I'm often struck by the preconceptions people have about musical theater. For many people, musicals are only supposed to be fun and tuneful, and that's basically it. Anything that transgresses these confines couldn't possibly be a musical, at least not in their narrow estimation.
Well, these people would probably hate The Scottsboro Boys, which is a tad ironic, because it's one of the most tuneful shows in many a season. But beyond the deceptively pleasant nature of John Kander's music are the late Fred Ebb's alternately searing and simple lyrics, as well as David Thompson's indignant and incisive book. One of the hallmarks of the long and fruitful careers of Kander and Ebb was demonstrating the power of the musical to go beyond mere entertainment into the realm of human drama and social relevance. And, on that front, The Scottsboro Boys represents a fitting cap to a productive and groundbreaking partnership.
I was fairly blown away when I saw The Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard Theatre. (Read my review of Scottsboro Boys Off Broadway.) The show has since played a stint at the Guthrie Theater, but I didn't notice any major changes to the show itself, other than maybe clarifying some scenes, and a bit of recasting. The authors have decided to retain a certain historical framing device, which they had originally asked critics not to reveal in their reviews, but have subsequently begun revealing it themselves in certain promotional materials. I will, however, maintain silence on this front, as the revelation significantly increases the impact of the show.
As you may know, the show is a stylized retelling of the story of the "Scottsboro Boys," a group of nine African American men falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931. In keeping with the longstanding Kander & Ebb tradition of "concept" shows, the creators have conceived The Scottsboro Boys as a minstrel show, including a stunningly subversive use of blackface. The result is an upsetting but emotionally cathartic show that is frankly hard to sit through, but not because of any lack of talent on the authors' part. It's just not a very proud moment in U.S. history.
Although the show clearly places the blame for the Scottsboro tragedy at the feet of Southern racism, the authors are careful not to let the North off the hook. In the guise of the Jewish lawyer who takes on the Scottsboro defense, the show sends up both the anti-Semitism of the south and the patronizing attitudes of the northern liberals.
Director/choreographer Susan Stroman and librettist Thompson have worked closely with Kander & Ebb (the latter in absentia) to create "entertaining" interludes throughout the show to keep it from becoming a preachy, depressing dirge. I was reminded of the daring and controversial nature of The Scottsboro Boys when a man seated in front of me at the Lyceum got up and left during a stunningly conceived number called "Electric Chair," which employs the racial stereotypes of tap dancing to illuminate the horror of a child's nightmare. Yes, it's shocking and offensive. It's meant to be.
The show retains some of its admittedly minor flaws. I still find the number "Commencing in Chattanooga" inscrutable. The tune is pleasant and certainly sets the scene, but the lyric is uncharacteristically opaque for Fred Ebb. The result is an uninspired "wanting" song, a rare misstep in an otherwise powerful and provocative show. The stunning finale thankfully retains its power to astound. Even though I knew it was coming, the raw shock of the moment once again had me numb and in tears.
The Broadway cast features many of the same performers from the Vineyard run, including the great John Cullum as interlocutor and emcee, as well as the formidable Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon in protean roles throughout the show. The major cast change is Joshua Henry in the central role of Haywood Patterson. Henry brings great strength to the role, but I didn't find him nearly as emotionally compelling as Brandon Victor Dixon, who played the part Off Broadway.
A bunch of my students from the Boston Conservatory are headed down on a school trip to New York City next weekend. As part of the package deal, they have the option of seeing either La Cage aux Folles or The Scottsboro Boys. As fond as I am of the current production of La Cage (read my review), I've been recommending that students see The Scottsboro Boys. And anyone who cares about the future of musical theater will want do the same.