Roars of Approval, and Also Remembrance, at Final Bow of The Scottsboro Boys
By Kenneth Jones
At the final Broadway performance of the musical The Scottsboro Boys on Dec. 12, the standing ovation came before a note of music played at the Lyceum Theatre.
Composer John Kander was the last theatregoer to be seated in the packed orchestra section, and the sight of him discreetly coming down the house-right aisle prompted polite applause at first, but built to a rousing Standing O for the man who (with his late lyricist Fred Ebb) gave American musical theatre Chicago, Cabaret, Zorba and this new, short-lived, satiric musical about a case of American injustice.
Roars of approval followed every song, striking the cast immobile (particularly after the numbers "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey" and "Shout!"). When John Cullum said a scripted line about all these interruptions, it got a warm laugh.
The curtain came down at 10:02 PM, and the creative team, including Kander, director-choreographer Susan Stroman and librettist David Thompson came on stage. Wine was passed among the troupers and glasses were raised.
"It is sad for us, but we want to celebrate, too," Stroman said from the stage. "It's been an extraordinary adventure for us to go from the Vineyard [Off-Broadway] to the Guthrie [in Minneapolis] to here on Broadway. It is a show that will bond us forever and ever; it's been an extraordinary year. I know it's changed all of our lives being together and I know we've touched some live of others, too, with this show. It will live in our hearts forever and ever."
She explained to the standing crowd, "We want to do two toasts tonight, and if you could pretend, as in the theatre, that you have a glass in your hand, it would help us terribly so."
Kander said, "For the first toast tonight, we'd all like to toast and remember the late, great Fred Ebb."
After the applause for the lyricist who died in 2004, before this project was completed, Thompson raised a glass to the nine late African-American men on whose lives the musical was based. In 1931, when they were between the ages of 13 and 19, the "Scottsboro Boys" were accused and convicted of raping two white women in Scottsboro, AL. They did not commit the crime (nor did the crime happen), but there was no justice for them in the pre-Civil Rights South. A media circus, persistent white outrage about their "guilt" (and less effective black protest about their innocence) and years of retrials followed.
Thompson said, "We'd also like to remember the original Scottsboro Boys: Andy, Clarence, Charlie, Eugene, Haywood, Olen, Ozie, Willie and Roy. They left a legacy for us all to tell the truth…"
There was no public mention of a film version, a tour or a spring Broadway return — all of which were recently reported as possibilities.
Despite a handful of solid reviews, and an arresting television commercial, audiences stayed away from the show and the producers opted to close it six weeks after its Oct. 31 opening. A cast album of the spring Off-Broadway production remains.
The show takes the racially insensitive "minstrel show" of yore and reimagines it to tell the true story. Complete with sentimental songs, a tap specialty, a cakewalk, low comedy and three stock characters — the Interlocutor, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo — The Scottsboro Boys conjures the defunct, highly theatrical minstrel form — but puts a fierce spin on it. Usually told by white men in black face, this time an all-black troupe (and one white actor, the Tony Award-winning John Cullum as the Interlocutor) tells the story. They end up taking the story out of the hands of the white emcee and gaining some power.
The witness to this hyper-theatrical experience is a lone lady, called The Lady, played by Sharon Washington. At the top of the musical, she is waiting for a bus and the minstrel show comes alive around her, and she interacts with the players, in silence. It can now be revealed to those who have not seen the show (spoiler alert here) that the lady is Rosa Parks, the black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white rider on a Montgomery bus some 25 years after the Scottsboro case first broke. Parks was aware of the Scottsboro drama, a flashpoint of the Civil Rights movement.
Although The Scottsboro Boys was the final show that Kander and Ebb worked on before Ebb's passing, they wrote two other musicals that have yet to make it to Broadway. Both The Visit and Skin of Our Teeth have appeared in regional theatres but have not found a Broadway venue.
Broadway groundbreakers Kander (composer) and Ebb (lyricist) — of Chicago, Cabaret, Zorba and Kiss of the Spider Woman fame — share music and lyric credit on Scottsboro Boys, with Kander supplying additional lyrics. When Kander, Thompson and Stroman decided to resume work on the show after Ebb's passing, Kander told his collaborators that he would write additional new lyrics, "channeling" Ebb. He told Playbill.com on Oct. 6 that about two-thirds of the score was finished at the time of Ebb's passing. Kander said he doesn't intend to share what his own new lyric/song contributions are. He's hoping the score is a seamless piece of cloth.
At close, the show played 49 performances and 29 previews. "We've never believed more strongly and passionately in a show as we did with The Scottsboro Boys," stated Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler and Jacki Barlia Florin. "It's a show we felt we had to produce and we're proud and grateful to have brought this last great musical from Kander & Ebb to Broadway. We encourage anyone who loves challenging, provocative and original new musicals to see us in our final two weeks at the Lyceum."
Joshua Henry, who created the "Favorite Son" military hero in Broadway's American Idiot, starred as one of the central figures in the case: Haywood Patterson.
The Broadway cast also featured Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones, Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo, Josh Breckenridge as Olen Montgomery, Derrick Cobey as Andy Wright, Jeremy Gumbs as Eugene Williams, Rodney Hicks as Clarence Norris, Kendrick Jones as Willie Roberson, James T. Lane as Ozie Powell and Ruby Bates, Julius Thomas III as Roy Wright, and Christian Dante White as Charles Weems and Victoria Price.
Composer John Kander, director Susan Stroman and their collaborators talk about reinventing the minstrel form:
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