Paul Kolnik/Lyceum Theatre
'Commencing In Chattanooga': Before the incident that upends their lives, the Scottsboro boys — including Joshua Henry (center), with Julius Thomas III (left), Josh Breckenridge and Kendrick Jones — sing about the ups and downs of riding the rails.
'Commencing In Chattanooga': Before the incident that upends their lives, the Scottsboro boys — including Joshua Henry (center), with Julius Thomas III (left), Josh Breckenridge and Kendrick Jones — sing about the ups and downs of riding the rails. Paul Kolnik/Lyceum Theatre
A new musical called The Scottsboro Boys just opened on Broadway, and though it boasts a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the showbiz legends who created Cabaret and Chicago, it's still a tall order — a musical about one of the most shameful episodes in American racial history. There are plenty of theater fans who wonder if such a grim story can be made into a popular entertainment.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the pavement outside the Lyceum Theatre was abuzz with a matinee crowd. Among them were students from Harlem's Academy for Social Action who'd come to see The Scottsboro Boys as part of a program called Open Doors, which introduces New York City high-schoolers to Broadway shows. Seventeen-year-old Samantha Henry had devoured the study guide, and she couldn't wait for the show to start.
"Oh, I was excited to see it, because of the format of the show," she said. "Like, they put it so it's entertaining, but at the same time you get to get the real racist content of the 1930s."
In the infamous case that inspired the show, nine African-American teenagers were unjustly accused of raping two white women in Alabama. The trials and appeals spread out for almost a decade, ending up in the Supreme Court twice, and the circus surrounding the case captured national attention. Director Susan Stroman says the creators of the musical took their cue from lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, before the show was completed.
"He said, you know, 'If you we don't make this show entertaining, no one's gonna listen to this story! It has to be entertaining."
But it's an entertainment that's meant to be subversive. Scottsboro Boys is structured as a minstrel show, a popular variety-show form developed in the 19th century that often featured white performers, and sometimes even black performers, wearing blackface — a practice utterly taboo in contemporary America.
Andrew Kent/Getty Images
Dream Team: Fred Ebb (from left) and John Kander contributed a trunk full of striking shows and indelible tunes — including Cabaret, Chicago and that cabaret-and-karaoke inevitability "New York, New York" — to the American songbook. Ebb died in 2004, before work on The Scottsboro Boys was complete.
Dream Team: Fred Ebb (from left) and John Kander contributed a trunk full of striking shows and indelible tunes — including Cabaret, Chicago and that cabaret-and-karaoke inevitability "New York, New York" — to the American songbook. Ebb died in 2004, before work on The Scottsboro Boys was complete. Andrew Kent/Getty Images
"Doing a minstrel show today is such a racially charged thing that it already brings its own comment with it," says composer John Kander. "So the very form that we were working in commented on the story that we were telling."
It's bracing, to be sure. The character of Haywood Patterson — one of the nine defendants — does a kind of stereotypical song and dance in one courtroom scene, protesting his innocence. Stroman says The Scottsboro Boys makes use of the kind of broad, stylized characters typical in minstrel shows. But there's an added dimension: Many of the actors play multiple roles.
"In this form that we're using, it's really the white stereotypes that our actors get to play," she says. "You know, now our black company get to play a white sheriff and white guards and white lawyers, and they get to play roles that they would never be allowed to play. And that makes it sort of an acting tour de force for them."
David Thompson, who wrote the show's script, says the role-playing becomes more pointed as the story goes on.
"The boys at the beginning are asked to perform a minstrel show, and by the end of the evening they have more or less taken over the storytelling, in all aspects," he says — "whether it's the moving of the scenery, the telling of the story, the enacting of all the different characters. So, by the end they own the story, and they flip the minstrel show on its head."
Paul Kolnik/Lyceum Theatre
Tambourines And Tap Dances: The Scottsboro company performs one of the more upbeat numbers in a musical that takes its structure from — but is dedicated to subverting the motivating impulses of — the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Tambourines And Tap Dances: The Scottsboro company performs one of the more upbeat numbers in a musical that takes its structure from — but is dedicated to subverting the motivating impulses of — the minstrel shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Paul Kolnik/Lyceum Theatre
In one moment toward the end of the musical, the Interlocutor — a kind of master of ceremonies, and the only white person onstage — asks the Scottsboro Boys to sing a Stephen Foster-style song called “Southern Days.”
"And they do indeed sing it for him," Stroman says, "but then they take the lyrics and spin them on their heads. You know, they change the sweet lyrics, the "how sweet it is down South," to [reflect] the horrors that they have been through."
The 1930s Alabama of lynchings and cross-burnings made an impression on the Harlem teenagers, like Jamal Baugh, who found himself talking to some audience members after the show — including two elderly ladies who'd lived through the era. One of them, he says, wanted to know how it made him and his friends feel.
"So she was [asking us], can we relate to it?" he explains. "And I was like, 'No. I'm kinda glad that we live right now.' "
More of Baugh's peers will have the chance to think about such things soon. The Theater Development Fund, which sponsors the Open Doors program, recently bought out every seat in the house for two upcoming matinees of The Scottsboro Boys; the plan is to bring in as many as 1,800 more high-schoolers to see the show.