It's exciting to see "The Scottsboro Boys" on Broadway boasting so many things a musical should have. That includes good songs, a provocative story (not from a movie), a rousing staging and a hugely talented cast.
But it also has a split personality. It wants to shock; it yearns to charm. They're not always compatible goals.
The factual story recalls nine young black men wrongly accused of raping two white women in 1931. They are sent to an Alabama prison and languish for years.
Their trials play as a minstrel show, swirling with ugly, polarizing characters. Prison scenes of the men play out realistically. You're left zigzagging between parody and poignancy.
The fine score by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, conjures their hits "Cabaret" and "Chicago" in terms of melody and irony. The duo's best songs here -- "Commencing in Chattanooga" and "Go Back Home" -- are irony-free.
The songwriters and book writer David Thompson missed the opportunity to better flesh out the men. They remain as sweetly but sketchily drawn as they were in last spring's Vineyard Theatre run.
The direction and choreography by Susan Stroman ("The Producers") is polished and precise, making imaginative use of a bare stage, some chairs and a plain backdrop. She counts on her first-rate ensemble to fill in the blanks -- and they do.
Joshua Henry is tough and tender as prisoner-turned-writer Haywood Patterson, whose fate paves the way for the civil rights movement. John Cullum brings mild-mannered menace as the minstrel emcee, while Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon create vivid portraits as his right-hand men.
"Scottsboro Boys" isn't perfect, but it's worthwhile. It deserves credit for tackling a slice of history that needs to be known.
Sometimes, there’s nothing more dangerous than a little old-fashioned entertainment—and entertainment doesn’t come much more old-fashioned than the minstrel show, American theater’s most peculiar institution. In their final collaboration, The Scottsboro Boys, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb make a risky wager: using minstrelsy to tell a foundational parable of the civil-rights movement. The titular Boys were nine black youths falsely accused of rape in Depression-era Alabama—then falsely convicted, over and over again.
It’s a story of brazen injustice, and the show’s theatrical provocations are proportionately broad and basic. “Everyone’s a minstrel tonight!” the boys belt in the opening number, setting the subtlety thermostat somewhere between Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Glee. And yet the point-blank theatrical force of the show cannot be denied: The talent onstage is so lavish it overwhelms our comfortable pieties with pure showmanship, conjuring your applause in waves, then quietly placing an asterisk after each bravura number: Did I just clap for ... a shuck-and-jive?
Director and choreographer Susan Stroman puts nothing between you and her ensemble, a peerless collection of triple threats who execute her airborne hoofery with grace and violence. The set is just chairs and a plank or two, and minstrel convention is respected in minute detail, from the cakewalk to the “end men” (the unambiguously crazed duo of Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon)—and, of course, the Interlocutor (John Cullum), the (white) straight-man emcee. (The mandatory star applause that Cullum receives, as he promenades onstage resplendent in Colonel Sanders white, is marvelously uncomfortable in this context—Stroman’s tart little joke on an irritating trend among starstruck, selfcongratulatory Broadway audiences: Yes! By all means! Clap for Massah! Because you recognize him!)
The boys themselves tap into the demonic power of pure performance, milking each minstrel tradition (the Jim Crow shuffle, the emasculating drag number) for its essential performative energy, constantly daring us to separate the zazz on offer from the moral matter at hand. As Haywood Patterson, the most fiercely principled of the nine, Joshua Henry (American Idiot) does the near impossible: He takes that unluckiest of suicide missions, the earnest angry-young-man role, and brands it onto the back wall of your brain. In “Nothin,” a searing shuck-and-jive number that approaches the tuneful discomfort zone of classic Cabaret-era Kander and Ebb, Patterson focuses rage into meter, choreographed by Stroman at a perfectly, excruciatingly slow tempo. Among other standouts: Christian Dante White takes a drag role to the razor’s edge of misogyny, then walks it back at an accusing amble; and young Jeremy Gumbs’ startlingly pellucid voice recalls a pubescent Michael Jackson.
Still, Assassins this ain’t. (The loss of Ebb is felt keenly in some of the lyrics: Yes, society rhymes with notoriety, but surely that shouldn’t be the high point of a show’s prosody?) The nine remain an amalgam, and attempts to distinguish individual characters inevitably founder on the rocks of minstrelsy: Kitsch subverts content somewhat, not (as the creators clearly believe) the other way around. But then, maybe that’s the most subversive message of all. The Scottsboro Boys isn’t a precision-guided social endoscopy: It’s a single, stunning blow to the temple. And on its own discomfiting, blunt-force terms, it’s utterly successful.
John Kander and Fred Ebb have given American musical theater a pair of un disputable, stone- cold classics, "Cabaret" and "Chicago." Now they've added a third one to the list: "The Scottsboro Boys," which opened last night on Broadway.
Completed by Kander after Ebb's death in 2004, it's an archetype of the pair's MO: a boldly stylized, defiantly razzle-dazzle look at true events that underscore the bankruptcy of institutions and the nasty things people do to each other.
And it's staged as a minstrel show. Great.
The songwriters, author David Thompson and director/choreographer Susan Stroman use that long-scorned, loaded genre to tell the story of the nine black men -- the "boys" of the title -- who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.
John Cullum, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play the stock characters of 19th-century minstrelsy: the Interlocutor (the narrator), Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, respectively. The last two pinch-hit in various white authority roles, including the sheriffs, the attorney general and a Jewish lawyer who comes down from New York to help out the prisoners.
The story has a resounding emotional charge, but we also clearly see the cruel, almost cartoonish absurdity of it all.
Here we have a relentlessly Kafka-esque justice system in which a drunken attorney easily wins a conviction. Later, one of the women recants -- and still the verdict stands. Years pass, and the boys turn into men in jail. Perhaps inspired by their moral center, the stoic Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry), they remain unbowed.
As grim as its subject is, the show is vibrantly alive.
For one, the score is packed with great tunes that instantly stick in your head, from a recurring cakewalk vamp to the rolling "Commencing in Chattanooga," which simulates a train ride's rhythm. Kander and Ebb have also come up with an instant standard with Haywood's powerful ballad "Go Back Home." You'll hear it in cabaret rooms soon.
But you can't separate the songs from Stroman's staging, a model of visually striking economy. She needs only chairs, tambourines and a few other props to evoke a variety of locales and situations, including a chain gang and an electric-chair execution.
On the surface, "The Scottsboro Boys" is a hard sell in a Times Square dominated by escapist fluff. The show was slightly tweaked after its off-Broadway run in the spring -- to give the characters more back story and motivation -- but it hasn't been compromised, and remains grimly thought-provoking.
Yet this is also a thrillingly inventive and entertaining night at the theater. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be moved. What could be more Broadway than that?
Cynicism and compassion are not easily — perhaps not possibly — summoned at the same time. The challenge facing the new musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” which dares to present ugly American history as bawdy burlesque, is to keep audiences dancing nimbly between the two states of feeling, enticing us to cackle knowingly at the plague of racism at one moment, and arousing sorrow and sympathy for its victims the next.
Can we simultaneously deride the cakewalk, the high-stepping dance that was a classic element in the disgraced minstrel show tradition, and taste of its visceral delights too?
The musical, which opened on Broadway Sunday night at the Lyceum Theater after an Off Broadway run at the Vineyard Theater last spring, joins “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” as a bold-hued attempt to rewrite a chapter of America’s past as musical comedy. But the music in “The Scottsboro Boys,” with its ragtime-rich score by the estimable team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (who died in 2004), will be softer on the ears of those who prefer the shapely melodies of traditional musical theater to the shriek of today’s electric guitars. Which isn’t to suggest that this adventurous new show lacks a contemporary edge.
Directed and choreographed with dazzling verve by Susan Stroman, the show uses the minstrel tradition as a destabilizing narrative device. The only white performer in the cast, John Cullum, oozing the unctuous charm of a courtly Southern gentleman, is the evening’s master of ceremonies, introducing us to his assistants, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon), who trade risqué jokes and ingratiating banter as they play up to the audience, mile-wide smiles stretched across their friendly faces.
Presented within this distancing comic frame is the harrowing story of the nine African-American men (and boys) falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Thrown in prison, they barely escaped lynching and were later subjected to a series of trials that would stretch across several years and reveal in appalling detail the pervasive racism in the judicial system of the South. The Supreme Court overturned two of the convictions in the cases, which became a galvanizing turning point for the gestating civil rights movement.
The musical, with a book by David Thompson, lampoons much of this history as a ludicrous horror show, drawing an implicit comparison between the stereotypes of minstrelsy and the racist assumptions that influenced the treatment of the Scottsboro defendants in the news media and the courts.
Mr. Domingo and Mr. McClendon, brilliant caricaturists both, portray a grisly rogue’s gallery of corrupt sheriffs, clueless or opportunistic lawyers and abusive guards, all leering, conniving, pratfalling fools whose ineptitude and immorality are played for low laughs. The equally versatile actors Christian Dante White and James T. Lane, who play two of the Scottsboro boys, enact the roles of the women who brought the accusations, depicted as grotesque, simpering paragons of venal white Southern womanhood, even when one of them recants her testimony.
Anyone who has seen “Chicago,” the glorious Kander & Ebb musical that has become the longest-running revival in Broadway history, will sense an affinity in the neo-Brechtian style and aggressively satiric tone of “The Scottsboro Boys” (not to mention recognize a few musical vamps and rhythmic riffs). The difference is that the moral stakes in “Chicago” were nonexistent. Although it was also based on a sensational real-life court case, the saga of Velma and Roxie was a lurid tabloid stew of cheating wives and jealous husbands. Watching the merry murderesses exploit gullible journalists and greedy lawyers to pursue their own ends was guilt-free fun, as the American justice system was mocked as just another branch of show business.
The spectacle of the same system destroying innocent lives does not make quite such an appealing subject for winking jokes and soft shoes, particularly when the victims are potent historical symbols. (And when racism in the American courts has not necessarily gone the way of segregated lunch counters.) For queasy-making moments in musical theater, I’m not sure anything can top the number crisply titled “Electric Chair,” a tap dance presented here as the nightmare of the youngest prisoner, with Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones taunting:
Oh, the juice runs through you
And you start to shake
It’s a kind of tap dance
But you ain’t awake.
The laughs should curdle in your throat, unless you simply choose to disengage with the underlying story completely. Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb have written a zesty if not top-tier score, but the pleasures of a jaunty ragtime melody and a clever lyric are hard to savor when they are presented in such an unavoidably grim context. Like “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the intermissionless “Scottsboro Boys,” which runs a bit under two hours, suffers from a problem of monotony, as the scabrous comic tone spreads like shellac across almost every sequence.
The acid-dipped lyrics and Mr. Thompson’s cartoony jesting do occasionally make way for moments of sincerity, most of which are accorded to Joshua Henry, who gives a performance of keen intensity as Haywood Patterson, an illiterate young man who becomes the focus of our sympathy as he steadfastly refuses to sign his name to a lie in order to obtain parole. Mr. Henry performs Haywood’s ballad of hopeless yearning, “Go Back Home,” with a powerful simplicity that slashes through the evening’s artifice. And outside the minstrel-show framing device is yet another framing device, which rather heavy-handedly stresses the inspirational aspects of the story in the history of the civil rights movement.
Ms. Stroman offers some of her most effortlessly vibrant work since “The Producers,” exploiting a minimal set by Beowulf Boritt — a series of girdered prosceniums and an array of silver-painted chairs — to conjure the airy freedom of train travel, the claustrophobic terrors of prison and the raucous atmosphere of the courtrooms. Although the show’s momentum is hampered by both its essential singularity of tone and the tortuous history of the court cases, the production remains dynamic, thanks in no small part to the dauntless energy of the terrific cast, all fine singers and dancers.
But the musical never really resolves the tension between its impulse to entertain us with hoary jokes and quivering tambourines and the desire to render the harsh morals of its story with earnest insistence. The occasional portentous sound of a single bass drumbeat is like a summons from recess back to the schoolroom. “The Scottsboro Boys” earns admiration for its stylistic daring and obvious ambition, but I’m not sure it’s possible to honor the experience of the men it portrays while turning their suffering into a colorful sideshow.
Musical theater has long been a forum for topics often avoided in polite conversation, from domestic violence to AIDS. The songwriting team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb certainly didn't shy away from darker subject matter in their shows, among them Cabaret and Chicago.
But the final Kander and Ebb musical, The Scottsboro Boys (* * * out of four), now in its Broadway premiere, seems determined to challenge even the most sophisticated and inured audiences. Based on a case involving nine young black men unjustly convicted of rape in 1930s Alabama, Scottsboro is structured as a minstrel show, with performers regaling the crowd with hokey song-and-dance numbers.
For anyone who misses the sarcasm, there are scathing references to the Jim Crow South, in the score and in David Thompson's libretto. Lynchings are repeatedly mentioned, and a Jewish lawyer is attacked, with caustic humor, for his ethnicity.
In short, Scottsboro, which opened Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre, wears its social conscience and its political incorrectness on its sleeve. And while the result is thoughtful, vibrant entertainment, the earnestness and irreverence can seem self-conscious.
That this production feels more heavy-handed than the one staged earlier this year off-Broadway may owe to a new principal actor. Joshua Henry replaces Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, the most fearlessly indignant Scottsboro Boy.
Where Dixon channeled Haywood's anger with riveting charisma, Henry brings a stiffly brooding quality to the role. That approach may be dramatically justifiable, but it's not as effective in the context of a musical — where a hero's spirit should never be so deadened that he can't convincingly burst into song.
Fortunately, other cast members and director/choreographer Susan Stroman ensure that the life force sustaining the Scottsboro Boysis duly represented.
Among the players, standouts include the nimble, sweet-voiced Jeremy Gumbs, as the youngest prisoner, and James T. Lane and Christian Dante White, who appear both as other convicts and, more humorously, the tacky would-be Southern belles who accuse them. As end men "Mr. Bones" and "Mr. Tambo," Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon handily juggle similarly clownish parts, from a booze-addled attorney to a power-drunk sheriff.
Only one real woman appears on stage: Sharon Washington, playing a dignified figure who lingers in the background, not uttering a word until the end. She reminds us that suffering and resolve can be evoked through silence, even in a show as boisterous as this one.
Kander and Ebb's "The Scottsboro Boys" was arguably the finest of last season's new musicals when it appeared at the Vineyard in March. Producers Barry and Fran Weissler eschewed a hasty transfer in favor of a carefully planned Broadway campaign and two months of additional work at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Results are stronger, tighter and even more impactful than the already distinguished show on display last spring. Provocative tuner seems likely to divide audiences in much the same manner as the duo's "Kiss of the Spider Woman," but this one is right up there with "Cabaret" and "Chicago."
"Scottsboro" tells the real-life tale of nine black teenagers unjustly charged with rape in Alabama in 1931. Their convictions in a series of biased trials brought nationwide attention as the case went through numerous appeals, resulting in influential Supreme Court decisions. Not cheery stuff, and certainly a hard sell (a similar problem faced the award-winning but short-lived 1998 musical "Parade," which told of a 1913 lynching in Georgia). The creators here latched onto the canny concept of telling the story in minstrel-show terms, allowing an influx of mirth and humor, while the prejudicial excesses of that long-denigrated form redouble the point. By adding a contemporary overlay with the presence of an enigmatic observer referred to merely as "a Lady," "Scottsboro Boys" resonates in chilling fashion.
The cast is terrific. Any qualms about the replacement of the actor who played main defendant Haywood Patterson at the Vineyard are dispelled early on by Joshua Henry (from last season's "American Idiot"). Henry is very good here; so is 80-year-old veteran John Cullum, who struts through the affair as the Interlocutor with a benevolent smile tinged with snarling condescension. (Cullum might have remembered some of the trial as a child growing up in the South during the six years of Scottsboro trials.)
Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo, as the Tambo and Bones of the minstrel format, both have stirring moments in the second trial segment with their respective solos, "That's Not the Way We Do Things in the South" and the scathing "Financial Advice." Christian Dante White and James T. Lane score withtestimony as the prostitutes who set the plot in motion, while Jeremy Gumbsimpresses as the 12-year-old defendant. Matching them all is Sharon Washington, who provides the conscience of the piece as the Lady. The Kander-Ebb-Susan Stroman-David Thompson team, from the 1997 tuner "Steel Pier," began work in 2002; Kander finished the lyrics following Ebb's death in September 2004. Result finds the tunesmiths at their best since 1975, offering a combination of first-rate songs ("Go Back Home") and keenly contrived musical numbers ("Electric Chair"). Director-choreographer Stroman, working on a far simpler scale than usual, delivers her most creative and effective work in years, and Kander's music sounds great in the hands of orchestrator Larry Hochman, arranger Glen Kelly, and musical director David Loud.
Minimal set by Beowulf Boritt works perfectly within the concept; Toni-Leslie James' costumes combine rags, prison garb and minstrel finery in a just-right mix; and Ken Billington, the one new member of the production team, does a great job weaving dark and light (including a wonderful shadow image consisting of Washington and four chairs during the climactic "You Can't Do Me"). And how refreshing it is that Stroman & Co. choose not to bombard us with the projections and multimedia that usually turn up in shows of this type.
While the Lyceum has seven times the seating capacity of the Vineyard, the stage seems to be slightly narrower, perhaps due to the framing of the proscenium arch. Actors appear to be relatively cramped for space, resulting in a suitably claustrophobic feel and a jolt in voltage that helps account for the increased power of "Scottsboro" in its new home on Broadway.
Rarely have I been so irked by a Broadway show as I was by "The Scottsboro Boys," which has moved uptown after a much-praised Off-Broadway run. This musical, in which the story of a horrific miscarriage of racial justice is retold in the form of a Mr.-Bonesand-Mr.-Jones minstrel show, is one of the best-staged productions ever to come to Broadway. It is impossible not to be thrilled by the electrifying craftsmanship of Susan Stroman, the director and choreographer. The period pastiches of the John Kander-Fred Ebb score are cunningly wrought, and the ensemble cast, led by John Cullum and Joshua Henry, is as good as it could possibly be. (Mr. Henry, in particular, is surely destined for a Tony nomination.) The problem is that all this formidable talent has been enlisted in the service of a musical so smug that I could scarcely bear to sit and watch it.
I suspect that most of the younger people who come to see "The Scottsboro Boys" won't know much about the Depression-era case that inspired the show, infamous though it once was. Very briefly, then, nine black boys from Georgia and Tennessee (one was 12, the others in their teens) who were riding the rails in search of work in 1931 were pulled off their train in Alabama, arrested by a local posse and accused of raping a pair of white girls who had been riding the same train.
A few days later, having barely escaped lynching, they were convicted and sentenced to death. Their case became a nationwide cause célèbre, and the Supreme Court ruled that they had been denied due process and would have to be retried. But even though one of the women subsequently recanted her original testimony, five of the boys remained behind bars for years to come, the last one being paroled in 1950.
In "The Scottsboro Boys," Messrs. Kander and Ebb (who died in 2004 while writing the musical) and David Thompson, the show's librettist, have compressed this complicated sequence of events into a lengthy one-act musical that makes use of all the theatrical conventions of the old-fashioned blackface minstrel shows that were popular well into the 20th century. (Mr. Kander, who is 83, actually directed blackface shows at a Wisconsin boys' camp in the 1930s.) Except for Mr. Cullum, who plays the master of ceremonies, the performers are all black, and most of the songs, which are written with a grasp of period style that will surprise no one familiar with such earlier Kander-Ebb shows as "Cabaret" and "Chicago," are staged as grotesque parodies of the eye-rolling shuffleand-grin style familiar to anyone who has seen the films of Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland—the trick being that the same style is used to portray white and black characters alike.
The difference between smugness and courage is sometimes, like treason, a matter of dates. "The Scottsboro Boys" would have been courageous had it been mounted on Broadway, or anywhere else in America, in the 1960s. In that long-gone decade, the prospect of watching a stageful of black men perform a "comic" minstrel show about so hideous an event would have stung like a flogging. But the intervening half-century has seen not only the election of a black president but the mounting of musicals like "Ragtime" and "Assassins," in which broadly similar theatrical techniques are used to identical ends, thereby robbing the caricatures in "The Scottsboro Boys" of their shock effect. I suppose there are places in America where such a show might still jolt its viewers, but to see "The Scottsboro Boys" on Broadway is to witness a nightly act of collective self-congratulation in which the right-thinking members of the audience preen themselves complacently at the thought of their own enlightenment.
It's interesting to note that the dialogue scenes showing the nine Scottsboro boys behind bars, which are played straight, pack a greater dramatic punch than any of the musical numbers. I had no trouble imagining a play by Mr. Thompson about the Scottsboro trials that could have introduced a new generation to one of the most troubling episodes in modern American history—but I doubt that any Broadway producer would have sunk a dime into it. In its place, then, we get a musical that slathers this terrible tale in a thick coat of musical-comedy frosting that has been spiked with cheap, elephantine irony. I can't imagine a nastier-tasting recipe.