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‘Paradise Square’: How ambitious Broadway musical was overshadowed by lawsuits, unpaid bills and alleged bullying

“Let It Burn,” the galvanic climax of the Broadway musical “Paradise Square,” erupts from star Joaquina Kalukango in a flurry of pain and frustration at the pain her character was forced to endure during the performance. The song and its themes gained further resonance with the cast and crew of the production after it was abruptly closed on Sunday. “Paradise Square,” which won Kalukango a Tony and was nominated for nine others, was overshadowed by a series of lawsuits and allegations that producer Garth H. Drabinsky cut corners, engaged in bullying behavior and failed to pay bills and benefits. Last week, several cast members took to social media to talk about their experiences on the show.

Cast member Hailee Kaleem Wright took to TikTok to encourage the public to watch “Paradise Square” over the past week, hinting at the behind-the-scenes drama. “Look at the size, look at the show, look at the magic … so your heart can break even more when you find out all the shit that’s been going on,” she said.

The implosion of “Paradise Square” has dominated chatter around the tight-knit Broadway community, where rumors have swirled for months that the production was in jeopardy. But insiders say the show’s problems began as early as its pre-Broadway run at Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2019 and continued through its tumultuous final days.

“The show was never properly planned,” says Karyn Meek, the show’s former head of production, who resigned in May amid salary conflicts. “I think Garth felt that if he cut back on the manpower, he could do the show more cheaply. But all he did was put more pressure on everyone else to correct his failure. In my opinion, we had to do things at a speed and in a way that was not healthy or safe.”

Now that the curtain has fallen on “Paradise Square,” production members like Meek have been left combing through the debris in hopes of making sense of how a show that started with grand ambitions atomized in such spectacular fashion. Drabinsky now faces lawsuits over unpaid health, pension and 401(k) contributions. Actors’ Equity claims the show failed to pay $190,000. The union that represents the show’s cast also said Thursday it would add Drabinsky to its “Do Not Work” list. United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829, which represents some of the crew, also filed suit, claiming the production is owed $157,000 in unpaid wages, fees and pension benefits. And other members of the production are considering legal action.

In a long statement to VarietyDrabinsky emphasized that the actors have received their salaries, which are due, and said the production has already agreed to judgments for other expenses.

“Any delay in benefit payments was simply a function of available cash flow,” he said.

Drabinsky, the Tony Award-winning producer of “Fosse” and “Ragtime,” was set to make a “Paradise Square” comeback after his 2009 conviction in Canada for fraud and forgery and a 17-month prison sentence. Drabinski’s reputation made some members of the production afraid to sign up for “Paradise Square”. But after two years of shutdowns caused by COVID that decimated the theater industry, the opportunity to be involved in a major new musical was too compelling to turn down. They also believed that due to Drabinski’s significant fall, more protective measures would be put in place this time.

“It’s a small industry, so there’s definitely been stories about Garth,” says Scott Mallalieu, who is suing the production for unpaid wages and breach of group sales management agreement. “But I thought it would be a great opportunity to expand my knowledge over time and be involved in a production that we hoped would run for a long time on the Great White Way.”

Richard Roth, an attorney for Drabinsky, said the production filed a motion to dismiss Mallalieu’s lawsuit, calling it “overzealous and aggressive litigation.”

At Berkeley Repertory, production members say Drabinsky was obsessed with cutting costs on the expensive production, to the point of taking shortcuts that could endanger the crew.

One crew member, who identifies as non-binary, lost his little finger in an accident during the test. They were climbing a ladder on set when they lost their footing and fell, according to two production members. Their severed finger could not be reattached, and the person received modest workers’ compensation and has since left the theater industry.

The injured crew member believes the incident was at least partly a result of “how emotionally and physically dangerous the whole process was”. “Stage management would yell at Garth whenever we tried to communicate,” they said. “It was challenging because we had to plan the game in advance.

Drabinsky said the accident was “purely the result of human error.”

“All employees at Berkeley were employed and supervised by a representative of Berkeley. We had no authority over them,” Drabinsky said. He added that Berkeley Repertory was responsible for the budget of this production and was the “sole producer”.

However, the accident raised concerns among some staff when Drabinsky later pushed for a reduction in the time during technical rehearsals for the Broadway production from the allotted week and a half to just over four and a half days. The concern was partly because “Paradise Square” requires 40 cast members to sing, dance and maneuver around a complex set that has more than one story and rotates during the show.

“We were behind and ended up losing three days of rehearsal,” says Meek. “These things happen in business. Sometimes people are behind, but [when that happens]it’s not because the producer decided not to pay any overtime for the show. [Garth] he didn’t allow anyone to work more than 40 hours in the initial production period because I believe there were financial problems so he kept cutting the workforce.

Jeffrey Chrzczon, the show’s general manager, denied claims that Drabinsky ordered the crew to work a set number of hours.

“The directive was never a requirement,” says Chrzczon. “We’ve been required to do everything we can to stick to a 40-hour week if possible, but in the last two weeks before the show we’ve gone into significant overtime to make sure our show is safe.”

“We would be late if we didn’t feel like we had enough time to be ready,” he said.

Drabinsky also alienated the members of the production with his volatile nature and hot temper.

“When things don’t go right for Garth, he throws a tantrum,” says a Broadway cast member who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “It’s really ugly. He bullies creatives.”

Drabinsky disputed that he engaged in toxic behavior.

“There was no ongoing pattern of abuse and neglect that created an unsafe or toxic work environment,” he said. “In fact, aside from six hours of rehearsals for the Tony Award show, I’ve only been an audience member since March 15th. I have worked in the entertainment industry for almost 50 years and this is the first time I have been exposed. to this absurd accusation.”

Drabinsky also rejected claims that his economy led to an unsafe environment, saying that due to the “size and complexity” of the scene, he took precautions to “protect the safety of the actors”.

“No corners were ever cut to save money,” he added.

The cast of “Paradise Square” will take the stage at the 75th annual Tony Awards in June.
Getty Images for Tony Awards Pro

People were drawn to “Paradise Square” in part because it told the story of racial tension in Civil War-era New York, a piece of history that was overlooked by commercial theater. It also meant that there were many substantial roles for black artists, a rare occurrence in an industry that struggled to highlight diverse talent. Given the compelling subject matter, the cast and crew put their hearts into bringing “Paradise Square” to the stage, despite the unusually chaotic environment.

“It all started at the top and Garth wasn’t running the best ship. He had a vision and the creative team had their own vision and they didn’t match up,” says Clinton Roane, a cast member who worked in the Berkeley production but did not make the transition to Broadway. “There was always tension in the rehearsal room every day.

Some scrutiny also fell on Chrzczon. Actors’ Equity added Chrzczon to its “Do Not Work” list because of unpaid union debts related to a Broadway Christmas show he produced in 2018. The show starred Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, and Aiken said he is still owed $60,000 dollars.

In an interview, Aiken said that “Paradise Square” seemed to be a repeat of his own situation. He said the Christmas show didn’t have enough money to begin with, and that even after the disappointing attendance numbers, Chrzczon continued the show hoping it would catch on.

“My experience with Jeff was that his optimism that things would turn around ultimately didn’t materialize,” Aiken said. “His optimism about how much the show would cost and his desire to get the show on Broadway outweighed the pragmatism of how much it would cost.”

Chrzczon filed for bankruptcy in 2021, citing debts of more than $500,000 related to the Christmas show, including obligations to Actors’ Equity and Local USA 829.

Although he was on the Actors’ Equity “Do Not Work” list, this only applied to his role as a producer, according to the union. He worked as a production employee at “Rajské náměstí”, so the restriction did not apply.

In an interview, Chrzczon said that in retrospect, the Christmas show should never have been produced.

“‘Paradise Square’ and ‘Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show’ have absolutely nothing to do with each other,” he said. “In 2018, before I ever met Garth Drabinsky or any of the ‘Paradise Square’ producers, I helped produce ‘Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show’ as a favor to Clay and Ruben. Even though it didn’t turn out the way any of us hoped, I still respect Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken and wish them the best.”

When “Paradise Square” opened on Broadway, the show grossed $13.5 million. It later raised $1.5 million in additional funding. Despite Tony Awards attention, “Paradise Square” received mixed reviews from critics and never caught fire with the general public. After three months on Broadway, the musical closed on July 17 due to “soft ticket sales”. In his statement to VarietyDrabinsky said the two COVID shutdowns the show endured put the production in a financial hole.

“The Broadway Partnership was required to cover all costs during that two-week period, incurring approximately $1.25 million in sunk costs, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales — all sales momentum lost,” Drabinsky said. “We weren’t really sure if the public believed this show would ever reopen (with the benefit of hindsight, the production was supposed to close on April 17).”

To some who worked with Drabinsky before his 2009 felony conviction, the legal problems and complaints that dog the producer are all too familiar. Rebecca Caine appeared in the cast of the Toronto production of “Phantom of the Opera,” which Drabinsky produced. She took him to arbitration in 1992 for unpaid wages after she said he terminated her contract when she suffered an arm injury. Ever since “Paradise Square” announced its move to Broadway, Caine has been sounding the alarm about Drabinsky. But she is not happy about the situation that has developed.

“For over a year, I tried to shout into the wind about it. I almost feel like a failure,” Caine says. “People say, ‘You must feel vindicated.’ And I do not. I feel angry that this has happened again.”

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