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Musical of the Month: The Scottsboro Boys

The Vineyard Production of The Scottsboro Boys. Photo © Carol Rosegg
The  Off-Broadway Production of The Scottsboro Boys at the Vineyard Theatre. Photo © Carol Rosegg 

There have been few musical theatre songwriting teams as prolific as John Kander and Fred Ebb.  From 1965 until 2004, the pair worked on around a dozen Broadway musicals (depending on how one counts concerts and speciality shows), and had at least four more musicals in various stages of development when Ebb passed away suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 76.  Three of these then unproduced musicals, Curtains, The Visit, and The Scottsboro Boys, have since opened on Broadway, and the fourth, an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, has been presented in regional productions around the country.

The three posthumously produced musicals each received a Tony nomination for Best Musical, but none recouped their original investment on Broadway. Perhaps like Chicago, which didn’t become a mega-hit until the record-breaking run of the 1996 revival, they were ahead of their time and are simply waiting for the right moment to speak to an audience ready to hear their message.  Although each merits such reexamination, The Scottsboro Boys feels particularly timely, and so I'm making it February’s Musical of the Month.

The Scottsboro Boys tells the true story of nine black teens ranging in age from 12 to 19, who, in 1931, were accused of raping two white woman on a freight train traveling across the American South.  The case against the teenagers was extremely flimsy, and one of the alleged victims eventually recanted. The trials were reported in newspapers across the country and polarized the nation. Many in the North, including actors, religious organizations, and the U.S. Communist Party raised funds for their defense, but all except the youngest of the “Scottsboro Boys” (as they came to be known) were sentenced to death by the electric chair. After several appeals (escalating, eventually, to the United States Supreme Court), all avoided the death penalty, but each spent time in harsh prison conditions under the cloud of the death sentence.  

The case inspired poems and a verse drama by Langston Hughes and has some similarities to part of the plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (although Lee denied that the events had any direct influence on her work).  In 2000, bookwriter David Thompson and director/choreographer Susan Stroman brought the idea of the Scottsboro trial to Kander and Ebb as a possible subject for their next musical.  Ebb reportedly latched onto the idea with great passion and began writing lyrics rapidly.  A first reading was held in August of 2004, a month before Ebb would pass away.  The show was shelved until 2010 when Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theater launched a production that would transfer to Broadway.

Confronting racism in the criminal justice system and the way in which race is performed in society was central to the creators' vision for the show. The Scottsboro Boys is titled Minstrel Show in early drafts in the Fred Ebb papers preserved at the Library for the Performing Arts, and indeed, the show, from it’s earliest incarnation, employs the racist conventions of a minstrel show (although the characters are played by black actors rather than by white men in blackface). A white man, the Interlocutor (generally a kind of “straight man” to the silliness of the minstrels), begins by instructing the black men to “be seated” and then enjoining them to tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys. The ensemble performs the stereotypical and offensive schtick common to the minstrel form until the character of Haywood Patterson (one of the first of the accused to tell his story to a journalist in the aftermath of the event) breaks with the style and asks, in all seriousness, “This time, can we tell the truth?” The rest of the action alternates between the conventions of the minstrel show and a more serious, representational style. Through the vehicle of the minstrel show, the musical interrogates the high stakes performance these very young men had to enact for the mostly white audiences both in courtrooms and, through the press, for the politically powerful groups in the North that would support their cause.  

In its original production, some felt the performance of a minstrel show, no matter the ethnicity of the performances or the theatrical context, irresponsibly revived an inherently racist theatrical form. Protestors from a group called “The Freedom Party” picketed outside the theatre during the show's run. The production received mixed reviews, and closed after 29 previews and just over a month of regular performances in the fall. The show did, however, gather a fairly devoted group of admirers, and there was an attempt to get them to commit to buying tickets for a spring revival just before the Tony Awards, but the project failed to generate enough enthusiasm to convince investors to sign on. A West End London production played a limited run from November of 2014 through February of 2015 and won the Olivier award for Best Musical that year. The musical is now licensed by Music Theatre International which reports three new productions across the country this spring.

The historical story of the Scottsboro Boys feels especially timely. The musical is challenging and certain to provoke discussion among those willing to seriously consider the questions it forces audiences to ask. The creators have very generously allowed us to post the full libretto of the current version of the show as part of this blog series for research purposes, and I hope many will take the opportunity to read the text, listen to the cast recording, and discuss their reactions.

This copy of the libretto of The Scottsboro Boys was provided by librettist David Thompson and is published here with the permission of Thompson, John Kander, and the estate of Fred Ebb for research use only.

Download the libretto: PDF

Please note: You may not reproduce or repost this or perform this musical in any context without permission from the creators or the licensing agency: Music Theatre International.

 

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