Photo by Sara Krulwich.
BOTTOM LINE: Sophisticated and intelligent, yet also accessible enough for a Broadway audience, The Scottsboro Boys is the first "must-see" Broadway musical in over a year. We've been waiting.
"The Broadway musical is dying" is a common complaint, and one that I steadfastly refuse to believe. Yet after last season, even I was starting to have my doubts. Mediocrity has always been present on Broadway, yet I was beginning to think that was all there was. And while I had heard great things about The Scottsboro Boys from its recent off-Broadway run, I tried hard not to get my hopes up. I need not have worried. The Scottsboro Boys is now at the top of my list for those looking for theatre recommendations.
The Scottsboro Boys tells the story of nine young black men (aged 13-19) who, in 1931 Alabama, were accused of rape by two white women. The ensuing trial initially resulted in death sentences for the boys, but protests in the North led to appeals, overturned convictions, retrials, and new convictions. If this seems unlikely source material for a musical, remember that composer-lyricist team Kander and Ebb are known for their combination of dark subjects and showbiz "razzle dazzle." And like Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman, depressing events need not result in a depressing musical: The Scottsboro Boys is full of high-energy numbers. But while it is not overly somber or dreary, it also isn't a naïve "feel good" musical about racial prejudice (cough cough- Memphis).
Much of the show's high energy comes from the brilliant choice to frame it as a minstrel show, complete with the interlocutor (the incredible John Cullum) and two end men Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon, each a constant surprise of elastic faces and stylized caricatures). The use of minstrelsy allows The Scottsboro Boys the freedom to use a variety of theatrical devices – tap dancing and shadow theatre are two memorable examples. Yet whereas minstrel shows are often remembered for the use of blackface and exaggerated black stereotypes, The Scottsboro Boys deftly turns this troubling tradition on its head. In this show it is the white characters who are parodied; the nine black "Scottsboro Boys" are, in contrast, profoundly human. That The Scottsboro Boys is a minstrel show also reminds us about how, whether we like it or not, minstrelsy is in fact foundational to the development of the American musical. The message seems clear: rather than try to forget our past (whether political or artistic), we should instead look it squarely in the face.
Fred Ebb died in 2004, so this is the last "new" Kander and Ebb show. And while I enjoyed Curtains back in 2006, I find this score to be far superior. As with their work in Cabaret, one could easily be fooled into thinking that a few of the songs were actually lifted from the period. And director-choreographer Susan Stroman does an incredible job with this material. Although I sometimes find her theatrical "tricks" annoying, her relatively simple staging here serves the material well. With no more than some chairs, a few planks of wood, and a strip or two of white fabric, Stroman creates an ever-changing series of settings, from train to jail cell to courtroom to the gates of heaven. And this allows the incredible ensemble cast to shine through.
In fact, my one qualm with this show comes from this ensemble quality – most of the Scottsboro boys sort of blend together. That is, aside from the de facto leader Hayward Patterson (Joshua Henry), who gets several solos, including the quietly beautiful ballad "Go Back Home." Eugene (Jeremy Gumbs) also stands out, both because he is noticeably shorter and younger than the others, and because he shines in the thrilling tap-number "Electric Chair." But the other seven boys are often difficult to tell apart; I remember some of the actors more for their portrayal of other characters (for example, Christian Dante Williams and James T. Lane as Victoria and Ruby, the two "white trash" girls who accused the nine boys of rape). Finally, there is The Lady (Sharon Washington), who silently watches the minstrel show, emphasizing the conscious, ever-present theatricality of the piece. Washington has almost no lines, yet she is so captivating that I often couldn't take my eyes off of her.
While I was fully engaged during the entire show, the last fifteen (or so) minutes, in which the entire conceit of the minstrel show starts to turn back on Cullum's interlocutor, are riveting. Without giving anything away, I found this reminiscent of the best of Kander and Ebb, where one is entertained only to be suddenly doused with ice water and simultaneously slapped in the face. This ending only confirmed for me that The Scottsboro Boys is an incredibly intelligent musical with a lot of layers to it, and I will no doubt be returning for a second visit. Yet for all of this brilliance, don't be fooled into thinking that The Scottsboro Boys is only for the serious, highbrow theatre-goer. Minstrel shows used to be "popular" entertainment, and as intelligent as The Scottsboro Boys is, it should appeal to many, even those who only see theatre a few times a year. Sure, it is still early, but I have a feeling that The Scottsboro Boys will be one of the best musicals of this Broadway season.
(The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets are $39.50-$131.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Student rush seats are available at the box office, on the day of the performance, for $26.50 (2 per person). For more information visit scottsboromusical.com.)