RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of the most shameful moments in American racial history has come to Broadway as a musical. "The Scottsboro Boys" opened last night. It features a score by the legendary songwriting team Kander and Ebb, who created "Cabaret" and "Chicago." And this musical comes with this question: Can an ugly, racial episode be made into popular entertainment?
Reporter Jeff Lunden went to find out.
JEFF LUNDEN: On a recent Saturday afternoon, the pavement outside the Lyceum Theatre was abuzz with a matinee crowd; suburbanites, clusters of elderly women, tourists. Among them were some students from Harlem's Academy for Social Action. They were coming to see "The Scottsboro Boys" as part of a program called Open Doors, which introduces New York City high school kids to Broadway shows.
Seventeen-year-old Samantha Henry had devoured the study guide and couldn't wait for the show to start.
Ms. SAMANTHA HENRY (High School Student): Oh, I was excited to see it, because of the format of the show. Like, they put it so it's entertaining. But at the same time, you get to get the real racist content of the 1930s.
(Soundbite of song, "Hey, Hey, Hey")
Unidentified Chorus: Hey, hey, hey, hey, look what we got for you. Come on gather around. Hey, hey, hey, hey, we won't be able to, keep your toes from tippy-tapping over the ground.
LUNDEN: "The Scottsboro Boys" is about an infamous case in the 1930s, when 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.
Ms. SUSAN STROMAN (Director): Well, he said, you know, if we don't make this show entertaining, no one's going to listen to this story. It has to be entertaining.
(Soundbite of "The Scottsboro Boys")
Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Tambo, are you ready to have a good time?
Mr. FORREST MCCLENDON (Actor): (as Mr. Tambo) Indeed. Let's have all the men lean over and kiss the ladies in the front.
Unidentified Man #1: And all the men in front kiss the ladies behind.
LUNDEN: But it's entertainment that's meant to be subversive. "The Scottsboro Boys" tells its story as a minstrel show, a popular variety form developed in the 19th century that often featured white performers, and sometimes black performers, in blackface.
Composer John Kander.
Mr. JACK KANDER (Composer): Doing a minstrel show today is such a racially charged thing that it already brings its own comment with it. So the very form that we were working in commented on the story that we were telling.
(Soundbite of song, "Nothing")
Mr. JOSHUA HENRY (Actor): (as Haywood Patterson) (Singing) Don't understand nothing. Never did learns nothing. Since I don't knows nothing, this is a fine how do you do.
LUNDEN: That's the character of Heywood Patterson, one of the nine defendants doing a kind of stereotypical song and dance in the courtroom, protesting his innocence.
Susan 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.
Ms. STROMAN: In this form that we're using it's really the white stereotypes that our actors get to play. 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.
(Soundbite of song, "That's Not the Way We Do Things")
Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Above the law may be my (unintelligible) care in Alabama. But it's not the way we see things, it's not the way we deal things, it's not the way we do things in New York.
LUNDEN: David Thompson, who wrote the show's script, says the role playing becomes more pointed as the show goes on.
Mr. DAVID THOMPSON (Playwright): 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; 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.
LUNDEN: Like in this moment, towards the end of the musical, when The Interlocutor - a master of ceremonies and the only white person onstage - asks the Scottsboro Boys to sing a Stephen Foster-like song, called "Southern Days."
Mr. JOHN CULLUM (Actor): (as The Interlocutor) Now, while you boys are waiting for the verdict, sing that song about home we love so much.
(Soundbite of song, "Southern Days")
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Don't you miss the sigh of willows dripping on a balmy Southern day?
Ms. STROMAN: And they do, indeed, sing it for him. But then they take the lyrics and spin them on their heads. You know, they change the sweet lyrics of the how sweet it is down south to the horrors that they have been through.
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) How the signs and sounds come back to me, like my daddy hanging from a tree...
Mr. CULLUM: (as The Interlocutor) Here now, wait a minute.
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) ...or the fire that made the crosses burn.
Mr. CULLUM: (as The Interlocutor) I don't remember that part of the song.
LUNDEN: 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.
Mr. JAMAL BAUGH (High School Student): Me and Shannille was talking to two old ladies who was actually in that time - they was black also. So she was saying that can we relate to it? And I was like, no, I'm kinda glad that we live right now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BAUGH: And how they was saying that they were sad at seeing how this play was so emotional and how it was racism that time, So they had it bad and while we had it good, for right now.
LUNDEN: The Theater Development Fund, which sponsors the Open Doors program, just announced that they've bought out the house for two upcoming matinees of "The Scottsboro Boys," so they can bring 1800 high school kids to see the show.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(Soundbite of song "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey")
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Read the morning papers every day. Read what all the gossip columns say...
MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Come see the merriment. Come on and make some noise. Hey, hey, hey, hey, good-bye to the Scottsboro Boys.
Mr. CULLUM: (as The Interlocutor) A happy ending, just like I promised. Everyone's favorite: the cakewalk.