Broadway celebrated Halloween with a social-history horror story, trotted out as a minstrel show Oct. 31 at the Lyceum under the name of The Scottsboro Boys.
Festive holiday feelings spilled over into the theatre. In fact, the first outburst of prolonged applause occurred before a single note had been sounded, just as the lights were going down. The audience was all that jazzed—and well they should be!
A magnificent era in melodic Broadway shows was coming to an end with it: The Scottsboro Boys is the 13th —and final—Kander-and-Ebb musical for The Great White Way, pretty much completed a few days before the death of lyricist Fred Ebb.
Six years later, the team's survivor, 83-year-old John Kander, stood like a silver-leafed oak over the proceedings—a bit stooped perhaps but still a handsome 83—both at the Lyceum and later at the after-party shoehorned into Touch on West 52nd.
By the time I found him, Kander had taken refuge in an alcove on the equally packed second-floor and spent much of the evening chatting there with his cousin. "I'm not very articulate right now," he told me, apologizing for the state of his blissful befuddlement. "I think I've been through too much. It was the most wonderful evening. The whole experience has been very intense—and, really, a kind of a mass love affair." Were Ebb still alive—and not just living on in the show—it's doubtful he would have made the opening. First nights were fright nights for him. He would have been out trick-or-treating, trying to settle his jangled nerves that way. A cousin of his relayed the story of staying at home with him and babysitting him through the Woman of the Year opening. "Fred was just wild, and it was difficult to be with him then."
After Ebb's passing, Kander shouldered on with director-choreographer Susan Stroman and book writer David Thompson to the Lyceum finish-line, via a tryout last spring at Vineyard Theatre to a fix-up stop at Minneapolis' Guthrie.
"John Kander's music is part of his soul," said collaborator Thompson. "If he needs music to sound like a ragtime step, it pours out of his fingers. If he needs it to sound like a lovely ballad, he can reach down into that well and pull up that water. He's an artist that way. Most of the score that exists right now was in place when Fred Ebb died. As the musical continues and characters are defined, there were lyrics that had to be finished or adapted or continued, and that's when John stepped in."
According to Thompson, the genesis of the show came from Kander and Ebb's desire "to tell a real American story, a true one. We went and looked at all of the trials that were part of the last century, and immediately the Scottsboro boys really jumped out at us. We had done research on this period of time in 1931 in the past [for Steel Pier, their lamentably short-lived musical on the marathon dancers of The Great Depression], so this was a trial we were aware of. We decided that this would be an interesting place to start. And then from there, we found that it was so rich with characters and situations and stories—and, ultimately, the nine boys."
[flipbook] In Alabama of 1931, nine African-American teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 19 were falsely accused and wrongly convicted of raping two white Southern belles. The 13-year-old didn't know what rape was, and, even when one of the "soiled doves" recanted her story, the conviction stood—but wobbly. Through various appeals and the intervention of a wiseacre New York Jewish lawyer, the prisoners were freed in a piecemeal fashion over the years, some remaining until after World War II and one not making it out alive at all. Powered by Southern bigotry, it was a lie that could have lynched them. As it was, nine lives were needlessly and drastically disfigured.
To this sad and shameful chapter in our history, Kander and Ebb give us old razzle-dazzle. Pouring cynicism and glitz into old wounds is a favorite tactic of theirs, and it has resulted in their best shows. Look how brazenly they strutted their stuff in the face of Nazism (Cabaret) and sensationalized murder trials (Chicago).
In The Scottsboro Boys they have again audaciously seen fit to relay the grim facts of this case in the form of an old-fashioned, socially incorrect minstrel show, replete with Interlocutor, a white emcee-narrator who occasionally pops up as a judge or governor meting out rough Southern justice. His two deputies occupy opposite sides of the stage, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, dispensing in the broadest strokes possible the white villains of the piece (sheriffs, lawyers, guards, clerks, et al). There is one woman in the show, black and mysterious, wafting through the proceedings with quiet dignity, silently observing, remaining mute till the last seven words of the play, which, it turned out, would alter the course of human history.
The lone Caucasian in the cast, John Cullum, allows his roots to flap in the wind like a Confederate flag, reeking with perfectly pitched Southern paternalism.
"I feel very comfortable in this role because I'm from that area," he admitted. "There is a lot of me in that role—even the parts I don't like about myself. Prejudice was all around me as a young man and still exists down South—and still exists in the North, but in a different way. If anybody asks you whether this is a pertinent show, just ask them, 'What's going on in politics today?' with a whomp! There's no question that there's a deep-seated fear and hatred of a lot of people for anybody that doesn't look or act like them. There's a lot of this still going on. This show really delves into that.
"I like the fun part of it, the strutting-about and carrying-on—the minstrel part and the trimmings of that—but what's really important about it is the fact that it has the double edge to it and says something important. It's a charming story told in a serious way, and it's a serious story told in a charming way. That's the beauty of it."
Cullum has that imperious plantation-owner gait down to a T and glides smoothly through the cakewalk portion of the program, looking spick-and-span spiffy in his white suit and outsized top-hat. "When I first put it on, I thought, 'My God, I look like The Mad Hatter!'" he confessed. "I've never seen a minstrel show, but I've been in numbers and done things from minstrel shows. When I was still in my teens, I did a Bert Williams number—and I've sung a lot of songs that are related. Some of the gospel songs in the Baptist church are very much related to that sort of thing."
As his end men, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon have a high old time of it, serving up some raucously over-the-top cartoons. Domingo credited director Stroman with shaping his antics.
"It's both of us," he said. "It's a beautiful marriage. She gave me license to kill. She really opened her arms with whatever I brought to her, and then we made decisions based on what was the best, what was the strongest. In every single way, she guided the process, but she also let me come in and be very playful—wicked.
"I have no words for what this experience for me is right now. It's very surreal. To be on Broadway and to be telling a story which you feel that is important—and you know your gifts are being used for that kind of message—it's an act of activism. I feel charged as an artist in a way that I haven't in a long time."
McClendon really gets in gear as the Jewish lawyer who speaks (and sings "That's Not the Way We Do Things") in annoyingly nasal New Yorkese. "I'm singing a number in a Kander-and-Ebb musical in my Broadway debut!" he said in disbelief.
"I love the fact that I get to play so many different characters, but the lawyer is definitely my favorite—if nothing more than for the accent. At the end of the day, in my mind, he's a freedom fighter. The chance to tell his story means a lot to me."
As the silent lady of mystery hovering over the show, the also-debuting Sharon Washington manages an ethereal presence. "Watching all these wonderful actors—I'm so engaged in the story every night I sometimes forget to breathe."
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Regardless of race, creed or even gender, the other characters running alongside the story are filled by actors playing The Scottsboro Nine. Two of the accused break ranks and impersonate—hilariously—their floozy accusers. "Where in musical theatre, outside of La Cage, would I get to do that?" asked one of them, James T. Lane. "I have a great time, wearing that hat and wearing that sash—y'know, bringing her to life and telling her story, because that story is part of the whole story. She has a voice, too, so I'm very grateful for that."
Lane, in the role of one of the more unfortunate of the nine, has one of the longest and loudest silences ever not uttered in a musical—comparable to the devastating button that Kander and Ebb finally added to their "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" in the movie version of Cabaret.
Christian Dante White plays the more unrepentant of the two accusers and finds her "deliciously evil and just snarky and a lot of fun to play. I just kinda play with her. I don't try to play evil or villain. I just try to play the given circumstances and just have fun with it. I love both of my parts. Everyone is so fantastic in the show. I just try to keep up playing with my other actors on stage."
It's his Broadway bow as well, and he is happy to be with others in the same situation. "It's a miracle that a musical like this, in this day and age, made it to Broadway because Broadway is heading toward the really big shows—so it's good that a small show like this could come and be here with just the actors. There's no gimmick. It's actors telling the truth, and a lot of new actors. There's no big A-Name list in our show. I think it's what theatre should be doing—telling a story."
New to the cast is Joshua Henry, an up-and-comer from American Idiot and In the Heights who stepped into the most prominently presented role of the nine, Haywood Patterson, when Brandon Victor Dixon, who originated the role at the Vineyard abandoned it to play Ray Charles in a Broadway bio that hasn't happened yet. "I love this character's commitment to the truth — it motivates me to want to do the same. It's a blessing, this role. I'm having a blast with this amazing cast." Stroman, who did some herculean heavy-lifting with this show as both director and choreographer, was finally found on the restaurant's carefully guarded, second-floor celebrity area, resting on her laurels and talking with friends and cast. "I'm very proud tonight and thrilled," she admitted readily. "I love this cast so much, and the audience embraced them so. It was overwhelming and joyous for me. It has been a really great experience—going from the Vineyard to the Guthrie and now to Broadway and to be able to tweak it and change it and make it richer along the way."
For one thing, she was able to get in more dancing before parking the show on Broadway. "Know why? Because you get to know their bodies more. I get to know them, and I get to know what they can do so I get to challenge them a little bit more.
"Joshua is great. So are all the guys—they can sing, they can act, they can dance. Their dramatic acting is spectacular, but they're also comedians. By the end of the show, it looks like there's nothing they can't do. They're the most wonderful group of guys."
Lead producers Barry and Fran Weissler wore ear-to-ear smiles all evening. It's their second Kander-and-Ebb show in town. The other is the longest-running Broadway revival of all time: Chicago, almost 5,800 performances old.
There were glittery evidence of Kander and Ebb's past in attendance: Debra Monk and the bearded-for-La Bete David Hyde Pierce, who respectively won a Tony nomination and the Tony for K&E's next-to-the-last, Curtains. "A gorgeous evening tonight," ruled the unabashedly bias Pierce.
One of the evening's producers, Jacki Barlia Florin, also produced the Westport Playhouse lift-off of All About Us, Kander and Ebb's musicalization of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which has stalled on the way to Broadway. (In the same shape is K&E's The Visit, which hasn't progressed beyond the regionals—and should. Chita Rivera starred.)
Kristin Chenoweth, who Broadway-debuted in a Kander-and-Ebb (1997's Steel Pier), bopped over after her Promises, Promises matinee, in a chilly mini of gold lame. "It's freezing. I should have worn hose!" she squeaked.
Tovah Feldshuh arrived well-wrapped but removed her coat, revealing a shoulderless frock to the paparazzi, and handed it to Jeannie Opdyke Smith, her new best friend and daughter of the woman she played in Irena's Vow.
Barbara Cook, midway through recording her recent cabaret success with Michael Feinstein, arrived on the arm of Harvey Evans who's just back from L.A.'s Ahmanson where he tried out Leap of Faith, which is expected on Broadway in the early fall. "I play the old crabby guy in the town who gets transforms and gets semi-religious," he happily relayed.
Precious star Gabourey Sidibe came with her equally Oscar-nominated director, Lee Daniels. Both are doing different movies now—plus Sidibe is also playing Laura Linney's student in the Showtime series, "The Big C."
Other first-nighters: Nathan Lane; his career-starting replacement in Love! Valour! Compassion!, Mario Cantone, reeling from some dumb questions on the red carpet ("They asked me about 'Jersey Shore' and 'Desperate Houewives,' like I give a [bleep]!"); Anika Noni Rose, the Caroline, or Change Tony winner hitting movie screens Nov. 5 in "For Colored Girls"; Kathleen Chalfant; Sophisticated Lady Judith Jamison; ex-mayor David Dinkins and wife Joyce; former L.A. police chief William Bratton with Rikki Kleimann; Rent's Tracie Thoms; Mamma Mia! creator-producer Judy Craymer; La Cage aux Folles's Terry Lavell; and Congressman Charles B. Rangel.
This was my first time in the theatre sitting directly behind 6-foot-6½ Tommy Tune. "Don't worry, I'm a collapsible dancer," promised The Tall One. "It's all in the legs." Sure enough, he folded up like a deckchair. Still, he's tall enough to be designated a landmark. "On Wednesday, I'll be at the New York Living Landmark, an event Liz Smith does every year. It's my one-year anniversary of being a New York living landmark so I'm going to entertain. I'm taking my show [Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography in Song and Dance] to Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 14, and then on to San Antonio, my favorite Texas town."