In 1863, the famed New York neighborhood of Five Points was the scene of draft riots that erupted in protest of forced conscription of white men to fight for the Union during the Civil War.
This weekend, the musical "Five Points" is getting its premiere at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis in a production by Theater Latté Da. It's a story about two families, two cultures, and the birth of tap dance.
Five Points was home to Irish immigrants and newly freed slaves. As playwright Harrison David Rivers explains, "Men's names were being called in the street and they were then forced to enlist in the army. And that was causing tension between especially the Irish and the African-Americans, because the African-Americans, not being full citizens, were not required to serve."
The musical is the concept of composer Ethan Pakchar and lyricist Douglas Lyons. Theater Latte Da Artistic Director Peter Rothstein says they are some of the brightest lights of the next generation of musical theater. And "Five Points" reflects that.
"It's big singing, it's complicated characters, it's a politically charged story and it has dance at the center of it," Rothstein said. "So that's what I love about the musical theater, is that it's all of those art forms combined. And this musical is trying to do it all."
Lyons said the show is loosely based on the true stories of Irish jig dancer John Diamond and African step dancer Willie Lane, who both signed contracts with showman P.T. Barnum to perform — and compete:
"Which seems so strange, like 'I want to dance battle you right now!' That sounds weird," said Lyons. "But they didn't have television and all these things. That was entertainment. Art was live."
Lyons explained that tap dance was born out of an amalgam of jigs and step dance. "What I like to say about 'Five Points' is that it's a reminder that in the midst of tension there's usually art that is being born, and sometimes you just have to look for it," he said.
One of the challenges of "Five Points," he said, has been creating a score based on two different musical traditions.
"Taking historic Celtic Irish rhythms and mashing them with African-American back rhythms, gospel and blues has created a world that we didn't expect, and it's been years of figuring out that language," Lyons said. "But musically creating a new sound based on historic sounds has been the really fun part."
Lyons said the show recalls a time when both blacks and Irishmen were struggling at the bottom. "So I think this is a dialogue of pain of oppression in America for everybody, and if we realize that — that you're being cornered and so am I — how do we figure this out together, we might have a better world," he said.
"Five Points" opens Saturday night at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis and runs through May 6.