“Paradise Square” takes place in 1863 and explores a different aspect of the neighborhood — the creative and romantic energy generated by the mix of people living in the area, but then disrupted by class, race, and economic tensions associated with the Civil War, which eventually led to the New York City draft riots. The musical is set in a dance hall, and depicts the mixing of African and Irish traditions that contributed to the development of tap as a dance form.
Mr. Kirwan, best known as the lead singer of Black 47, said the idea for the musical was born of his curiosity about the Five Points, which he heard about from his grandfather, and his affection for Foster’s songs. He learned to appreciate the songs in Irish pubs, where, he said, he heard workers imbue them with emotion he had not initially recognized.
Learning that Foster had briefly lived in the Five Points inspired him to write a show combining the songs and the place; his initial version of the musical, titled “Hard Times,” opened to positive reviews at the Cell Theater in New York in 2012 and had a brief return engagement in 2014.
Peter LeDonne, a longtime collaborator of Mr. Drabinsky’s, saw the show in New York, and invited Mr. Kirwan to Toronto to meet with Mr. Drabinsky, a storied figure in North American theater, who ran Livent when the company won Tony Awards in the 1990s for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Show Boat” and “Fosse,” then saw his career come to a halt when he was indicted on financial misconduct charges in the U.S. and Canada.
He was convicted in Canada and served time there. He had been released when he invited Mr. Kirwan up but was not traveling to the U.S. because he was facing charges here; those have since been dropped. In an interview in Berkeley, he called his legal troubles “a painful chapter in my life, that cost me in so many ways, but is behind me now.”
Mr. Drabinsky was eager to restart his work in theater, and had experience with musicals that deal with racism in American history, having produced “Parade” and “Ragtime,” as well as a revival of “Show Boat.”
“Listening to this music I know is 150 years old and sounds like it was recorded yesterday, I got really excited about it,” he said.