While I didn’t expect The Scottsboro Boys to run for years, I was still quite taken aback and shocked to read that the new musical was closing. The Kander and Ebb show – their final collaboration- will shutter on December 12 after only 49 performances and 29 previews. With a book by David Thompson and superlative direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, Scottsboro told the story of these nine men who were falsely accused, tried and convicted for the rape of two white women, in one of the darkest chapters in the history of racial America.
Drawing upon historical record and fact, the creative team built one of the most original musicals that has been seen on Broadway in quite some time. The musical is presented as a minstrel show, using minstrel techniques as a framing device to both comment and condemn the incident with an Interlocutor, cakewalks and even a shocking, gut-wrenching use of black-face. The musical first appeared at the Vineyard Theatre last spring followed by a pre-Broadway run at the Guthrie in Minneapolis this summer. It started previews on October 7 and opened to mostly positive (if somewhat reserved) reviews on Halloween.
I guess it’s the nature of the business these days, but it seems that producers are either unwilling or unable to allow a show that’s not particularly mainstream to build an audience via word of mouth. Last season’s revivals of Finian’s Rainbow and Ragtime were met with a similar fate. None of these shows was what I would deem well-publicized, and their exceptional quality alone didn’t seem to help draw audiences. Interestingly, all three deal with racial injustice in one way or another. (Another show dealing with race relations, Memphis, the only new musical with an original score last season, won the Best Musical Tony and is still running).
Oscar Hammerstein II’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat took daring strides in presenting the famed “Miscegenation scene” involving a biracial principal character and also integrating black characters with white characters. Joe and Queenie are more than servants, they are part of the Show Boat family and are treated with dignity and respect by the white proprietors. Other musicals have been less successful: Hallelujah, Baby! and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come immediately to mind as failures whose authors’ good intentions came off as expressions of condescending white liberal guilt.
Even the 1993 revival of Show Boat directed by Harold Prince (with Stroman’s choreography) was met with protestors who felt the show was racist, similarly to those who protested Scottsboro a few weeks ago. Never in my experiences with musical theatre have I experienced a musical that dealt with race relations with unflinching honesty; uncompromising and unyielding about the ugly core at the center of the story. The creators of Scottsboro were not out to make light of this story; their use of the techniques is at once alienating and fascinating, forcing the audience to confront an ugly past that in our politically correct age we’d rather not think about.
‘Post-racial America’ is a term I’ve heard a lot, especially since Barack Obama was elected President. However, I don’t know if that’s a term that rings true. I’m hopeful for equality and great progress has been made in the 80 years since the Scottsboro incident. But it’s foolish to neglect the fact that racism is still a problem in the U.S. and may always be one. Whether it’s some idiot using an ethnic slur over a Wal-Mart intercom, or accusations of racism in government hierarchies and political parties or physical violence, there are still many issues that need to be worked out. If you do a news search for the term “racist attack” you might be surprised at the number of recent articles that pop up – and on an international level. Platitudes only get us so far. Understanding what has been is the only way we can learn and therefore make strides for what should and must be a better tomorrow. The Scottsboro Boys is a show that can start the conversation we should all be having about inequality in America.
When the show closes, it will mark the shortest run of any Kander & Ebb show since 70 Girls 70 in 1971. I’m a bit surprised that the producers didn’t even want to give it an extra few weeks. The two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day are the two most lucrative in the Broadway season. I recall seeing Souvenir at the same theatre five years ago – a show that had been struggling since opening and had posted its notice – selling out an entire Wednesday evening house. The two kids next to me admitted that they had never heard of the show but couldn’t get tickets to anything else. No expectations, but they wanted to see a Broadway show. During that time, tourists will even see the less popular vehicles. It’s a glorious time. Why they chose to close before Christmas is beyond me. I say give it an extra month, at least.
Another thing about the show, and something I had a great conversation with Jesse North of Stage Rush about after we saw the first preview was its marketability. How would the producers promote the show? In spite of a great TV commercial, I never saw anyone from the cast appearing on television shows. If The Scottsboro Boys has anything it has a superlative score and one of the best new ballads in years: “Go Back Home.” Where were the appearances on Live with Regis and Kelly or The View to give audiences a sample? Even after protestors took on the show, no one it seems, except Whoopi Goldberg, seemed to hop on the national bandwagon championing the show and its message.
Just a few days ago I was thanking the producers of this show and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson for risking their shirts and I stand by that. But why are they throwing in the towel so soon? I also think it’s just a little bit Scrooge-like to basically fire a team of employees at the peak of the holiday season. It was a great gesture for the Weisslers to take on the new Kander & Ebb show, especially since the revival of Chicago has given them more money than they’ll ever need. However, it would be an even greater gesture if they put some of that money into running Scottsboro for a while longer. Considering the glorious Lyceum, a house I love, is one of the least desirable locations for any Broadway show, I can’t imagine a stop-clause had anything to do with it. Closing the show now will kill its chances at the Tony Awards in June. We saw it happen last year and the year before. For the voters: out of sight, out of mind.
Fortunately the show has a wonderful cast album of its Off-Broadway production and will no doubt become a title that will be attempted by regional theatres. I plan to see the show in the next two weeks. If you seriously care about the American musical, so should you.