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Kander & Ebb musical ‘Scottsboro Boys’ makes it to Broadway

— It all started at lyricist Fred Ebb’s kitchen table about eight years ago. Ebb and composer John Kander, the legendary songwriting team that crafted celebrated scores for “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and nearly a dozen other Broadway shows, were ready to start a new show, and so were their frequent collaborators, director Susan Stroman and librettist David Thompson.

As the four friends talked first about the Depression, in which two of their earlier musicals were set, then about great American trials, they returned again and again to the infamous Scottsboro Boys case. On March 25, 1931, nine black teenagers bound for Memphis were pulled off a freight train in Scottsboro, Ala., then falsely accused, imprisoned and convicted for raping two white women. Their convictions were later overturned — twice — by the U.S. Supreme Court, and one of the two women recanted her testimony. But each youth spent at least six years in jail, and nine lives were ruined.

“When I was little, I remember the Scottsboro case being in the newspaper all the time,” recalls 83-year-old Kander. “But as I grew older, it was there less and less until it wasn’t in the newspaper at all. These were real people, and our show could bring them back to life again.”

Fred Ebb died on Sept. 11, 2004, but the power of the material drew his three collaborators back to the project a few years later. Kander says he “channeled” his longtime writing partner to finish lyrics as well as music, and their new musical, “The Scottsboro Boys,” opens on Broadway on Sunday after sold-out runs this year at both the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.

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“The stories that Kander and Ebb connect to musically are stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” says Stroman, the Tony-winning director of such shows as “Contact” and “The Producers.” “This is a piece of American history that we are not proud of, and Fred Ebb said the only way to make this story resonate with audiences and have them pay attention is to make it entertaining. Theater audiences don’t want to sit through a history lesson.”

To deliver their entertainment, the collaborators wrap prejudice and injustice in an unlikely package: a minstrel show. Their story starts in a frenzy, with cast members charging down the aisles, unruly, loud and a little too friendly. Performers sing of some pretty awful things, often to melodic Southern ballads or upbeat ditties, and the evening’s song-and-dance numbers are peppered with talk of lynching, electrocution, Dixie justice and mobs outside the jailhouse.

Nobody remembers who came up with the idea of a minstrel show format, but all refer to the added tension of using a racially charged entertainment form to tell their racially charged story. The decidedly stylized and satirical minstrel show ironically skewers 1930s Southern justice much as Kander and Ebb employed vaudeville and burlesque to take on the Nazis in “Cabaret” and fame-seeking murderers in “Chicago.”

Consider the staging. Onstage is the minstrel show’s traditional semi-circle of chairs filled with minstrels flanking a well-dressed MC or interlocutor. The “end men,” seated at either end of the semicircle and known as Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, are also a minstrel show staple, telling jokes and stories. The only Caucasian on this stage, however, is the interlocutor (Tony winner John Cullum), while African American actors play not just the Scottsboro boys but a procession of white drunken lawyers, lying women, prejudiced lawmen and sadistic prison guards.

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“We’re playing these horrible human beings, Forrest McClendon [Mr. Tambo] and I, and we need to show a delicious amount of fun being completely inhumane,” says actor Colman Domingo, who plays Mr. Bones. “That’s what helps land the horror of what happened to these boys. The more wicked and playful we are, the more we don’t take their case seriously, the more powerful it is.”

Domingo admits he’d never heard of the Scottsboro case himself until he was a junior in college, while another cast member says he didn’t know about it until his audition. Actors went in small groups to such archives as New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and, says Domingo, “We’d sit there for hours, researching the minstrel form or learning about the boys’ individual cases. And we keep doing that. We know the responsibility of this piece and the integrity that must be attached to it, so we want to make sure we have as much knowledge as possible.”

Much of the show is based on the historical record. Kander says, for instance, that there were often times he’d mention a line in the show that moved him, and book writer Thompson would say it was an actual quote from the transcripts, not fiction. The Scottsboro Boys’ unjust arrests and unjust trials spurred books, including two by defendants, as well as considerable press coverage. “From the get-go, we knew we were always going to have the source material of history,” says Thompson. “Not only did we have court transcripts but letters and newspaper accounts. People said these terrible things, and it was all there for you to use.”

Relating Scottsboro injustices in court as well as in jail, Thompson and company make the most of their source material. Onstage throughout the show is a silent African American woman whose identity is revealed at the show’s conclusion, while other historical figures were pretty theatrical to start with. Recanting victim Ruby Bates gets a star turn dancing, much as the real-life Ruby Bates sought celebrity for telling the truth. When prominent New York criminal lawyer Samuel Leibowitz, with 77 straight wins behind him, stepped in to help the Scottsboro Boys, says Thompson, one prosecuting attorney hurled anti-Semitic remarks in court, asking the jury at one point, “Is justice in this case going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?”

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The show’s costumes also draw on reality. Images on the New York rehearsal room wall show the African American prisoners all dressed in white, and Stroman says discovering actual trial photos of their white prison garb “was like finding gold. The white exemplifies the innocence of the Scottsboro Boys, and it’s true history.”

Such choreography as the show’s opening cakewalk, flea hops, tap dancing and vaudeville steps similarly smack of the ‘30s, with Stroman citing as among her inspirations such things as cartoons of Betty Boop chased by skeletons. The score incorporates ragtime and old plantation-style songs — with surprising lyrics — to add Southern flavor to the score.

When Ebb died, the songwriters had several shows in process, including “Curtains,” which was produced at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre in 2006, then on Broadway in 2007. The Scottsboro project at the time consisted of an early draft and perhaps two-thirds of a score that Kander went on to essentially finish by himself. “I had written lyrics before I met Fred, and after all those years of our writing together, I probably soaked up the process,” says the composer. “I was nervous, but new songs had to be written.”

By 2008, Stroman felt confident enough about the project to approach Douglas Aibel, artistic director of the Vineyard Theatre, where they had all first collaborated in 1987 on a revival of “Flora, the Red Menace.” Excited by what he read, Aibel went on to host readings in November 2008 and June 2009 and says the work went so well that everyone felt ready to do a full production.

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A new song from Kander starts the show and essentially explains the minstrel-form concept for people unfamiliar with it. He is a little awkward talking about it, but the composer really knew the once-popular form, having been first a camper, then a counselor, at a Wisconsin camp where counselors put on a minstrel show every summer.

The creative team has emphasized simplicity, from the small, eight-member orchestra to the stark set. Actors move chairs and planks to create a train, jail cell, prison yard, bus and courtroom. “Once I had those 13 chairs, it seemed a better idea for the Scottsboro Boys to be in charge of the set,” observes Stroman. “Since we’re already bending the rules on a minstrel show, why not have the boys so invested in telling the story that they make the set themselves?

“The Scottsboro Boys” fared well at the Vineyard, winning several awards and drawing generally favorable reviews. The Vineyard’s Aibel reports big chunks of the audience lingering after the show to talk about it with one another, and so does Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie. At the Guthrie, adds Dowling, people didn’t just attend the post-play discussions, several came back three and four times.

“One of the things that struck me, and that has made this experience so intense for all of us, is that we were writing about people who lived and were forgotten,” says Kander. “This show reminds you of why you wanted to be in the theater in the first place.”

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Isenberg’s website is https://www.barbaraisenberg.com.


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