Hard Times, a musical drama written by Larry Kirwan, explores a particular day in the life of the American composer Stephen Foster and the clientele of a saloon/dance hall that he frequents. The show deals with Foster’s successes and failures, sexuality and broken marriage, and the political and social climate of the times through re-imagining his songs.
In July 1863 the Civil War was raging, Gettysburg had just been won, and yet there was major discontent in New York City over the recently enacted draft, particularly among the teeming Irish immigrant population.
This was compounded by President Lincoln’s perceived change in war policy from defense of the union to emancipation of the slaves, the fear being that thousands of newly freed African-Americans would flood the already saturated labor market.
The discontent boiled over on July 13 and forever changed the city, particularly the notorious Five Points area where up until then African Americans and Irish cohabited peacefully, sometimes in marital relationships.
Foster lived in the Five Points, famous for its tolerance, loose behavior, music and dancing (tap evolved there from the fusion of Irish step-dancing and African-American shuffle).
When the smoke cleared from three days of rioting people retreated to the safety of their own ethnic groups, the U.S. set out on its 100 year path of segregation and racial divide, and Foster wrote some of his most heartfelt and personal songs before his penniless death six months later.
“Oddly enough, the theoretical beginning of Black 47 came out of that period too. Charles Dickens had written about his visit to the Five Points, noticing so many Irish and African American musicians playing together,” says Wexford native Kirwan during an interview with the Irish Voice.
“Back in 1989 I wondered what that might have sounded like. That type of speculation, a desire to be original and pressure from Bronx audiences led Chris Byrne and I to mix reels and hip-hop beats and come up with Black 47's sound.”
Hard Times stars Jed Peterson as Stephen Foster, Erin West as Jane Foster, Almeria Campbell as Nelly Blythe, Phillip Callen as Michael Jenkins, Stephane Duret as Thomas Jefferson and John Charles McLaughlin as Owen Duignan.
“The cast is amazing, all young people with great talent and a drive to bring Hard Times to life,” Kirwan says. “I'm blessed with a wonderful director, Kira Simring, who directed my play, Blood, at the Cell six months ago. “Andrew Smithson is an amazing musical director and orchestrator, while choreographer, Joe Barros is creating tap out of Irish stepdancing. African-American shuffle as actually happened in the Five Points.
“It's a huge task to create a musical and put it onstage for the first time, especially to the standard set by the 1st Irish Theatre Festival, but so far so good.”
Black 47 fans shouldn’t worry that Kirwan quit his day job. He is excited to play the Blackthorne in East Durham for the 20th time this year for Labor Day weekend, and he has a full roster of gigs this fall that include the Jersey City Irish Festival on September 29 (check out www.black47.com for the full list).
I spoke with Kirwan about staging a play and where the band is headed. Here’s how it went.
How is crafting a musical different from creating/recording an album? What are the challenges for both?
“They're very different. Even though Black 47 albums tend to have different themes -- for instance IRAQ and Green Suede Shoes are miles apart in content -- I'm still writing for a band with defined instruments and with myself as singer.
“With musicals you're writing for characters and, in general, the songs are there to support the story. Hard Times takes that a step further.
“I wanted to use as many Stephen Foster songs as possible. He wrote almost 300 so there were choices to be made. Then there was the task of getting the songs to breathe again after 150 years of parlor/piano calcification.
“One of the devices I used was to write complementary and contrapuntal intros and musical bridges. Foster and songwriters of his era dealt only in verses and choruses.
“Still, to my surprise, when the songs were actually set free they veered towards gospel and Irish. In the end I could only find a dozen Foster songs that fit the story, so I had to write a couple more in a Foster idiom and use the Black 47 song ‘Five Points.’”
What was it about the time, July 1863 and a lesser-known chapter of Irish American history (inter-racial co-mingling at Five Points, etc.) that inspired you to make a musical?
“Dickens was appalled at the familiarity between Irish women and black men. It was so common in the Five Points that they were called amalgamationists.
“However, that all ended on July 13, 1863 when the Colored Orphans Asylum was burned down in the Civil War Draft Riots. Overnight, New York City changed.
“The ease and social flow among the races stopped. It was a watershed moment in American history, ideal for drama.
“Stephen Foster was living in the Five Points at the time writing some of his most heartfelt music. Six months later he would die penniless.
“What was he feeling that July? Who did he meet that night? That's what Hard Times is about.”
What are the highlights and low lights of this Hard Times experience for you?
“It's been all highs so far. What we're doing is bringing Foster back to a new generation and validating the genius of the father of American songwriting and everyone is up for it.”
Band news -- I see a number of gigs coming up in the fall Irish festival scene. Any new music in the works, or will Hard Times music make its way into a set?
“Some of this music from Hard Times is made for Black 47, especially where I've added musical intros and bridges to Foster songs. "The Choice Is Yours to Make," one of my own songs from Hard Times, would be equally suitable.
“At the same time you have to question whether making CDs is economically feasible anymore. The costs are high, and with downloads legal and otherwise so prevalent, the jury is still out.
“We'll record again, but with 13 or 14 albums under our belt there's no particular rush. We've forgotten so many good Black 47 songs already. I'm more in a mood to revisit and revive and find new ways to deliver some of them.”
You said some nice things about the Cell in New York City and how supportive they have been about you in general and Irish American artistry in particular. Can you describe the experience/impact of working with such a supportive theater group?
The Cell, in particular founding artistic director Nancy Manocherian and artistic director Kira Simring, have changed my attitude to theater. There's such a can-do feeling there. While the space itself is very beautiful and fluid, it's like a second home to me.
“They have a particular affinity for Irish theater and, indeed, all things Irish as you know from their sponsorship of the Irish American Writers and Artists salon nights. Hard Times would be just another file on my computer if it wasn't for the Cell.”
Do you look forward to the Blackthorn gig this weekend, and why?
“I'm a Catskills nationalist. I've been going up there through good times and bad. There's a particular piece of Irish American history enshrined in the East Durham/Leeds/Hunter area.
“The mountains go out of fashion from time to time but they always bounces back. Black 47 has been playing the Blackthorne on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends for almost 20 years. It was inspiring to see how the Handel family rebuilt the resort after the fire.
“They're important for Irish American music. They always hire top of the line musicians and give new bands a chance to strut their stuff.
“In particular, I like the way the different generations and varying styles of music mix so well up there. They'll have their Celtic Festival there on Labor Day Weekend. Andy Cooney will have the people waltzing through the afternoon and we'll knock their socks off in the midnight hour.
“Do yourselves a favor and come on up. There's magic in them mountains.”
Hard Times will be performed at The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street, from September 13-30 as part of the 1st Irish Theatre Festival. Visit www.thecelltheatre.org.