The Scottsboro Boys

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Photo Source: Paul Kolnik
Musicals are mysterious creatures. When asked why “My Fair Lady” was such a success, Alan Jay Lerner replied, “Who knows? Maybe it was the chandeliers.” I don’t mean to suggest that “The Scottsboro Boys” is in the same league as Lerner and Loewe’s masterpiece. But somehow, though the authors stuck to their guns about dramaturgical choices I questioned when the show played Off-Broadway last winter, the last musical written by John Kander and Fred Ebb has pulled together. Nestled snugly into the Lyceum Theatre, whose musty period interior enhances the show in ways the rather antiseptic Vineyard Theatre never could, this look at a monstrous, racially motivated miscarriage of justice in the Depression-era South, staged in the form of a minstrel show, packs quite a punch. It’s a satisfying finale for the legendary songwriting team.

The story remains the same: Nine young African-American men riding the rails in search of work are falsely accused by two white prostitutes of gang rape. They are railroaded to the electric chair by the corrupt and bigoted wheels of Southern justice, only to get a reprieve from the United States Supreme Court, which orders a new trial. Trial after trial is overturned, but there is always a guilty verdict. Finally, a deal is struck to free the four youngest men. The other men are eventually released on parole, except for Haywood Patterson, the group’s unofficial leader, who refuses his chance for freedom because it requires a confession of guilt. He dies in prison after writing a book about his ordeal. But none of these nine lives ended happily. The experience ultimately destroyed them all.

Most critics (myself included) who found fault with the show Off-Broadway laid the blame on book writer David Thompson, particularly his inability to sufficiently characterize the “boys.” There have been modest attempts to address that criticism, but they don’t make a substantial difference. However, thanks to some small but smart focusing, clarifying, and tightening of the book and director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s exemplary staging, it's now clear that the show's purpose is not to tell the men's personal stories. The musical is about what happened to them, and how that changed America. This is also clear from Kander and Ebb’s terrific work. Only Patterson is given character songs. The bulk of the biting score dramatizes action and issues, satirically showing us how these outrageous events occurred.

The solid cast remains mostly intact, with one major exception: Joshua Henry replaces Brandon Victor Dixon, who opted for another Broadway musical, as Patterson. Though Dixon did fine work in the role, Henry is an improvement—less boyish, more formidable, making Patterson’s defeat-that’s-also-a-triumph feel larger. As the two minstrel show end men, who play a variety of racist authorities, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon have concentrated their force, aided by the excision of some unfunny jokes. The authors have also improved things by downplaying the suggestion that the minstrels will revolt against the Interlocutor. John Cullum’s paternal condescension in the part now makes sense, and the moment when the minstrels do turn on their “master” really registers.

I’m still not wild about the framing device involving Rosa Parks. Critics weren’t supposed to reveal this Off-Broadway, but now Parks is mentioned in a program insert, suggesting that the creators decided it was wrong to keep the audience wondering why this silent woman is wandering about the stage. It still feels like a shortcut, but at least now it’s a comprehensible one, and the admirable Sharon Washington somehow finds a way to play a concept.

Here’s to the creative team for insisting on delivering the show it wanted. “The Scottsboro Boys” sets a high bar for Broadway musicals this season.

Presented by Barry and Fran Weissler, Jacki Barlia Florin, Janet Pailet/Sharon A. Carr/Patricia R. Klausner, Nederlander Presentations/the Shubert Organization, Beechwood Entertainment, Broadway Across America, Mark Zimmerman, Adam Blanshay/R2D2 Productions, Rick Danzansky/Barry Tatelman, Bruce Robert Harris/Jack W. Batman, Allen Spivak/Jerry Frankel, Bard Theatricals/Probo Productions/Randy Donaldson, Catherine Schreiber/Michael Palitz/Patti Laskawy, and the Vineyard Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., NYC. Opened Oct. 31 for an open run. Tue.–Sun., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (No performance Sun., Nov. 7 and 14, 8 p.m.; additional performances Thu., Nov. 4, and Wed., Nov. 10, 1 p.m.) (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or Casting by Jim Carnahan and Stephen Kopel.