“Let It Burn,” the galvanic highpoint of the Broadway musical “Paradise Square,” pours out of star Joaquina Kalukango in a torrent of pain and frustration over the hurt that her character has been forced to endure during the show. That song and its themes have taken on an added resonance with the cast and crew of the production after it closed abruptly on Sunday. “Paradise Square,” which earned Kalukango a Tony and was nominated for nine others, has been overshadowed by a series of lawsuits and allegations that producer Garth H. Drabinsky cut corners, engaged in tyrannical behavior and failed to pay bills and benefits. Last week, several cast members took to social media to speak out about their experiences on the show.
On TikTok, ensemble member Hailee Kaleem Wright urged the public to see “Paradise Square” during its final week while alluding to the backstage drama. “See the greatness, see the show, see the magic… so that your heart can break even more when you find out all the shit that’s been going on,” she said.
“Paradise Square’s” implosion has dominated chatter around the tight-knit Broadway community, where rumors that production was in jeopardy have circulated for months. But insiders say the issues with the show began as far back as its pre-Broadway run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019 and extended through its tumultuous final days.
“The show was never correctly budgeted,” says Karyn Meek, the show’s former production stage manager, who resigned in May over conflicts about salary concerns. “In my opinion, Garth felt by cutting back on labor, he could do the show more cheaply. But all that did was put more pressure on everyone else to make up for his failings. In my opinion, we had to do things in a speed and manner that were not healthy or safe.”
Now that the curtain has come down on “Paradise Square,” members of the production such as Meek have been left to comb through the wreckage in the hopes of making sense of how a show that was launched with great ambitions atomized in such spectacular fashion. Drabinsky is now facing lawsuits regarding unpaid health, pension and 401(k) contributions. Actors’ Equity alleged the show has failed to pay $190,000. The union, which 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 owes $157,000 in unpaid wages, dues and retirement contributions. And other members of the production are weighing legal action.
In a lengthy statement to Variety, Drabinsky stressed that the actors have received their salaries, which are bonded, and said the production has already consented to judgments for the other expenses.
“Any delay in benefit payments was simply a function of available cash flow,” he said.
For Drabinsky, the Tony Award-winning producer of “Fosse” and “Ragtime,” “Paradise Square” was intended to be a comeback following his 2009 conviction in Canada for fraud and forgery and 17-month stint in prison. Drabinsky’s reputation made some members of the production wary of signing on to “Paradise Square.” But after two years of COVID-induced shutdowns that had decimated the theater industry, the possibility of being involved with a major new musical was too compelling to turn down. They also believed that given Drabinsky’s high-profile fall, there would be more safeguards put in place this time.
“This is a small industry so the stories about Garth were certainly out there,” says Scott Mallalieu, who is suing the production for unpaid wages and for reneging on his contract to handle group sales. “But I thought this would be a great opportunity to expand my knowledge over a period and to 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 had filed a motion to dismiss Mallalieu’s lawsuit, calling it “overly zealous and aggressive litigation.”
At Berkeley Repertory, members of the production say Drabinsky was obsessed with slashing costs on the expensive production, to the point of taking shortcuts that could have endangered the crew.
One member of the crew, who identifies as non-binary, lost their pinky finger in an accident during a rehearsal. They were climbing up a ladder on the set, when they lost their footing and fell, according to two members of the production. Their severed finger could not be reattached, and the person received a modest workers’ compensation payout and has since left the theater industry.
The injured crew member believes the incident was at least partly the result of “how emotionally and physically unsafe that entire process was.” “Stage management would get yelled at by Garth anytime we tried to communicate with each other,” they said. “It became fraught because we had to game-plan ahead of time.”
Drabinsky said the accident was “purely a result of human error.”
“All employees at Berkeley were engaged by, and supervised by, Berkeley Rep. We had no authority over them,” Drabinsky said. He added that Berkeley Repertory was responsible for the budget of that production and was “the sole producer.”
However, the accident made some staff concerned when Drabinsky later pushed to reduce the amount of time during technical rehearsals for the Broadway production from an allotted week and a half to just over four and a half days. The apprehension was partly because “Paradise Square” requires 40 cast member to sing, dance and maneuver around an intricate set, which has more than one story and rotates during the show.
“We were behind and ended up losing three days of rehearsal,” says Meek. “Things happen like that in the business. Sometimes people get behind, but [when that happens], it’s not because the producer decided not to pay any overtime for the show. [Garth] wouldn’t allow anybody to work past 40 hours in the initial production period because, in my opinion, there were financial concerns, so he kept cutting back on labor.”
Jeffrey Chrzczon, the show’s general manager, pushed back on claims that Drabinsky had mandated that the crew work a set number of hours.
“The directive was never a demand,” says Chrzczon. “We demanded that we do our best to keep this to a 40-hour workweek when possible, but in the last two weeks going into performances, we went into significant overtime in order to ensure our show was safe.”
“We would have delayed performances, if we didn’t feel like we had enough time to be ready,” he said.
Drabinsky also alienated members of the production with his volatile nature and hair-trigger temper.
“When something doesn’t go Garth’s way, he throws a tantrum,” says a member of the Broadway ensemble who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. “It’s really nasty. He bullies the creatives.”
Drabinsky disputed that he had engaged in toxic behavior.
“There was no continued pattern of abuse and neglect that created any unsafe or toxic work environment,” he said. “In fact, other than for six hours of Tony Award performance rehearsals, I have only been an audience member since March 15. I have worked for nearly 50 years in the entertainment business, and this is the first time that I have ever been subjected to this absurd allegation.”
Drabinsky also pushed back on claims that his economizing led to an unsafe environment, saying that due to the “size and complexity” of the set, he took precautions to “protect the safety of the actors.”
“No corners were ever cut to save money,” he added.
People were partly attracted to “Paradise Square” because it told the story of racial tensions in Civil War era New York City, a piece of history that had been overlooked by the commercial theater business. That also meant there were many substantive roles for Black performers, which is a rare occurrence in an industry that has struggled to highlight diverse talent. Because of the compelling subject matter, performers and crew members put their heart into bringing “Paradise Square” to the stage even though the environment was unusually chaotic.
“Everything started at the top, and Garth did not run the best ship. He had a vision, and the creative team had their own vision, and those did not line up,” says Clinton Roane, a cast member who worked at the Berkeley production but did not transfer to Broadway. “There was always tension every day in the rehearsal room.”
Some scrutiny has also fallen on Chrzczon. Actors’ Equity added Chrzczon to its “Do Not Work” list over unpaid debts to the union in connection with a Broadway Christmas show that he produced in 2018. The show starred Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, and Aiken said he is still owed $60,000.
In an interview, Aiken said “Paradise Square” appeared to be a repeat of his own situation. He said the Christmas show did not have enough money to begin with, and that even after disappointing attendance figures, Chrzczon kept the show going in hopes that it would catch on.
“My experience with Jeff was that his optimism for things to turn around ended up not coming to fruition,” Aiken said. “His optimism for how much it would cost to put on a show, and his desire to get the show on Broadway, outweighed the pragmatism of how much it was going to cost.”
Chrzczon filed for bankruptcy in 2021, listing more than $500,000 in debts, including liabilities to Actors’ Equity and to Local USA 829 in connection with the Christmas show.
Though he was on the Actors’ Equity “Do Not Work” list, that only applied to his role as a producer, according to the union. On “Paradise Square,” he worked as an employee of the production, and so the restriction did not apply.
In an interview, Chrzczon said that in hindsight, the Christmas show should never have been produced.
“‘Paradise Square’ and ‘Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show’ have absolutely nothing to do with one another,” he said. “In 2018, before I had ever met Garth Drabinsky or any of the producers of ‘Paradise Square,’ I helped produce ‘Ruben & Clay’s Christmas Show’ as a favor to Clay and Ruben. While it didn’t turn out the way any of us had hoped, I still hold much respect for Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, and I wish them only the best.”
When “Paradise Square” opened on Broadway, the show was capitalized at $13.5 million. It later raised $1.5 million in additional financing. Despite the 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 Variety, Drabinsky said the two COVID shutdowns that the show endured put the production in a financial hole.
“The Broadway partnership was obligated to pay all costs during this two-week period, sustaining approximately $1.25 million in non-recoverable expenses, as well as a return of hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales — all sales momentum was lost,” Drabinsky said. “In fact, we weren’t sure if the public believed this show was ever going to reopen (with the benefit of hindsight, the production should have closed on April 17th).”
For those who worked with Drabinsky before his criminal conviction in 2009, the legal issues and complaints that are dogging the producer are all too familiar. Rebecca Caine appeared in the cast of the Canadian production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which Drabinsky produced. She took him to arbitration in 1992 for unpaid wages after she says he terminated her contract when she suffered an arm injury. Since “Paradise Square” announced its Broadway transfer, Caine has been sounding the alarm about Drabinsky. But she takes no pleasure in the situation that has unfolded.
“I have tried for over a year to scream into the wind about this. I almost feel a sense of failure,” Caine says. “People say, ‘You must feel vindicated.’ And I don’t. I feel angry it happened again.”