Top 10 reasons to see 'Paradise Square' on Broadway
Discover more about why you can't miss this Tony Award-winning musical.
Musical theatre paradise is at the Barrymore Theatre in the form of Paradise Square, one of the most Tony-nominated hit shows of 2022. The show takes its name from a fictional tavern run by an interracial couple, Nelly and Willie O'Brien, who represent the broader congregation of Irish immigrants and free Blacks in 1863 Lower Manhattan. Their bar is a place where these two groups mingle in harmony — until the Draft Riots of 1863 break out and pit them against each other.
Paradise Square isn't just your average history lesson, though. This show bursts with energetic song and dance and puts a fresh twist on history, representing broad issues through the love and tension between a small group of characters. Plus, the show features the work of lots of diverse, pioneering creators, including Tony Award winner Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly. Read on to discover more reasons why Paradise Square might just be your little piece of Eden, and get your tickets on New York Theatre Guide.
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It's a mega-musical with a huge cast.
If you like old-fashioned spectacle on stage, Paradise Square is the musical for you: A 40-person ensemble performs the show's rousing song-and-dance numbers. This ensemble mainly plays the regulars at the Paradise Square tavern, and the performers deliver all the excitement and energy you'd expect from a bustling bar, with more rhythm. Plus, the group numbers will catch your eye and make you want to groove along, but the size of the ensemble also makes the solo numbers stand out that much more.
Paradise Square received 10 Tony nominations in 2022.
With those 10 nominations, Paradise Square was the second-most nominated show of the 2021-22 Broadway season, second only to A Strange Loop's 11 and tied with MJ The Musical. Its nominations included Best Musical, Best Leading Actress in a Musical (for Joaquina Kalukango, who won), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (for A.J. Shively and Sidney DuPont), Best Choreography, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Find out more about Paradise Square at the 2022 Tony Awards.
Tony winner Joaquina Kalukango brings the house down.
If you watched the 2022 Tony Awards broadcast, you saw Kalukango's ferocious performance of "Let It Burn," the showstopping 11 o'clock number of Paradise Square. And we literally mean showstopping — Kalukango delivers that song with that much passion and force every night, regularly earning a mid-show standing ovation. That's not even to mention the rest of the show, where she delivers gentleness, joy, pain, and so much more as Nelly O'Brien. It's no wonder she won the Tony Award, and her performance can't be missed.
The musical features the work of trailblazing Black artists.
In addition to Kalukango and lots of other performers on stage, there are lots of Black creatives behind the scenes that made Paradise Square possible. These include choreographer Bill T. Jones and costume designer Toni-Leslie James, both 2022 Tony nominees with decades-long careers in the theatre. There are also Broadway-debut artists who, though they didn't win in their respective categories, made history just by being nominated.
Masi Asare, who co-wrote the lyrics and was co-nominated for Best Original Score, became the fifth Black woman in history to be nominated in that category. And Christina Anderson, one of the bookwriters of Paradise Square co-nominated for Best Book of a Musical, was only the seventh Black woman in history to be nominated in that category. By seeing Paradise Square, you'll be supporting the work of trailblazing Black female artists.
Paradise Square is based on real history you might not know about.
The Paradise Square tavern may be fictional, but its neighborhood isn't. The Five Points neighborhood on the Lower East Side is sometimes called the "original American melting pot," as the cultural mixing of its free Black and immigrant Irish populations — the neighborhood's earliest residents — actually happened. Plus, there was a Black-owned dance hall called Almack's where Irish and African dance were known to have combined, and this hall is a clear inspiration for Paradise Square.
The tension between the groups depicted in the musical, too, is part of New York history. The major historical conflict dramatized in Paradise Square is the 1863 Draft Riots, which were mainly led by working-class Irish men who resented the draft and later turned into riots targeting Black people. This large-scale racial conflict is shown through a small group of once-close-knit characters at the tavern, giving emotional heft to the history on stage.
There's lot's of high-energy dancing.
Jones's choreography borrows from two main dance styles: Irish step and African juba, representing the cultural histories of the two ethnic groups who collided in Five Points. As the show progresses, these two styles combine more and more. One of the key scenes, for example, is a dance-off between the Irish Owen (Shively) and the Black Washington (DuPont), who start out each doing their own styles but cleverly incorporate each other's as they go on.
What's more, this blend of styles is historically accurate. In real life, which the choreography alludes to, those two styles combined into modern tap dance! So if you've ever seen and loved high-stepping theatre tap numbers on a Broadway stage, go and see Paradise Square to discover how they came to be.
You might hear some familiar classic tunes.
In addition to original songs by composer Jason Howland and lyricists Masi Asare and Nathan Tysen, Paradise Square includes some songs from the songbook of Stephen Foster. Foster is considered the "father of American music," and his classic American folk songs include "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races." Paradise Square doesn't just slot in his music for historical accuracy, though: Foster is a character in the musical, and the show sheds a new, critical light on the way he created his famous tunes.
Paradise Square is one of multiple history musicals on Broadway right now.
Musicals like Hamilton and Six have already earned success not just on Broadway, but worldwide, for putting a fresh spin on historical events (the lives of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and Henry VIII's six wives, respectively). If you enjoyed those shows, why not give Paradise Square a try? This show stands apart from those not just because it centers on a different era of history, but uses a different musical style. Whereas Hamilton is rooted in hip-hop and rap and Six uses pop, Paradise Square employs a more classic musical theatre sound with folk influences.
Paradise Square is part of a trifecta with the beloved musicals Show Boat and Ragtime.
Each of these shows musicalizes a different era of American history, and they all focus on race relations and feature a large ensemble cast. Producer Garth Drabinsky is behind them all, beginning with the 1993 Show Boat revival and continuing with the 1998 premiere of Ragtime on Broadway. Though it premiered last, Paradise Square is the first in historical order: The show is set in 1863, while Show Boat begins in 1887 and Ragtime in the early 1900s. If you're a fan of either or both of these musicals, see what other similarities you can spot!
The show delivers a message of hope for the future.
Though the Draft Riots, racism, classism, and more threaten the harmony between the Paradise Square characters, Nelly relentlessly fights to preserve the safety, harmony, and community she's fostered for them all at her tavern. Ultimately, the show presents a hopeful vision for an equitable, inclusive society where everyone fights for each other, instead of against each other.
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