Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Musicals That Reflect America's Melting Pot

There's an old saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." If one looks at today's headlines immigration, racism, religious fundamentalism, and income inequality are still hot topics. New terms may have been added to the conversation (such as "cultural appropriation," "Black Lives Matter," and "Tiki Torch Nazis") but the issues that divide -- rather than unite -- Americans remain surprisingly consistent.

Immigrants come to America from all parts of the world. During the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), San Francisco was the destination of choice for clipper ships carrying prospectors eager to stake out a claim. Among the musicals inspired by Asian immigrants and subsequent generations of Asian Americans are 1958's Flower Drum Song and The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga (which received its world premiere from TheaterWorks Silicon Valley during the summer of 2017). Gold Mountain, a musical by Jason Ma (recipient of the 2017 ASCAP Cole Porter Award) will receive four performances in May as part of Utah's celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike that completed the nation's First Transcontinental Railroad.

Most musicals that focus on immigration and cultural assimilation contain stories of people who entered the United States through New York City. Based on Elmer Rice's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Street Scene opened on Broadway in 1946 with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes. In 1957, West Side Story (an updated version of Shakespeare's tragic Romeo and Juliet with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents) depicted the racial tensions between two street gangs: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white Jets. In 1959, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Fiorello! (with book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) showed how Fiorello H. LaGuardia gained support from various immigrant communities on his path to becoming Mayor of New York.

Following his triumph as Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Tom Bosley returned to the musical stage in 1968's The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n, a short-lived musical with music and lyrics by Oscar Brand and Paul Nassau that was based on some of Leo Rosten's fictional characters. Other musicals depicting the challenges faced by immigrants who sailed past the Statue of Liberty bursting with hope for a better life in the New World include 1986's Rags (book by Joseph Stein, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and music by Charles Strouse) and 1998's Ragtime (based on E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens).

The two minorities often credited with shaping a great deal of American music are the country's Jewish immigrants and the African Americans whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships.

Other musicals depicting the African-American experience include 1940's Cabin in the Sky (music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John LaTouche), 1946's St. Louis Woman (music by Harold Arlen with a cast featuring Pearl Bailey and the Nicholas Brothers), 1967's Hallelujah, Baby! (which marked the Broadway debut of Leslie Uggams), and 1983's The Tap Dance Kid (in which the 11-year-old Savion Glover made his Broadway debut when he took over the title role from Alfonso Ribiero).

Popular musical revues featuring songs by Black composers have included 1976's Bubbling Brown Sugar, 1978's Ain't Misbehavin' (focusing on the music of Fats Waller) and Eubie! (devoted to the music of Eubie Blake), and 1979's One Mo' Time (set in New Orleans during the era of African-American vaudeville. 1981's Sophisticated Ladies showcased the music of Duke Ellington, (whose "lost" opera, Queenie Pie, was resurrected in 1986 by the American Music Theatre Festival in Philadelphia as part of a co-production with the Kennedy Center).

In 1995, Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk told the history of African Americans from slavery to the present through tap dancing. Popular jukebox musicals devoted to the work of Black artists have included 2013's Motown: The MusicalAfter Midnight, and 2018's Tina (a show about Tina Turner that premiered in London). Next month, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations (which received its world premiere from Berkeley Repertory Theatre in August of 2017) will begin previews at the Imperial Theatre with a Broadway opening scheduled for March 21.

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Berkeley Rep recently presented the world premiere of a new musical with a heavy emphasis on African Americans and Irish immigrants trying to coexist in a small piece of turf in New York City. Set in the 20-block area known as the Five Points section of lower Manhattan, much of the action takes place in the Paradise Square bar, where violence is not welcome but interracial marriages are accepted.

As I sat in the Roda Theatre looking at a scenic drop that depicts a map of lower Manhattan, I couldn't help but smile when I saw Henry Street and remembered that that's the name of a song in Funny Girl. A subsequent scene featured a view of lower Manhattan's skyline that included Barnum's American Museum (which was built in 1841 and burned down in 1865). I fondly recalled that Glenn Close and Jim Dale starred in Cy Coleman's 1980 musical entitled Barnum.

Jacobi Hall, Bernard Dotson, and Clinton Roane in a
scene from Paradise Square (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Directed by Moisés Kaufman and written by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan, Paradise Square is set in the early 1860s. The bar's owner, Willie O'Brien (Brendan Wall) heads off to prove his patriotism by fighting for the Union, leaving his African-American wife, Annabelle "Nelly" Freeman (Christina Sajous) in charge of the business. She is helped by Will's sister, the feisty redheaded Annie O'Brien (Madeline Trumble) who, together with her African-American husband, Rev. Samuel E. Cornish (Daren A. Herbert) has been helping fugitives make their way north via the Underground Railroad.

Daren A. Herbert (Rev. Samuel E. Cornish) and
Madeline Trumble (Annie O’Brien) in a scene
from Paradise Square (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As business continues to dry up, three men arrive at Paradise Square in need of help. Owen Duignan (A. J. Shively) is Annie's Irish cousin who has just crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life. William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont) is a fugitive slave searching for his lover, Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton), who killed the master of the plantation where they lived. The third man is Stephen Foster who, by this stage in his life, has become a penniless alcoholic who abandoned his wife and child in Pittsburgh and fled to New York in search of inspiration.

By the time word reaches Paradise Square that Willie O'Brien has died in battle, the situation has become increasingly desperate. Posters have appeared depicting William Henry Lane as a fugitive slave with a $400 price on his head. Tensions are brewing between Irish-Americans who returned home from the Civil War only to discover that their jobs had been taken by Black workers who (though they may be getting being paid less) are getting the work done. Then, on March 3, 1963, Abraham Lincoln announces the first Federal draft. Although Blacks are barred from serving, wealthy white men can pay their way out of the draft for $300.

With Owen terrified of dying for a country he just arrived in, William desperate to find his lover and hold onto his freedom, and Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis) threatening violence if he doesn't get his job back, Nelly accepts a suggestion to hold a dance contest as a fundraiser (intending that the $300 prize will go to Owen so that he can buy his way out of the draft). When William demands an equal chance to dance for his freedom, the crisis takes an unexpected turn.

Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane) and A.J. Shively
(Owen Duignan) compete for a spare bed in a scene from
Paradise Square (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Shortly after the competition ends, word reaches Paradise Square that riots have broken out in response to Lincoln's announcement and angry crowds are headed downtown. A defiant Nelly comes up with a surprising plan of action which unites the bar's patrons as all hell breaks loose.

Nelly (Christina Sajous) urges friends and patrons of
Paradise Square to "burn it all down"
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Hailed as the most famous songwriter of the 19th century, Foster wrote 286 songs in less than two decades (his most famous include "Camptown Races," "Way Down South In Alabama," "What Must a Fairy's Dream Be?" "Massa's In de Cold Ground,"and "Old Black Joe." While "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" was inspired by his wife (Jane Denny McDowell), “Oh! Susanna” became an anthem for the men seeking their fortunes during the California Gold Rush. In 1928, “My Old Kentucky Home” became the official song of the state of Kentucky. In 1935, “Old Folks At Home” became the official state song of Florida.

The youngest of nine children, many of Foster’s songs were written for minstrel shows and looked down upon by some African Americans as “plantation music.” In recent years, as statues and other symbols of the Confederacy have fallen from favor, so has Stephen Foster. In the wake of a unanimous recommendation from the Pittsburgh Art Commission, Giuseppe Moretti’s statue of Foster which stood in Schenley Plaza for more than 75 years was removed on April 26, 2018. For playwright Marcus Gardley, the 19th-century songwriter posed a unique dramatic challenge.
“All the songs in Paradise Square are either inspired by pieces he wrote or versions of his songs that have been arranged. People grapple with some of his music because of the racial connotations. You could argue that some of it is questionable (especially the lyrics), but the music has endured. We don’t shy away from that. I love that question of how art can make us grapple with a period, but also make us look at its beauty and its quality.”
Jacob Fishel portrays songwriter Stephen Foster
in Paradise Square (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“A lot of the fun for a writer is fictionalizing what Foster might have spoken like, and how he would have walked through the world. If I were writing a musical and every song had a lyric that made people uncomfortable because it’s racist, then I would be shut down. What’s interesting about Stephen Foster is that his music is also a character -- Stephen Foster (the character) is just as present as his music. What we’re doing, in terms of appropriation, is taking Foster’s music and rearranging it so that it’s more comfortable for the contemporary ear. That way, we can talk about why it’s problematic. There’s something about Foster’s melodies that does qualify him, in my mind, as a great artist. I read some of his writing and loved looking at the language he used. I let that define the character.”
Lael Van Keuren, Erica Spyres, and Bridget Riley in a
scene from Paradise Square (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

An expanded version of Kirwan’s 2012 musical, Hard Times (which premiered at the Cell Theatre in New York and was revived there in 2014), Paradise Square contains key ingredients that have made other musicals highly successful. The intricately entangled plot lines are as compelling as those found in Les Misérables, Rags, and Ragtime. The urgent desperation as Act II races to its finale invokes memories of "City on Fire" from Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The exuberant choreography (Irish step dancing by Hammerstep, African-American/Juba dancing by Bill T. Jones) is every bit as thrilling as Christopher Gatelli's work in Newsies or the classic choreography by Jerome Robbins in West Side Story. And the recycling and rearranging of Foster's songs by Jason Howland, Larry Kirwan, and Nathan Tysen bring a surprisingly poignant tone to the new musical.

The miracle of it all is that Paradise Square never feels derivative (this is very much a show with its own voice and energy). The complex passions and relationships depicted onstage make the audience genuinely care about its characters. The story pulses with excitement as tensions build to a point of combustion. The epilogue offers surprising historical insights into the origins of vaudeville and tap dancing as new art forms.

Hailee Kaleem Wright, Karen Burthwright, and
Sidney Dupont in a scene from Paradise Square
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The large and energetic triple-threat ensemble lends strong support to production numbers like "Hard Times Come No More," "Ring, Ring the Banjo," and the finale, Foster's posthumously published "Beautiful Dreamer." Madeline Trumble's raucous rendition of "Gentle Annie" and the powerhouse delivery of "Let It Burn" by Christina Sajous offer sharp contrasts to Sidney Dupont's wistful delivery of "Angelina Baker" and A.J. Shively's fierce determination as he sings "I Will Not Die in Springtime."

Jon Weston's sound design never overpowers the audience or distorts Nathan Tysen's lyrics (a rare and welcome achievement these days). Don Holder's lighting beautifully complements Allen Moyer's scenic design (which makes smart use of a turntable and several movable towers). Together, they keep the action moving forward with a great sense of fluidity. Matthew B. Armentrout's wigs (combined with period costumes designed by Toni-Leslie James) help to keep the characters rooted in reality.

The cast of Paradise Square (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Putting this intense narrative over the footlights is a powerful set of principals led by Madeline Trumble as Annie O’Brien, A.J. Shively as Owen Duignan, Sidney Dupont as William Henry Lane, and Christina Sajous as Nelly. Fine supporting performances come from Jacob Fishel as Stephen Foster/Milton Moore, Kennedy Caughell as his wife (Janey Foster), Daren A. Herbert as Rev. Samuel E. Cornish, and Kevin Dennis (Mike Quinlan). Gabrielle McClinton's brief appearances as Angelina Baker add a touch of young love to the proceedings. Special mention should be made of Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman's outstanding Irish step dancing.

Performances of Paradise Square continue through February 24 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets).