Heavy Minstrel Blues

Scottsboro-BoysThe true saga of the Scottsboro Boys has been told in books and on television. It doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for a story that would be made into a musical. In 1931, nine young African Americans, aged nineteen and younger, were on a train to Memphis when they were arrested and falsely accused of raping two white girls. They were jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama, where they were convicted in a mob atmosphere by an entirely white jury. Protests ensued outside of Alabama, and there were re-trials and even hearings before the Supreme Court in this story about one of the uglier and more unfortunate situations in U.S. racial history.

The great songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who successfully musicalized the rise of Nazi Germany in Cabaret and the story of the “merry murderesses” in Chicago, came up with a conceit, as they did in those two earlier musicals, that allowed this story to be told as a musical. In their new show, which is getting its premiere off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, the story of the Scottsboro Boys is presented as a minstrel show. That certainly can be tricky, but Kander and Ebb pulled off similarly difficult concepts in the past.

The show was still being written when Ebb died in 2004; Kander and book writer David Thompson continued on the project, with Kander writing any lyrics that Ebb had not completed. The talent associated with The Scottsboro Boys is not limited to the legendary composer and lyricist. Susan Stroman, who won Tony Awards for her work on The Producers, among other shows, handles the direction and choreography. And yet, when I left the Vineyard Theatre after the performance, I found myself wondering what I thought about this new musical. The potential of the powerful and serious subject matter, framed within the minstrel show concept, seemed intriguing, and there is much to admire and respect. But this may be a musical in which the whole does not add up to the sum of its parts.

The Scottsboro Boys gets off to a strong start with a rousing opening song, titled “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.” The minstrel show conceit is explained, and the story begins as the young men get on the train for their fateful trip. The scenes that follow, in which the false charges are made and they are put in an Alabama jail, are uneven. While we start to feel the outrage over the injustice being done to them, it was not developed as dramatically as it could have been. We’re jolted watching the African American minstrel show performers portray white racist jailers and the two white women who made the false accusations, even though we are told early on that the minstrel players would play white roles. There is a tap number about the electric chair. All of it can at times be disconcerting, which may be what the creators want, but I’m not sure it works.

The musical starts to pick up with Brandon Victor Dixon’s singing of the beautiful “Go Back Home,” which is Kander and Ebb’s best song in this score, and from there we get a series of strong musical numbers which provide both showmanship and, in some cases, genuine poignancy. The song “Southern Days” provided a particularly effective moment, while “Make Friends With the Truth” and “Never Too Late” also worked well on a theatrical level. The show ends with a good closing number, “The Scottsboro Boys,” followed by a strong final moment.

Yet, for all the good things present, The Scottsboro Boys never quite packs the hoped for dramatic or emotional punch, especially given the potential power in the underlying story. I was never bored, and there was certainly some level of involvement. I did enjoy much of the theatricality that Stroman has brought to the musical numbers.

So, where does the problem lie? Let’s start with the minstrel show concept. Without it or some other conceit, it would be almost impossible to set this story to music. It allows for some musical numbers that are quite good and do add something to the story. But I also found myself wondering whether the conceit can successfully mesh with the content of this story.

The biggest problem, though, is with David Thompson’s book. It tells the story, but not as dramatically or powerfully as it should. Not knowing much about the Scottsboro Boys story, I found myself wondering “where is the anger in the country outside of Alabama?” While we do eventually get some information about that, perhaps more might have been revealed about that element of the story. For the first half of the show, we have no idea that protests have developed outside of Alabama and that there was some support these young men were getting. Again, that may have been an intentional decision of the creators, but its effectiveness is questionable.

It is always a pleasure to hear a new Kander and Ebb score. This one is tuneful and attractive, but on the first hearing, it is not memorable and falls short of their best. There is still merit in the music and lyrics, and it is certainly possible that additional exposure to the score would elevate my opinion.

The cast is first-rate, led by the excellent Brandon Victor Dixon giving a touching, powerful, and star-making performance as the young man who becomes the unofficial leader of the Scottsboro Boys and the musical’s central character. The esteemed John Cullum is the only white member of an otherwise African-American cast. Cullum portrays the Interlocutor, somewhat of a master of ceremonies of the minstrel show, along with several other parts. Cullum as always has a commanding presence, and it is a pleasure to see him back onstage once again in a musical. The rest of the ensemble cast is strong, with all of them having their moments to shine.

While I had hoped for more from The Scottsboro Boys, it still has many merits. It effectively arouses audience outrage over the racism portrayed in the story, but I wish it had been more moving and more devastating in its power. The ambitions are noble, and this will be a show that splits the audience -- there will be avid supporters as well as detractors. Whatever the flaws, it is nice to see a new musical from John Kander and Fred Ebb, two true Broadway legends. - James Miller

The Scottsboro Boys is running in a limited engagement through April 18.
The Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th St. (between Fourth Ave. & Irving Place)

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Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.

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