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The post-Hamilton era of historical musicals has begun

With Suffs and Paradise Square, this season’s new musicals are reexamining the history books.

Phillipa Soo (foreground) in the world premiere musical Suffs at the Public Theatre.
Joan Marcus
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Seven years after Hamilton first hit Broadway, we’re finally beginning to see how large its legacy will loom. This spring, two new musicals are taking New York with an approach to history that gestures emphatically toward Hamilton: race-conscious, aiming for progressive ideas, and pitched squarely to the audiences of today. They pull it off with mixed results.

Broadway has always loved both a painfully earnest historical musical (see: 1776) and an arch and knowing deconstruction of history (see: Evita, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and, more recently, Six). Among Hamilton’s great innovations was that it found a way to serve both subgenres at once. Hamilton invited audiences to empathize sincerely with the travails of the Founding Fathers, and it also used its color-conscious casting to subtly critique America’s historical racism. It’s a tricky, supremely delicate balancing act, but Hamilton proved it could be done. Now its first true imitators are finally here.

On Broadway, cluttered and chaotic Paradise Square delves into the gritty history of New York’s Civil War-era Five Points district. There, Black and Irish Americans lived in the slums shoulder to shoulder, and, the leaden lyrics helpfully spell out, could “love who we want to love with no apology.” Downtown at the Public Theater, where Hamilton premiered, flawed, ambitious Suffs takes on the suffragist fight for the 19th Amendment and the flawed, ambitious women who brought it to pass. “Don’t forget our failure, don’t forget our fight,” they admonish.

Neither Paradise Square nor Suffs quite works at the level Hamilton did, although of the two, Suffs comes a hell of a lot closer. Together, they form a case study in the best and worst ways of putting Hamilton’s legacy to work.

Actors in period costume dance onstage.
Center, Joaquina Kalukango, Nathaniel Stampley, Chilina Kennedy, and the cast of Paradise Square.
Kevin Berne

Paradise Square has been in development for 10 years, since before Hamilton rewrote the rules of the historical musical. It began in 2012 as an off-Broadway show called Hard Times, written by Irish American musician Larry Kirwan and centered around Stephen Foster, the celebrated American pop composer of the 19th century. Its long and tortured development history shows in the final result.

Stephen Foster was in many ways a thoroughly American musical genius. He wrote songs still regularly hummed today (“Oh! Susanna,” “Swanee River”), but he also appropriated much of his music from Black culture and wrote racist songs meant for minstrel shows. He spent the last years of his life drinking away his money in the Five Points, where New York City’s poor Black and Irish populations lived next door to one another.

Hard Times put Foster and his music at the center of the Draft Riots of 1863, when working-class white men rioted over being drafted to fight for the Union in the Civil War. The idea was that the Five Points symbolized the possibility for racial solidarity, the riots showed America’s racial unrest, and Foster’s songs sat squarely in the middle of both. The show premiered in 2012 at New York’s Cell Theatre to largely positive reviews.

“Mr. Kirwan has not only delivered a knockout entertainment, he’s done a public service,” the New York Times review declared, “reacquainting us with the Foster songbook and the striving, teeming America for which it was written.”

Hard Times would become Paradise Square when controversial producer Garth Drabinsky signed on to shepherd the show to Broadway. Drabinsky, who was convicted of fraud and forgery in both Canada and the US in 2009, pinned a lot to this project, seeing it as a comeback vehicle of sorts after his release from Canadian prison in 2013. As he prepared for a 2019 workshop at the Berkeley Rep, he decided to thoroughly rework it.

Drabinsky “shied away from anchoring the show in Foster’s music, with its romanticization of the slavery-era South,” explained Richard Zoglin for the New York Times this April. Instead, he decided the show should be centered on the previously minor character of Nellie O’Brien, a Black woman married to an Irishman who owns the tavern called Paradise Square.

Drabinsky also felt that the show should have new music and a diverse creative team. To that end, he brought on writer after writer after writer. The final result credits Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan for the book, Jason Howland for the music, and Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare for the lyrics.

In its final version, Paradise Square sees Nellie struggling to keep her business afloat with her husband away at war, while rich white men from uptown slam her tavern with fines for trumped-up offenses. Her solution is to host a dance-off, with both her striving immigrant nephew and a formerly enslaved man on the run from the law competing for the trophy. Meanwhile, Stephen Foster lurks drunkenly on the sidelines, stealing songs, and a Civil War veteran who is one of Paradise Square’s patrons foments unrest at the new draft laws.

To be frank: This is too many plotlines from too many cooks. Paradise Square in the final product is cluttered and disjointed. It’s a musical by committee that circles blandly around its 10 (10!) major characters without succeeding in making a single one of them feel human or alive. It seems to know it can’t be great and so strives to be sentimental instead, and then fails at even that. It is unspecific and uninteresting; all the things that a show about awful, brilliant Stephen Foster could have avoided being.

If you’re making a musical about race in America, it’s a good idea to aim for a diverse creative team. And surely it’s reasonable to want to throw your resources behind a story that centers the experiences of Black people circa the Civil War over those of a problematic white man. The problem with Paradise Square seems to be that Drabinsky has applied those lessons of the post-Hamilton era to his own show clumsily and without nuance.

Instead of starting with a story that centered the 19th-century Black experience, he started with a musical story about a white man and his appropriated music, and then pushed both man and music to the side. Rather than building a diverse creative team from the ground up, he built a post-hoc committee, and then he asked them to create a compelling concept to fill the theatrical vacuum he himself created. It was a losing proposition from start to finish.

When Paradise Square manages to come to life, it is always thanks to the titanic efforts of individual figures. Joaquina Kalukango, Tony-nominated for her performance in Slave Play, manages to find the specificity in Nellie O’Brien through sheer force of will, despite a script that never once allows Nellie to make an active choice. Kalukango wrings a standing ovation out of audiences every performance with her rendition of the 11 o’clock rock ballad “Let It Burn,” and while weeks later the memory of her voice still gives me chills, the song itself is so generic I cannot recall a single lyric or chord from it.

Meanwhile, choreographer Bill T. Jones managed to find the one subplot in this doomed show that works at the level of both theme and form. Historically, tap dance was born in the Five Points, an American art form blossoming out of the union of Irish step and Black buck-and-wing. In a dance-off at Nellie’s tavern, Jones shows you how it happened, right on stage in front of you.

It’s a glorious theatrical moment, an illustration of what can be born out of racial solidarity that only musical theater could deliver. It also happens in a show that otherwise seems to have no idea why it’s a musical at all.

Nikki M. James as Suffs’ Ida B. Wells at the Public Theater.
Joan Marcus

If Paradise Square is a musical by committee, Suffs is the product of a singular vision. With book, music, and lyrics by Shaina Taub, who also stars, Suffs focuses its aims on a woman of singularly focused aims: Alice Paul, who devoted her life first to the 1919 passage of the 19th Amendment and then to the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Paul drafted the ERA, which still has yet to be ratified.) And Suffs makes it plain that Paul’s single-minded drive came with costs.

In her quest to get women the right to vote, Paul suffers harassment and ridicule. She is imprisoned and then violently force-fed in prison, which Taub renders in a particularly harrowing scene. She also sacrifices other principles.

Infamously, Alice Paul invited Ida B. Wells to join her in a march for suffrage before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration — and then, after southern white suffragists objected, asked Wells to march in the back, behind everyone else. (Wells refused.) In Suffs, this choice becomes Paul’s original sin, tainting all her later work.

This fight is only for suffrage, above all else, at any cost,” Paul says staunchly. “Not colored rights or any other cause.” Wells (played here by a stunning Nikki M. James), makes it clear that Paul is fooling herself if she thinks her activism can be so neatly divided. “Since when does a radical roll over for bigots in the first place?” she demands. “Wait my turn? Well I sure don’t see you waiting yours.”

A weaker or less nuanced version of this story would make Wells the only Black woman Paul and her team encounter, a walking reminder of their racial guilt who serves no other dramatic purpose. In Suffs, Wells is an icon in her own right, a firebrand activist who is committed to the suffrage movement and refuses to bow to anyone else’s agenda. Her most important relationship is not with Paul, but with her fellow Black activist Mary Church Terrell. Together, they playfully spar over how best to ally with the white suffragists, with Wells favoring confrontation and Terrell favoring conciliation. Crucially, their debate echoes Paul’s fight with the establishment suffrage leader Carrie Catt, who calls for slow and incremental change and can’t abide Paul’s rabble-rousing ways. All of these disparate subplots revolve around the same central set of ideas, which keeps the play feeling focused and on-mission.

Suffs’ ferocious discipline here recalls the best of Hamilton, which derived much of its theatrical power from its ability to bring the broad biographical sweep of Hamilton’s life into parallel with the narrower thematic aims of its music. Likewise, Suffs’ careful attention to racial nuance is a legacy of the post-Hamilton era. It even seems, in a way, to be responding to the critiques of Hamilton: While Hamilton is consistently dinged for its refusal to fully interrogate its subjects’ slave-holding practices, no one can accuse Suffs of whitewashing away Alice Paul’s racism. These are not the only parallels between the two shows. As Helen Shaw wrote for Vulture, doing a shot anytime someone talking about Suffs brings up Hamilton will quickly get you sloshed.

Suffs has its premiere at the Public Theater, where Hamilton was born. The show stars its own composer, book-writer, and lyricist, as Hamilton did. It takes a progressive lens to history, like Hamilton did. Its all-women-and-nonbinary cast rhymes with Hamilton’s famous color-conscious cast. It features Phillipa Soo, Hamilton’s Eliza, clearly having a ball as the slinky and glamorous “beautiful suffragette” Inez Milholland (“We must put the sex in sex equality!”).

Where Paradise Square put the lessons of Hamilton to use clumsily, without appearing to understand their logic, Suffs understands why its famous predecessor worked. Its radicalism is baked into its form, and it doesn’t have to compensate with last-minute changes to its creative team. As a result, the power of its original vision keeps shining through, undiluted.

Where Suffs falls short of Hamilton’s example is in its inability to find the joy in the dark history it covers. This is a grim, even nightmarish account of the fight for equality, and while the dourness effectively evokes the historic and brutal costs of that fight, it also becomes wearing over time. Taub’s music, which is mostly serviceable when compared to her knife-sharp lyrics, has a tendency to repeat itself, which adds to the wearing effect. The only playfulness Suffs offers comes from the repeated device of having the cast burlesque itself as the suffragists’ male antagonists (Grace McLean is a stunning Woodrow Wilson), and that is a joke that suffers from some diminishing returns.

By the end of Suffs’ first act, I was weeping freely behind my mask. I was also longing for just one song that might be a little bit light. Something to lessen the effect of grinding misery that constantly threatens to overshadow the whole show.

The biggest problem Suffs is dealing with is that it is, if anything, too much itself. It stands as a sharp contrast to a show like Paradise Square, which doesn’t seem to have a very clear idea at all of what it is — and as a reminder that for all the power of Hamilton’s politics, and whatever backlash it might face as the cultural mood shifts, its greatest legacy is as a show committed fully and with all its might to the force of its vision.