CURRENTLY IN PREVIEWS, THE OFF-BROADWAY HIT OPENS OFFICIALLY AT THE LYCEUM THEATRE ON OCT. 31
by HENRY EDWARDS
When “The Scottsboro Boys” launched its pre-Broadway summer engagement at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, critics hailed the show as an “astonishing musical accomplishment” and “dazzling entertainment” with “aspirations to nobility.”
Buoyed by the praise, the musical settled into Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. Currently in previews, it opens officially on Oct. 31.
“The Scottsboro Boys” marks the final collaboration of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.
Over the course of their 32-year-plus joint career, the legendary Broadway songwriters affected a marriage between the showmanship of traditional musical comedy and the emotional intensity and dramatic power of the musical play, resulting in three enduring classics, “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and the yet-to-be-revived “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Along with librettist David Thompson, Kander and Ebb began writing “The Scottsboro Boys” in 2001. They were still at it in 2004 when Ebb succumbed to a heart attack, and work suddenly ground to a halt.
Four years later, in 2008, the surviving writers and five-time Tony Award winning director Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) set out to finish the job.
An infamous historical event resides at the core of “The Scottsboro Boys.”
In 1931, nine young Southern African-American men were wrongly accused of raping two white women. Subjected to speedy, unfair trails, they were found guilty and eight of the nine were sentenced to death. More than two decades would elapse before justice was finally achieved. Although the charges against four eventually had been dropped, the others wound up spending years in in prison before being released, and one died in jail.
It's an agonizing story, and in order to tell it effectively, the authors decided to transform the material into a minstrel show.
"It's a racially charged story told in a racially charged art form,” explains librettist Thompson.
African-American performers portray the nine defendants, some of the white characters and minstrel-show archetypes Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. They also appear in blackface at the end of the evening.
A sole white actor, Tony winner John Cullum, portrays the minstrel-show ringmaster-interlocutor.
In March, director Stroman mounted a version of “The Scottsboro Boys” at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theater where it earned reviews characterized as “mixed but encouraging.”
Nevertheless, audiences loved the show, every performance was completely sold out, and the production went on to earn the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical.
Returning to the drawing board, the authors set out to make the characters more identifiable and to give the show greater emotional depth. Their efforts were rewarded when their revised edition was cheered by Minneapolis aisle sitters.
For example, local critic Brad Richason wrote: “Using one of the most egregious cases of racial injustice in the history of the United States as the basis for a musical seems - on paper at least - fraught with poor taste. Not only is the story set as a musical, but as a minstrel show, a form of theater which often embodied the very worst racial caricatures….however, any such misgivings can be unequivocally dispelled….Far from being socially oblivious, ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ actually subverts conventions of the minstrel format to confront historic injustice and lingering stereotypes. A powerful, provocative work, ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ dares to remind audiences that musical entertainment and social commentary needn't be mutually exclusive."