It’s really wonderful to have a new Kander & Ebb score on Broadway. It’s their final show and what a swan-song, evoking their darker shows that made them famous like Cabaret and Chicago. Right now, we’re slated for another nine musicals most of which contain original scores (thank God). The Scottsboro Boys, which will be the second to open this season, is setting a high standard for the rest. But any day that there’s a new K & E score on Broadway is a good day in my book.
I don’t like to officially review first previews because it’s still a work in progress. The show isn’t frozen and they are continuing to tweak and revise, even though Scottsboro had successful runs at the Vineyard and Guthrie earlier this year. However, I have to say that I was incredibly impressed by the staging, score and overall conceit. This seems like a show that will have a polarizing effect on audiences. The use of minstrel techniques is brilliant, but I’m curious how other audiences will react. Even this first night preview crowd of family, friends and well-wishers seemed uncertain how to respond at times. Minstrelsy is used creatively as an ironic device; an indictment of the entertainment form and ultimately its effect is chilling (especially as the cast sings the title song).
Many musicals dealing explicitly with race relations in America have come under controversy, even if written under the best of intentions. Shows like Hallelujah, Baby! and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (and others) were raked over the coals for being the product of white liberal guilt. Many of these shows fail to get to the heart of the matter, offering weak platitudes and stilted optimism instead of actually addressing the problems of racial injustice in America. However, this show is different from others in one respect: it’s absolutely unflinching, unsentimental and uncompromising. It is at times, uncomfortable and unsettling to witness and there are times when a number ends where you might wonder whether or not applause is appropriate. The authors aren’t afraid of taking any risks here, and neither are the superlative performers. This isn’t a toe-tapping crowd pleaser; even when the songs are at its most charming and infectious there is always the discomfiting subtext underneath.
Normally they get a lot of flack, but I’ve got to hand it to Fran & Barry Weissler. They are the lead producers on Scottsboro, and they are certainly not presenting this show for the money. I don’t know if the musical will have much of a commercial life, but regardless of whether or not audiences take to it, the fact that it’s even happening gives me reason to rejoice. I’ve not been excited by new musicals over the last couple of years – the recent trends tend to be by-the-numbers screen-to-stage adaptations and jukebox musicals. The fact that this show is so original and so daring is enough reason to rejoice.
Without delving into specifics, this was my summation on Twitter: “Scottsboro Boys: Chilling. Infuriating. Stirring. Bold. Heartbreaking.” I’m not sure if I loved it or admired it or both. I know I was greatly impacted by the story and the way it was told, and anyone who is interested in the history of the American musical will want to see this show. I would love to see this again just to further explore my opinion, also to see if any changes are made between now and its opening night. On a related note, this is my fifth show in the Lyceum and I’ve yet to be disappointed with what I see at the venue.