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Meanwhile on Broadway: A musical producer sues Actors' Equity for defamation

Turns out Paradise Square hasn't been such a paradise for those involved

Broadway

As 2022 draws to a close, our sibling site TheaterMania is looking back on some of the most controversial stories of the year.

Last year, we reported on the return of Garth Drabinsky, the Broadway producer who spent 17 months in a Canadian prison for defrauding shareholders of his production company. His big comeback to the New York stage was Paradise Square, a new musical set in New York's diverse Five Points neighborhood in the time leading up to the Civil War draft riots. So how did that work out?

Not great, it seems. Paradise Square opened on 3 April after playing 23 previews. It lasted 108 performances after that, closing on 17 July. It struggled at the box office throughout, failing to recoup the $15 million investment for which it was capitalized.

The musical dealt with slavery, white resentment, political opportunism, and cultural appropriation — all set against a dance competition. TheaterMania's review remarked, "It's a lot for a two-hour, 40-minute musical that takes itself very seriously."

The production delayed its first preview by three weeks in hopes of avoiding the Omicron wave of Covid. The virus swept through the company anyway, leading to a series of performance cancellations in the middle of April, the busiest time of the year for Broadway, right before the Tony nominations cutoff.

This didn't matter when it came to nominations: Paradise Square received 10 Tony nods, just one shy of this year's leader, A Strange Loop. Many saw this as vindication for the musical, one of the few on Broadway to feature an original book and (mostly) original score. It went on to win just one Tony, for Joaquina Kalukango in the leading role of Nelly O'Brien. Her performance is destined to be the aspect of Paradise Square Broadway fans most remember.

Likely to fade from memory (at least in the minds of those not on the payroll) are the labour disputes that plagued the production: Near the end of the run, Actors' Equity (the union representing professional actors and stage managers) took the production to court for $189,877 in unpaid union dues and benefit fund contributions. United Scenic Artists (the union representing theatrical designers) separately claimed $156,986 in unpaid wages and benefits, an amount it was awarded in arbitration, but never paid.

On 17 July, Equity placed Drabinsky on its "Do Not Work" list, barring members from working with the producer until he makes right with the union. In August, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (representing the show's directors and choreographers) took legal action to claim $140,000 in unpaid royalties, fees, and benefit contributions. On 28 November, a district judge ruled in favour of the SDC, although it is unclear whether the money has been paid out yet.

On 20 October, hot on the heels of Patti LuPone's announcement that she had left Actors' Equity, Drabinsky hit back: He sued Actors' Equity for "defamation, intentional tort and/or negligence," seeking damages in the amount of $50,000,000.

The lawsuit, filed by the Roth Law Firm, PLLC in the Southern District of New York, claims, "Actors Equity…has turned Drabinsky's remarkable record of achievements on its head by accusing Drabinsky of being a racist and creating a hostile and unsafe work environment stemming from the production of Paradise Square. Without any evidentiary hearing or his ability to disprove the malicious and false accusations against him, Actors Equity went one step further by publicly branding Drabinsky with its Scarlet Letter and placing Drabinsky on its self-proclaimed 'blacklist.' Actors' Equity's conduct…has been reckless, callous, outrageous and deplorable." You can read the original 57-page complaint here.

Earlier this month, Drabinsky amended the suit to add an antitrust claim, arguing that Equity's cooperation with other actors' unions like SAG-AFTRA constitutes an illegal monopoly over performing talent.

Equity responded through a spokesperson, "Equity will vigorously contest the suit and demonstrate that our actions were fully consistent with our legal responsibilities to protect our members."

Whatever the outcome, it is safe to say that the legal troubles of Garth Drabinsky and Paradise Square are fated to run much longer than the Broadway show.

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