Black 47’s Larry Kirwan has written a musical set in Civil War era New York during the Draft Riots. The Federal Government hard pressed for army recruits introduced the draft but gave a exception to anyone who could afford to pay $300 to buy their away out. The poor (often newly arrived Irish immigrants) rioted over 3 days burning draft stations and attacking the wealthy Yankee upper class and African-American who they feared would take their jobs if slavery ended. The rioting only ended when Federal troops were bought into the city to squash the riot.
S’n’O – Larry, I know you are the author of many off Broadway plays over the years. Is Hard Times your first musical?
Larry Kirwan – No, I’ve written a number of them including, Days of Rage, Rockin’ The Bronx and Mister Parnell, so I guess I’m an old hand. It’s a bitch of a genre. Plays are tough enough but you have to be totally daft to do musicals, there’s just so much to pull together. I suppose it’s like anything though, the more you do it, the better you get.
S’n’O – Hard Times is set during the American Civil War and specifically during the New York Draft Riots. Can you give the readers a little back ground on the Riots. What caused the riots? And what happened during the riots.
Larry Kirwan – Hard Times is set during the Draft Riots of 1863 but it’s not really about them, per se. Basically, I feel that the US in general, and NYC in particular was changed on July 13, 1863. Up until then Irish women and African-American men lived together and were often married in the Five Points area of downtown NYC. They were called “amalgamationists.” After the burning of the Colored Children’s Asylum the fluidity that existed between different people in NYC was squashed and the US set out on a path of 100 years of segregation and discrimination. That’s the setting for a moment when Stephen Foster meets someone from his past.
S’n’O – What was the inspiration for the play – the New York Draft Riots were possibly the lowest point in the Irish-American experience (arguably something best forgotten)- one group on the bottom rung of the social order turning on the group not yet on the bottom rung while the elite buy their way out of danger yet still make the decisions – is there a message that resonates in today’s political climate? (Anti-immigrant sentiments, racial politics and the Tea Party or class divisions and the Occupy movement)
Larry Kirwan – With the exception of the Occupy Movement all of those things you mention were present in 1863 and I suppose Abolitionist feeling could double for the Occupy Movement. History is never black & white but a million shades of grey. Awful things happened that day but that’s not what the play is about. It’s about five people trapped inside a saloon and how they react to the events happening outside. Stephen Foster, the composer, happens to be one of them.
S’n’O – The music was co-written with Stephen Foster which is a great achievement given Stephen is nearly 150 years dead. Who was Stephen Foster and why was his music so important? What type of stamp did Larry Kirwan put onto the mega hits of the 1860’s? Will Celtic rocks fans enjoy?
Larry Kirwan – Yeah, I should probably have phrased the “written by Stephen Foster & Larry Kirwan” differently but it’s what actually happened. I wanted to use his songs and was able to find a dozen that fitted well with, and moved along, the story. But most of his songs had been frozen and calcified by their treatment in the Victorian years. I wanted to let them breathe again. One of the ways of doing that was to write contrapuntal intros and bridges – in Foster’s era those devices hadn’t been introduced into popular music yet. I had done that quite a bit when Black 47 updated Irish melodies and added new words to them – I always added original intros and bridges to add flavor to the songs and make them more interesting musically So, I knew how to do it. Amazingly – to me at any rate – most of Foster’s songs veered towards Gospel or Irish when unmoored. I think these new versions will make Foster’s songs more palatable to Celtic Rock fans. But who cares what other people think. I’ve always done what I wanted and luckily there’s always been an audience for the end result.
S’n’O – Who is the audience that will enjoy Hard Times – Irish Americans, New Yorkers or is there a wider audience (and message)?
Larry Kirwan – God, I don’t know. I guess I tend not to think in those terms. Let’s just say that Stephen Foster was gifted with a particular genius. I’m not quite sure what it is but when unleashed it tends to move you in the most soulful manner. It’s like being touched by something from another world so I would imagine anyone with a bit of soul will feel it. I know I do. Foster was a complicated person – our first professional songwriter – he died 6 months after the events in Hard Times at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket. I think anyone who has been touched by the music business will identify with the story of this brilliant, tortured man.
S’n’O – Any plans to tour with Hard Times or bring it beyond Manhattan?
Larry Kirwan – Not at this point. It’s an achievement to even get the project up and breathing. I couldn’t have done it at all without the support of the wonderful people at The Cell, including Nancy Manocherian, artistic director and Kira Simring the director.
S’n’O – Cheers Larry! I”m going to try make it down.
Larry Kirwan – A pleasure, John. I think it will be well worth the trip. The six actors are so committed to their roles. I think we’ll create some magic and hopefully re-introduce Foster to a very different world.
Hard Times will be performed at The Cell, 338 W. 23rd St., NYC Sept. 13-30th as part of the First Irish Theatre Festival. For info www.thecelltheatre.org
Directed by Kira Simring and produced by Nancy Manocherian of The Cell, performances Sept 13, 14, 15, 19, 21, 22, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30.
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.