The Scottsboro Boys



The Scottsboro Boys enjoyed a sold-out, somewhat critically acclaimed run at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre this spring. It’s now made the move uptown to Broadway where it’s playing at the landmark Lyceum theatre. (Girlfriend needs a facelift.) Off-Broadway audiences are different from Broadway audiences and I’m not sure that’s a good thing for the commercial success of the Boys.

This new musical from theatre luminaries Kander and Ebb (of Chicago and Cabaret fame) is directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman (who had much success with The Producers and Contact). While there are many elements that are praiseworthy, I’m skeptical that it’ll be a hit.

You see, The Scottsboro Boys tells the true story of the Scottsboro boys by way of a minstrel show. After a brief prologue during which The Lady sits and waits for a bus, the show begins with much fanfare: Eleven young black men (including one young boy) enter the stage, setting up chairs in a semi-circle. The Lady remains on the sideline, mostly for the whole show, watching the happenings. Then the Interlocutor, played by John Cullum, enters and introduces the minstrel players. At the head of the “troupe” are Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, both of whom, along with most of the Boys, go on to play several other characters while telling the story. They also come out every now and then with old, vaudeville jokes, leaving you waiting for a rim-shot. Then they and the rest of the minstrel players tell the Scottsboro boys’ story. Nine black boys were riding a train. It stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama, and two white ladies, fearing they’d be arrested for prostitution, lied and claimed that the black boys raped them, sending all nine Scottsboro boys to jail. Throughout the show, we see them in jail, see them through their several trials and see the aftermath (including an epilogue with the same woman waiting for a bus).

It’s really a very compelling story but it’s a bit of a disturbing production. The subject matter is disgusting – in the sense that knowing there was a time in the not too distant past (the story begins in 1931) during which black boys were persecuted and denied rights simply because they were black is disgusting. (I’m not na├»ve enough to think that race baiting and racial profiling and gross prejudice no longer exist, but certainly, technically and under the law, people of all races are fully enfranchised.) And the use of the minstrel show is disturbing because it’s yet another reminder of the horrible treatment of non-Caucasians in this country – even in theatre, an arena some would say is rife with moral turpitude.

All of that leads me to wonder whether or not this will play in Peoria, as they say. This next statement may sound elitist or snobbish but I believe it to be true: Off-Broadway audiences (off-Broadway being where The Scottsboro Boys was so well received) and critics are more sophisticated and often more theatre-literate than your general Broadway going audience. I wonder if your average theatre-goer will understand what a minstrel show is, understand its place in history (both American and theatrical) and understand how it’s being effectively used here – as a comment on our shameful past – or if, instead, they’ll be turned off, viewing the minstrel show as racist and finding the Boys’ struggle too much to stomach in a Broadway musical. (To wit: I recently was talking with my brother, who likes to think he’s the smartest guy in the room and knows everything, and mentioned minstrel shows. He had no idea what I was talking about and couldn’t recall ever hearing that term or the name Sambo before.)

I suppose The Scottsboro Boys’ commercial success and longevity isn’t any of my concern. But I think given my concerns, the marketing and Playbill cover art are misleading. The cover is a collage of pictures: One shows a young boy with a questioning look on his face and another shows hands gripping a tambourine. Both fine. Then there are two pictures of star Joshua Henry (who’s terrific, and was terrific as American Idiot’s Favorite Son in Berkeley and on Broadway!) rejoicing, with a huge smile on his face, and one picture of ensemble member Christian Dante White mid-dance. These three pictures would make me think, if I didn’t know anything about the show, that the show was upbeat and happy. While there are some rousing dance numbers and hopeful moments, the show is ultimately incredibly somber and its most upbeat and happy points are only upbeat and happy if you discount the social commentary being made. This all leaves me questioning The Scottsboro Boys’ long-term viability on Broadway.

Those concerns aside, the show boasts great talent. Kander and Ebb are theatre legends and their signature syncopation can be heard here. There are several catchy tunes (though, given the subject matter – rape and racial prejudice – they aren’t tunes I’d be likely to hum in the shower) as well as powerful empowerment songs. Susan Stroman’s kick-ogrpahy is in full effect in this show. If you’ve ever seen a Stroman choreographed show you’re familiar with these kicks. They’re not Rockette style kicks but sort of jumping-turning kicks that are maybe a little reminiscent of stylized square dancing moves. It is impressive and can be thrilling to see done well, as it is here, but I’d rather be able to tell that I’m watching Stroman’s choreography because it’s good and not because I’m watching the same moves as were in her previous productions.
The cast is incredible. The nine Boys and the two troupe leaders do a great job at moving around, playing dress up and singing (and tap dancing) their hearts out. Of particular note is Joshua Henry. Here he plays Haywood Patterson, who unwittingly becomes the Boys’ leader. Henry is a triple threat on the rise – he can sing, to say the least, he’s a good dancer (adding personal flair here and there) and he is undeniably moving as The Scottsboro Boys’ emotional core. When he says, “God is not my salvation. Truth is my salvation.” you have no choice but to believe him. Look for him to be singled out during award season.

The Scottsboro Boys is a moving new musical with an extremely talented cast. I just think it’s better suited for a downtown, niche audience and not the fickle mass Broadway audience. I hope audiences prove me wrong.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit scottsboromusical.com, and check out these pictures of the Boys in rehearsal.

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