Broadway Favorites in England: The Scottsboro Boys Revivified and a Modern-Dress Sweeney Todd

By Steven Suskin
November 10, 2013

Playbill.com correspondent Steven Suskin reports on British productions of The Scottsboro Boys and Sweeney Todd. How do these shows compare with the most-recent Broadway productions? How do they differ? How is an American abroad likely to react? We took the opportunity to check in on both.

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The long escalators in the London Underground are lined with framed theatrical window cards, giving us something to browse at as we traverse the tubes. Along with the shows I was booked to see, the shows that I'd seen on previous trips, and the shows that I really don't ever need to see, I was surprised to find The Scottsboro Boys opening at the Young Vic during my brief visit.

The final completed Kander and Ebb musical to reach Broadway thus far was acclaimed when it opened at the Vineyard Theatre in March 2010. It was lavished with even more praise when it transferred to the Lyceum that Halloween. Based on the true story of nine innocent black men in 1931 Alabama who were railroaded to a conviction for the purported rape of two white women, the show — told in a minstrel show/vaudeville style — proved a difficult sell to entertainment-seeking audiences, even when the critics extolled its excellence. This reticence was only strengthened by some unfortunate and unwarranted picketing, and The Scottsboro Boys couldn't make it to Christmas. (The show earned an impressive twelve posthumous Tony nominations, although the awards were swept by The Book of Mormon.)

There has been an afterlife, with successful regional visits to Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco. And now, suddenly, The Scottsboro Boys is in London.

And what a Scottsboro Boys it is! This is a close recreation of the original production, with about a quarter of the original cast. Here, once again, is Susan Stroman's dynamically inventive staging and choreography, on a spare stage framed by three arches (two of them askew) and populated by a mere twelve chairs plus a few wooden planks. Given that the Off-Broadway sized Young Vic is configured like the Vineyard, with a dozen or so rows of seats on steep risers, the show looks and plays like it did originally.

Stroman, who is giving us two Broadway musicals this season — the already arrived Big Fish and the upcoming Bullets over Broadway — has long been noted for her extravagant, prop-filled production numbers. Working here with nothing but imagination and those few chairs, she demonstrates just how strong her basic ideas can be. Together with Kander and the late Ebb (who died in 2004), she has assembled an evening that shocks us and assaults us, stepping far past the bounds of taste — especially in the electric chair tap dance and a blatantly anti-Semitic sequence — but always with purpose. Stroman has delved into bad taste before, notably with Mel Brooks on The Producers. But there it was all in fun; in The Scottsboro Boys, the truths behind the edgy musical numbers are no fooling matter and doubly effective.

The proceedings are enhanced by the presence of Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon. The pair — as the minstrels Bones and Tambo, and who in those guises play myriad other characters — seemed valued members of the ensemble at the Vineyard and expert featured players at the Lyceum. In London, they carry The Scottsboro Boys like stars. I can't really say that they are better now than before; they were always exceptional. Their performances here are altogether searing, especially in the second trial sequence with Domingo as the District Attorney and McClendon as New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz.

Kyle Scatiffe
Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Julian Glover, a 78-year-old Olivier Award winner whose roles range from King Lear to James Bond villains, makes a dandy Interlocutor, with Dawn Hope tugging at our collective consciousness as The Lady who looks on. Also prime assets are original cast members Christian-Dante White and James H. Lane, as two of the boys who double as the "white trash" accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. The heart of the show, though, comes from newcomer Kyle Scatiffe as Haywood Patterson. His delivery of "Go Back Home" — one of Kander and Ebb's most effective songs — rivets the attention and propels the show.

I was equally moved by The Scottsboro Boys on 15th Street and 45th Street in New York. Sitting with the stunned audience during the curtain calls at the Young Vic, I wondered whether this London production carried even more of an impact. The show is scheduled for a limited run through Dec. 21, and it seems an obvious candidate for a West End transfer. Will the show finally, in London, achieve the wider success it so deeply deserves? The racial politics of The Scottsboro Boys were too provocative for the current-day mass American audience, it seems. The British, being further away from the American South, but having their own set of racial issues, just might be ready to embrace this masterwork of Kander, Ebb and Stroman. 

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And then it was north to Manchester. What better Broadway musical to see in this cradle of the Industrial Revolution than Sweeney Todd — in the Royal Exchange Building, which dates from 1874? This is now home to the Royal Exchange Theatre, a fascinatingly-designed seven-sided 700-seat theatre-in-the-round. A modern-dress Sweeney in the round, with no scenery? Sounds questionable, no? It turns out that the show works exceptionally well.

This is a coproduction with the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, the first collaboration between the two sometimes competitors. Yorkshire is an amphitheatre, not unlike the Beaumont, which means that the staging by Yorkshire artistic director James Brining and the design by Colin Richmond is quite different for Manchester. Thus, you get Sweeney without walls, and with nobody seated more than seven rows back. There are also two upper rings with two rows each, with space carved out for the seven-piece orchestra.

While we tend to favor traditional productions of Sweeney, something unexpected unfolds almost immediately. The come-in displays seven actors in near catatonic states; one of them makes origami finches, another — who looks like a third-rate Italian lounge singer — is glued to the telly, which is playing a vintage recording of Bacharach and David's "Close to You." This is Fogg's Asylum, it turns out. An officious looking bloke/Beadle walks over to the asylum's spinet organ and plays Sweeney's opening blast, battling Bacharach, while the ensemble disperse from their positions for a haunting "Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

We emerge from limbo into Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, a rundown joint circa 1980 with vinyl tablecloths and paper plates, a food-encrusted toaster oven, and an electronic mosquito-zapper above the counter display. Lovett (Gillian Bevan) is a faded blonde in a pink apron with pink-striped sneakers, reading a tabloid. As she spots a customer — the timelessly ghostlike Sweeney (David Birrell) — and goes into her spiel about the worst pies in London, we see that the time, the place, and the show meld just fine.

Pirelli, our Italian lounge-singer friend, putts on in a Reliant three-wheel van with a grimy advert on the side and a barber's pole on the roof. Why not? (The tires, if you look closely, are indeed Pirellis!) Judge Turpin sings his flagellation song while gazing through space at his young ward, sprawled across the pink quilt on her bed like Lolita and not accidentally so. Everything works in this grimy stinkpit of a London, even the sexual activity that invades Sondheim's bravura first act finale, "A Little Priest." A general "with or without his privates," indeed.

Sweeney-in-the-round being necessarily wall-less, we are forced to concentrate all the more closely on the words — which in Sondheimland is an added dividend. Everything comes across clearer, allowing us to better absorb all those intricately overlapping vocals. (The second act "Johanna" has Sweeney on the deck with his barber chair, Anthony on the first ring wandering London, and Johanna on the second ring in Bedlam. Your head pivots from one to the other as they sing, like cinematic closeups.) What's more, being within seven rows of the action puts everyone right in with the characters. At the press opening, several viewers seated near the tonsorial parlor were spackled with gobs of stage blood.

Birrell and Bevan are very good, and the cast is uniformly strong with powerful vocals throughout, the work of the Messrs. Brining and Richmond's work is inventive but never obtrusive, and the chamber orchestra ably supports it all. (While the inevitable synthesizers are present, orchestrator David Shrubsole keeps three reeds and a cello in the forefront.)

This modern-dress, scenery-less production of the Sondheim/Wheeler masterwork is not the finest Sweeney I've ever seen, but it is sure one of the most memorable.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)