Closing Night: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Scottsboro Hey

When I find myself really taken with a particular show, I make it a point to try to return to see it at its closing performance. The closing  is filled similar fans (as well as family and friends) who want to come back one last time to savor the theatrical magic that drew us in the first time around. I was startled when The Scottsboro Boys announced its closing notice two weeks ago; I had expected the show to last through the holiday season and well into Tony time. But after only 29 previews and 49 performances, the final Kander and Ebb musical set its last show at the Lyceum Theatre for December 12. In spite of some strong reviews and a vociferous audience response, the show couldn’t muster up an audience or advance sales. When asked if I wanted to go to the last show, I said yes immediately.

The musical is one of the best I have seen in the last few years. It was bold, daring and audacious while being literate, tuneful and clever. Kander and Ebb’s score, evoking the sounds of the South, is one of the best I’ve heard in some time and I think ranks with Chicago and Cabaret. There’s not a dud in the score, from the jubilant “Hey Hey Hey Hey!” opening to the chilling title number in the finale with its climactic and impactful use of blackface. (For what it’s worth, the minstrelsy was used in a way that spoke of empowerment and abandonment of the archaic and racist form of entertainment).

In one of the classiest gestures I’ve ever seen from an audience, there was a spontaneous full-house standing ovation for John Kander as he was led to his seat pre-show. It’s a moment in my theatregoing life that I will never forget. (To the Broadway producers out there – I’m still waiting for the NY premiere of The Visit). It was a moving gesture to a man whose 50 year career is synonymous with Broadway excellence (starting as dance arranger for the original production of Gypsy). It struck me that many of Kander’s contemporaries haven’t had new work on Broadway in years. Jerry Herman’s last musical (La Cage) opened on Broadway when I was less than two months old. Bock and Harnick never wrote another musical together after The Rothschilds in 1970. Even the master, Stephen Sondheim hasn’t had a brand new Broadway musical since Passion in 1994.

Kander and Ebb have been represented continuously on Broadway since 1996, when the still-running revival of Chicago opened. They’ve had three new musicals have opened on the Rialto in that time (Steel Pier, Curtains and Scottsboro). When not on Broadway, other new musicals have been in gestation in regional theatres – including Over and Over/All About Us (adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth) and The Visit. Scottsboro marked the final debut of a Kander and Ebb score and brings to a close one of the greatest chapters in musical theatre history.

There’s that final performance quality for anyone who has been involved on either side of the footlights. Energies and emotions are high and that usually channels itself into a riveting performance with a heightened electricity and pace that adds to the special quality of the day. This was no exception. Numbers received extenuous applause – the opening number, “Shout” and “Never Too Late” all but stopped the show dead. “Go Back Home” is the loveliest ballad I have heard in quite some time and has an emotional resonance which brought many in the house to tears.

As for the cast, if there was yet again ever a reason for a Tony Award for Best Ensemble, this is it. John Cullum guides the evening as the Interlocuter, the sole white actor onstage. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon were brilliant as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. As for the nine actors playing the Scottsboro Boys, all are exceptionally talented singers, dancers and actors. Seeing it a second time allowed me the opportunity of picking up elements on the periphery, including the really striking way in which The Lady is used throughout the show (and given a beautiful, mostly silent portrayal by Sharon Washington), often observing on the periphery. It was especially interesting this time just to see how much thought went into the character’s function (for those who didn’t see it, it was ultimately revealed that she was Rosa Parks).

The classiness of the evening continued through the curtain call, which brought the entire cast and creative team together with members of the production team. After glasses of wine were passed around, Kander offered a toast to his late collaborator Fred Ebb (who died in 2004) then librettist David Thompson offered a toast to the real Scottsboro Boys and finally Stroman offered a toast to the audience. Of the many closings I’ve attended (this was my 14th), this was the first with such a gesture and it was one of the most understated and effective ways to celebrate the run of a show I’ve seen.

There has been talk of The Scottsboro Boys returning in the spring, just in time for Tony recognition. Many succes d’estime shows talk about tours and return engagements when forced to close and nothing comes of it. However, this time I would really love to see it come to fruition. Scottsboro was not seen by nearly enough people. This is a bit premature as there are many, many musicals left to open this season, but I really do hope that Kander and Ebb take home the Best Score Tony this spring. (I’m also hoping Stroman is double-nominated in one of her finest outings as director/choreographer). It may have run only 49 performances, but The Scottsboro Boys have set the bar exceedingly high. I only hope the Tony nominating committee and the Tony voters aren’t in their usual out of sight, out of mind mentality when it comes to fall shows that have closed.

After the show, I went to Angus to decompress with dramaturge Russ Dembin, my web designer Chris Van Patten and a few of Chris’ friends. Sitting in the bar in what could be best described as stunned wide-eyed silence. There was a lot to process, but eventually we talked about their reactions to the show which were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and also just depressed at the premature closing. But I do have a feeling that while this original production is short-lived, the musical will maintain a reputation that other noble failures have achieved. There is early talk of a film adaptation to be made by Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels. But even if that weren’t to come to fruition, The Scottsboro Boys does have that one important link that keeps a musical from total obscurity: an original cast album.

Say Goodbye to “The Scottsboro Boys”

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.

First Preview Tonight: “The Scottsboro Boys”

I’ll be in the audience at the Lyceum Theatre tonight for the first Broadway preview of The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb’s final musical. (Many thanks to my buddy Jesse from Stage Rush). It’s a risk for a musical: telling the story of a group of young black men falsely convicted of the rape of two white women in 1931. The show, which was produced off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre last season, tells this harrowing story of racial injustice with an ironic, fascinating concept: as a minstrel show. Taking this archaic, racist antedecent of burlesque, the creative team uses it to comment on our nation’s racial history. The cast is predominantly African American, with one white man (two-time Tony winner John Cullum headlines as the Interlocutor).

Word of mouth from off-Broadway and from it summer run at the Guthrie Theatre has been tremendous. Even reviews that were less than positive have fueled my interest in the show. When I read the NY Times review of the off-Broadway run, my reaction was “This show sounds incredible.” I’ve been greatly excited by the show’s audacity and compelled by the story being told. And given Kander and Ebb’s ability to tackle brave and daring ideas with Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, a daring, cutting edge musical like Scottsboro is an outstanding swan song (though I hope someone brings The Visit to NY).

David Thompson supplied the book, Susan Stroman the direction and choreography. The cast features Joshua Henry, who is replacing Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson (Dixon left to star in the upcoming Ray Charles musical). The original cast album comes out on Tuesday, which represents the off-Broadway version of the show. It’s one to have: the score is beautiful, bold and brilliant with memorable songs and some haunting arrangements. Plus, there’s a bonus track of the late Fred Ebb singing “Go Back Home,” the show’s standout ballad.

This is a brief clip of the cast (with David Anthony Brinkley as the Interlocutor) performing the opening number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey” from the summer run at the Guthrie :


Writer and dancer Emily Frankel, who blogs at Em’s Talkery, is married to John Cullum. They get together once a week to film a small vlog for AIR Broadway casting and her site. In this particular entry, they talk about Cullum’s rehearsal process and preparation for the Broadway run:


Finally, here is a clip of Brandon Victor Dixon on Theatre Talk singing the “Go Back Home” which has haunted me since I first heard it:


"Crazy For You" – The Original Broadway Cast

Back in November, Encores! presented a rare revival of the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. In effect, the experience was more like a history lesson to musical aficionados and scholars as the book and construction don’t quite hold up to the more sophisticated standards that have come our way. When there was an attempt to revive the show in the late 80s/early 90s, it became clear to the powers that be that the original show couldn’t work in an politically era of Broadway. That’s when Crazy for You was born.

The new musical was loosely based on the basic plot outline of the original: rich NYC playboy goes west, falls in love with local girl. Hijinks ensue. However, Ken Ludwig wrote a brand new story with new characters and situations, using five songs from the Girl Crazy score and interpolating thirteen other Gershwin songs. The new show was something of a backstage musical farce, with the young playboy putting on a Ziegfeld-esque show in the middle-of-nowhere Deadrock, Nevada just to impress that town’s only girl. Direction was provided by Mike Ockrent, the British director who had similarly resuscitated Me and My Girl in the mid 80s and the choreography was supplied by newcomer Susan Stroman. The show would mark Stroman’s first significant Broadway achievement and launched her career as one of the most important choreographers of the decade.

Starring as the two lovers were Harry Groener and Jodi Benson. The original Broadway cast also included the late, great Bruce Adler, Beth Leavel, Michelle Pawk, John Hillner, Jane Connell, Jessica Molaskey, Casey Nicholaw, and Stephen Temperley (who would go on to write Souvenir). After 10 previews, the show opened at the Shubert Theatre to rave reviews, with a particularly ecstatic Frank Rich proclaiming that Broadway had reached out and snatched the musical back from the British. The musical comedy won three Tonys: Best Musical, Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long) and Best Choreography. The show ran 1,622 performances on Broadway; a London company starring Ruthie Henshall opened a year later and ran for almost three years. A PaperMill Playhouse production recreated the Broadway staging, even featuring original cast members and was aired on PBS Great Performances.

I first saw Crazy for You at my high school when I was 14 years old. It was the school’s spring musical, and I was completely blown away. The script was funny, the music and lyrics were from the Gershwins and utterly sublime (my first real introduction to their work). It was enough to get me involved with the high school’s drama club, where I spent two glorious years. I also wore out a videotape of the PaperMill telecast. Our senior year, the high school took a trip (a field trip down memory lane, really) to see the show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. Once again, they were recreating much of the original staging (and there were cast members from the PaperMill staging, too). The show starred Shonn Wiley and Meredith Patterson, who would both go onto starring in various Broadway roles and also get married along the way.

For what it’s worth, Stroman may have made a lot of waves with her direction and choreography of The Producers, but I don’t think she’s ever topped her breakthrough work in Crazy For You.

First up: Act One Finale. Ethel Merman became a star in Girl Crazy because of her delivery of “I Got Rhythm” late in that show’s first act. For Crazy for You, Stroman turns the number into a raucous, jubilant celebration lasting eight minutes. It’s a tap-heavy show (and this number especially), but it also exemplifies what would become her trademark: the use of props as part of the dance. Here is a rare video (found thanks to Robert Bullen of Confessions of a Chicago Theatre Addict) of the original Broadway cast performing “I Got Rhythm” onstage at the Shubert:

When the plot of Crazy For You is all wrapped up, and the inevitable happy ending is upon us, Stroman goes all out for a very Astaire-Rogers moment with the lovers rising while showgirls in folly girl headdresses appear. But wait – Stroman isn’t finished. There’s still the choreographed curtain call, with another boisterous reprise of “I Got Rhythm” (with all those tappers doing all those wings) leading to a company bow. Again, taped at the Shubert Theatre on 44th Street, here is the original cast. And yes, that’s Beth Leavel singing first.

"Kim’s Charleston"

It seems that every production of Show Boat has featured a different number in the eleven o’clock spot. At that point of the production, the period is the 1920s and Magnolia has retired gracefully to allow her daughter Kim to become the next big musical comedy star. In the original Broadway production, Norma Terris played both Magnolia and Kim, in which she presented “Kim’s Imitations,” in which she did impressions of popular people of the era, which itself was replaced by a reprise of “Why Do I Love You?” shortly after opening. For the London production in 1928, Kim (Edith Day) sang “Dance Away the Night.” The 1946 revival featured what was to be Jerome Kern’s final song “Nobody Else But Me” written specifically for Jan Clayton.

In 1993, Harold Prince took on the musical, with considerable revision done to the troublesome second act, including a new showcase for Kim, called “Kim’s Charleston,” a 20s-flavored dance piece featuring a period variation on “Why Do I Love You?” and featuring the Tony-winning choreography of Susan Stroman. Here is the Tony performance of the latest in the long evolution of Show Boat with Tammy Amerson as Kim, Elaine Stritch as Parthy and John McMartin as Cap’n Andy. Enjoy.