Square, where free Blacks and Irish immigrants mingle freely until the riots disrupt their harmony. In simple terms, the Irish must serve but don't want to, and the Blacks want to but can't.
This isn't the first rodeo for some of Paradise Square's nominees. Among them are Best Leading Actress frontrunner Joaquina Kalukango, whose 11 o'clock number "Let It Burn" has brought her multiple mid-show standing ovations. She was previously nominated in 2020 for Slave Play. Best Choreography nominee Bill T. Jones combined Irish step, African Juba, and tap choreography to drive Paradise Square's storytelling, and he's now a five-time nominee (and two-time winner). Composer Jason Howland got a Best Play nomination in 1999 for producing The Lonesome West, though his Best Original Score nomination is his first for music writing. But that doesn't make the six first-timers any less remarkable.
"This is what it's about, right?" said first-time Best Featured Actor nominee Sidney DuPont. "What's so exciting is when you see new talent emerge, new stars are born."
Treading the boards
Of course, "new" isn't entirely accurate, as some of the Paradise Square nominees have been in the theatre business for years, as fellow first-time Best Featured Actor nominee A.J. Shively noted. "I just think about Joaquina, who's been doing excellent work for so long. Charlie Rosen for orchestrations, who I worked with the first time 15 years ago. We were just like little guys." (Rosen did the Paradise Square orchestrations, and he is nominated for his work A Strange Loop. He won a Tony Award last year for his work on Moulin Rouge! The Musical.)
"We're all able to be at all these events together and take some of the scary away," continued Shively. "It feels great to be surrounded by people who I've seen and respected and rooted for for so long."
Another industry vet is bookwriter Larry Kirwan. While Paradise Square is his first Broadway credit, he has a stacked career: Kirwan's 10 other musicals have played elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe, and he's been the frontman of the rock band Black 47 since 1989.
Although he couldn't have gotten a Tony nod for any of this non-Broadway work, he still quipped, "I should've [been nominated] 20 years earlier!"
More seriously, though, he continued: "I don't really think that much in terms of awards. 'Did you get it right?' is the big thing. That's the real reward. But at the same time, it's nice. It seems to be more important to the people around me, my family. They think, 'He wasn't crazy just sitting there writing, playing songs, and whatever. There's a method to his madness.'"
A team effort
Kirwan co-wrote the book with four-time nominee Craig Lucas and fellow first-timer Christina Anderson. New York Theatre Guide collectively spoke with her, Howland, and lyricists Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, and Anderson said sharing the joy of being nominated together was her favorite part.
"To be up here with these three is the real win for me, just being able to share this opportunity with them," she said. "They've been a blast through all the ups and downs and curves and the triumphs and the 'Let's go have a bourbon's.'"
Speaking of Tysen and Asare, they're also first-time nominees, nominated together with Howland for Best Original Score.
"This is a really, really hard industry and it likes to break your heart a lot more than it likes to fill your heart," Tysen said. Tysen has written lyrics for the short-lived Broadway musicals Tuck Everlasting and Amélie, so this year's nomination celebrates his years of hard work.
"I find that I keep writing because the thing that I like to do is be with people like this and create songs," he said, "but a little recognition every once in a while can really help!"
For Asare, her nomination is a step toward making the industry a little less heartbreaking, to borrow Tysen's phrasing. She's one of few Black female theatre songwriters and even fewer nominees, but like Kirwan, her nomination is most significant to the people around her — namely, the next generation of writers she mentors.
"In the category of Best Score, there have only ever been five Black women songwriters nominated," said Asare. "I got a message from a young Philippine-American songwriter who I've mentored through the [American] Theatre Wing program. She is so excited, and I think that made me excited all over again... I'm excited about what doors I might be able to open in the future for others."
The next generation
In addition to the creative team, actors DuPont and Shively are both nominated for the first time. In Paradise Square, the two represent their respective ethnic groups' larger divide, competing for a sum of money that would get Shively's character out of the draft or DuPont's character, an escaped slave, out of the country. They duke it out in a thoroughly thrilling, high-octane dance battle where everything is on the line.
When asked what his now-Tony-nominated self would tell his younger self, DuPont said: "'Patience, young grasshopper.' Sometimes we think that everything is happening in a small bubble, especially when you're growing up in the inner city. [You're] waiting for life to begin. You feel like you're waiting for people to see you and to feel seen. And here I am. So I would tell my younger self that it's worth it. It's worth it. Just keep doing your work, honing your craft, and it's worth it."
"I'm just excited to see where everyone goes from here," he continued. "No matter if we win or lose, I feel like we've already won."
Photo credit: Best Featured Actor nominees Sidney DuPont and A.J. Shively in Paradise Square. (Photo by Kevin Berne)
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