11:48 am Nov. 1, 2010
The Scottsboro Boys is the new show from the legendary Broadway songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, and their last show. The duo's 45-year run started with Flora, the Red Menace and included nearly 20 shows—from 70, Girls, 70 to Zorba, Woman of the Year to Steel Pier. And in between, a couple of odd numbers like Cabaret and Chicago.
Ebb, the lyricist, died in 2004 with the score for Scottsboro unfinished; it has taken Kander a few years to complete the show, with the help of writer David Thompson and director Susan Stroman.
If Kander had not finished the show, the last new work from the duo would have been the pleasant, but light, 2007 production Curtains. For a duo known to bring their mordant wit and taste for exploring dark subjects, from Nazism (Cabaret)to political torture (Kiss of the Spider Woman) to the distinctly popular form of the Broadway musical, that would have been an unsatisfying exit.
Chicago, after 15 years the longest-running revival in Broadway history, is now joined with a new work that also deals in murder. The contrast is what's surprising.
Scottsboro Boys, which premiered last night, shares with Chicago its deep cynicism about the justice system, its brutal take on American culture, and a score that highlights the very worst aspects of human character through some undeniably catchy tunes.
But The Scottsboro Boys tells the true story of a group of nine young black men arrested in Alabama in 1931, falsely charged with raping two white women and summarily sentenced to death. Their case made national headlines and turned them into a cause célèbre, especially among liberals up north, and a series of retrials dragged on for years. One of the women recanted—“I had you boys incarcerated / but I was never violated,” she confesses in a song—but even the lack of a crime wasn’t enough to prove the prisoners’ innocence.
What could be funny, sexy, delicious, scandalous here? The tale is presented as a minstrel show—a dramatic move that risks veering into vulgar and uncomfortable territory. But Kander and Ebb don’t shy away from the uncomfortable, and here the move makes sense: A minstrel show was one of the few ways nine black men in 1931 in Alabama could have gotten on stage and spoken to a white audience about their plight. So this song-and-dance routine spotlights the lack of a “serious” voice these men might have used, and illustrates how much white men controlled what was said—even when black people were trying to tell their own stories. The basic trappings of minstrel shows are here: clownish costumes, corny puns, over-the-top singing, and exaggerated dance steps. Two “end men”—black emcees who play a variety of roles, men and women, black or white—lead the group’s antics, but the white “interlocutor” remains the ringleader, calling all the shots. Or so he thinks.
When the black prisoners are alone on stage, they leave the minstrel show behind, as they do in the sweet ballad “Go Back Home.” And before the show is over, the minstrel show façade starts to crack: A song the interlocutor has the prisoners sing about the beauty of the South turns into a tale of lynching and discrimination despite his protests, and by the end, nobody’s listening to his direction at all. In a crushing finale, the performers scrape off blackface makeup and reveal the ugly truth about the lethal effects of racism on their characters’ lives. (The thinly veiled bigotry of the North doesn’t get a free pass either, as the comic number “Not the Way We Do Things” explores the reality of Yankee “equality” even as it decries the Jim Crow South.)
As Haywood Patterson, the most defiant and headstrong prisoner, Joshua Henry commands the stage with steely restraint, and in his two biggest songs—proclaiming innocence in “Nothin’” and refusing to cop a plea in “You Can’t Do Me”—he channels the anger that underlies the story without so much as raising his voice. “I ain’t dying for a lie,” he says early in the show, although by the end it’s clear that he will almost certainly do just that, whether it’s his own lie or someone else’s. John Cullum—a Tony-winning theatrical star who’s nonetheless best known for his TV role on Northern Exposure—is terrific as the paper tiger of an interlocutor, and in a number of smaller parts. The rest of the cast is consistently strong as an ensemble, although few get enough attention to stand out individually.
Beowulf Boritt’s set, consisting mostly of a dozen silver chairs, is remarkably versatile, effectively transforming into a jail cell, a train, a bus, a courtroom. Stroman’s direction is well-paced and varied in tone, alternating between small numbers with cramped staging in the jail cell and more exuberant dance numbers outside the cell (the rousing, tambourine-pounding opener, or the joyful “Shout,” where the prisoners celebrate news of a possible reprieve).
Some of the music echoes earlier shows. Clarinet-heavy “Nothin’” sounds like “Mister Cellophane” from Chicago. The gallows humor of the tap-dance number “Electric Chair” is reminiscent of “Morphine Tango” from Spider Woman with its surreal but ghoulishly upbeat dreaminess. And the deeply cynical “Financial Advice,” with its disdain for the legal profession (especially Jewish lawyers), is a perfect counterpoint to Chicago’s “Razzle Dazzle”: As a Southern lawyer decries the “Jew money” supporting the retrial, he urges, “Keep that money, but lose that Jew.” Nonetheless, it’s a score that stands on its own, with just enough of the songwriters’ trademark vamps peeking through the period-appropriate banjo-and-brass laden songs – even if there’s no single song that stands out like Cabaret’s “Wilkommen” or Chicago’s “All that Jazz.”
Thompson, who adapted the original 1975 book for the current revival of Chicago, has built a clean, easy-to-follow narrative with the book for The Scottsboro Boys, although the secondary characters never get as fully fleshed out as Chicago’s coterie of jailhouse hotties.
But here's where these two shows sharing the spotlight at the same time, diverge importantly: The fictionalized Jazz Age “killer dillers” in Chicago were guilty—murderers who cheated justice to achieve a debased kind of fame. The young men on stage in The Scottsboro Boys are neither fictional nor guilty, but real-life innocent victims hoping to parlay their fame into some kind of belated justice before they are murdered (by electric chair, pistol, or lynch mob), and this lends their story a layer of earnestness that the sardonic Chicago never had. (This is amplified by a brief coda, where a mysterious woman who has stood silently on the sidelines throughout the show finally explains why she’s there.)
Is this a good thing for Scottsboro? It has a purer emotional core; Chicago scratches a more persistent itch.
But that kind of range, displayed at the end of the Kander and Ebb era, is encouraging, and Scottsboro has been well worth the work and the wait; The Scottsboro Boys may not be the enduring classic that Chicago has proven to be, but it’s a strong and confident show full of insight and irony, a fitting finale for one of Broadway’s greatest songwriting teams.
The Scottsboro Boys is showing at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street. Tickets are $39.50-$131.50.
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