Paradise Square is a new musical that opened in Chicago last month at the James M. Nederlander Theatre. This is based on a true story set in New York City in 1863, when Black and Irish immigrants lived together in a lower Manhattan community during the draft riots.
Out director Moises Kaufman brings a strong resume to this new endeavor, not only for directing but writing numerous plays. He has a long list of credits, including his Tony-nominated revival of Torch Song and The Heiress, the latter with Jessica Chastain. He is best known for creating The Laramie Project with other members of Tectonic Theater Project; he is a founding member of the company along with his husband, Jeffrey LaHoste.
Windy City Times: Tell our readers what drew you to the story of Paradise Square in the first place.
Moises Kaufman: To me, what was really exciting was to try to tell the story of this place that people know very little about. This was a place where social constructs were being constructed that took everybody by surprise.
The fact that they were still trying to have this life together felt like an attempt at the democratic social construct that we are still struggling with today. I really wanted to live in that bar and see what it did.
WCT: How would you describe this show, in a nutshell?
MK: It is a true story about a group of Americans who lived in New York City during the Civil War and tried to live by their own rules.
WCT: What were the challenges of developing Paradise Square in Chicago?
MK: The biggest challenge was COVID. It is very hard to direct a show when you are always wearing a mask.
WCT: Where did you find the lead Joaquina Kalukango, who plays Nelly O'Brien?
MK: That was our producer Garth H. Drabinsky. He found her through our friends in casting.
WCT: The song she sings, "Let It Burn," is a show-stopping momentmuch as "Defying Gravity," [which] happens before intermission in Wicked. Why did you choose to have the song land toward the end of the second act?
MK: That is a good question. Honestly, that is where we needed that story point. Musicals are done in a very organic process. With this song, it was all part of that process.
WCT: What changes would you like to make in New York?
MK: I think we would like to keep focusing on the characters that the audiences are really connecting with, for example, Nelly. We want to continue to do that and do it well.
WCT: Tell our readers about the LGBTQ+ plot point in Paradise Square.
MK: In this time period there were two people that helped in the Underground Railroad that happened to be two lesbians. It is a very moving thing to see them try to help people get through their journey with the Underground Railroad.
WCT: I have a few questions about your career. What did you learn from making The Laramie Project?
MK: What is interesting about The Laramie Project is that much like Paradise Square it is also about a community. Both communities go through very different things, but those are the similarities between the two plays. There are individual characters that you follow, but you are also watching a group of people trying to live their lives in a difficult space.
WCT: Have you spent much time in Chicago in the past?
MK: Yes, I directed I Am My Own Wife at the Goodman Theatre so was there before the Broadway debut.
WCT: Have you watched Jessica Chastain play Tammy Faye in the movie yet?
MK: Yeshow brilliant she was! Wasn't she just stunning? I was just so riveted by that performance. I want her to win an Oscar for that.
WCT: I've got a feeling Jessica will be nominated. Describe the moment you received the 2016 National Medal of Arts.
MK: It was a culmination of many years of work. It was wonderful because it came from President Barack Obama's hands. Obama was a president that I respected a great deal. Obama was also the president that passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act with legislation. That made it even more moving to me that I got it from him.
WCT: Well, let me take a second and thank you for all you have done for the LGBTQ+ community with the arts and your work.
MK: Jerry, that is very kind of you. Thank you so much for telling me that. I appreciate it.
WCT: What projects do you have planned after Paradise Square?
MK: I am doing a new play called Here There Are Blueberries. It begins at the La Jolla Playhouse in the summer of 2022.
There is also a play I have written about Venezuela called The Adventures of Juan Blanchard. It is about the destruction of my native country. Those are my two big upcoming projects…
WCT: That sounds very personal. Well, I hope Paradise Square comes back to Chicago on a tour in the future.
MK: From your mouth to God's ears!
Take a trip to Paradise Square by Sunday, Dec. 5, in Chicago at James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; or purchase tickets for the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York for previews beginning Feb. 22, 2022. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com or ParadiseSquareMusical.com for more information.