Review by Christopher Moore, Broadway Magazine
“The Scottsboro Boys” is the new musical from Broadway legends John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, featuring an inspired book by David Thompson. As with past musicals by Kander and Ebb such as Cabaret and Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys appropriates a historical theatrical style relevant to its subject matter and then subverts that style to create a unforgettably powerful contemporary message.
The sass of the musical Chicago’s take on celebrity justice is achieved through the style of a vaudeville show, or the dawn of the Nazis rise to power lurks in the cabaret shadows of Cabaret.
However, with The Scottsboro Boys, the theatrical style of choice is nothing less provocative than the Minstrel Show, and the subject matter is based on actual events that are both complicated and unsettling. The end result is a Broadway musical that successfully pushes the conventions of the American musical form to address the always relevant American themes of Racism and Justice. Through the true story of the Scottsboro Boys of the 1930s, Kander and Ebb have found a subject that indirectly addresses contemporary issues of race through an appropriately complicated lens.
Wrongfully accused of raping two white women in 1931, nine African American young men in Alabama underwent hardship and miscarriages of justice. Their story became a celebrated cause for both the Communist Party in the north and organizations like the NAACP. Rallies were held on behalf of the men, some of the freed “Boys” were featured on Vaudeville; their trials form part of the foundation of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.
Through multiple trials, the nine young men experienced ups and downs as a justice system itself struggled with constitutional issues that directly applied to Civil Rights. Again, David Thompson’s book for the musical structures key points of the factual story in such a way that the epic history of the subject does not overwhelm the individual stories of the “Boys” themselves.
With absolutely flawless performances and inspired direction by Susan Stroman, the musical tap dances and shuffles its way joyously into the uncomfortable subjects of Racism with unapologetic and disconcerting pizzazz. Racism is painful, and though the script does not invoke the most incendiary racial epitaphs, a little taste the racism of the 1930s goes a long way. Kander and Ebb do not limit the racism to the African American subjects of the musical, also including the attacks on the Jewish lawyers who defended the “Boys” after their first disastrous trial.
There are moments in this production that directly present ugly aspects of America’s complex racial and sometimes racist history. These moments are staged tastefully and artfully and with the best of intentions; but they will make you squirm all the same. Again, Kander and Ebb at their best use the polish of Broadway to reflect the darker side of History’s past and by extension our own complex present. With The Scottsboro Boys, the pair are at their provocative best.
Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson provides the anchor to the story of the actual Scottsboro Boys, and his performance is memorable for its combination of strength and vulnerability. You will not forget him, nor any of the other performances. With John Cullum serving as the Interlocutor, the head of the minstrel group, offering a performance that is profound in its ease and deep in its understanding of the issues of race and racism.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the evening falls on the shoulders of Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon who are asked to embody the full Minstrel Show regalia as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. In their roles, they also play many of the other white characters in the story. Each actor is worthy of praise and recognition for both their ability to perform in the style of the Minstrel Show and for resisting the temptation to insert a comment on that form itself. They trust in the unsettling power of the material, and when the final “Minstrel March” plays out on stage the entire production is at its disturbing best. It is the most unforgettable end to a musical that you will ever see, and to discuss it more is to rob the production of some of its power.
With The Scottsboro Boys, Broadway is reminded that the past is never so far away as it seems; that justice in America is not so easily obtained; and that the musical theatre itself can illuminate and challenge and awe. In lesser hands, the subject might’ve been a lesser musical; but this is Kander and Ebb at their best (and that is saying something).
There will be inevitable debate about this production, rightfully so. However, there can be little question that complicated struggle of the wrongfully accused young men in Scottsboro is worthy of attention and contains messages that remain relevant (and complicated) today. The Scottsboro Boys is a landmark Broadway musical. When you see it, you will not forget it.