“A devastating show of dazzling sophistication and snarling wit that leaves you reeling. Brave, brilliant and unmissable.” Sam Marlowe
“As witty and tuneful as it is provocative and profound, The Scottsboro Boys was the best musical of last year and remains the best musical of this.”
The true-life tale of nine black teenagers sentenced to death in Alabama in 1931 on the made-up charge of raping two white women on a train may not be the cheeriest subject for musical theatre.
But you could say the same about the rise of the Nazis or the story of two Jazz Age murderers in a women’s prison, both of which served John Kander and Fred Ebb pretty well for their smash hits Cabaret and Chicago.
The trick they pull off in their final venture, in collaboration with writer David Thompson and director/choreographer Susan Stroman and getting its first outing in London nine years after Ebb’s death, is to make this potentially harrowing show hugely enjoyable without ever being flippant.
They do it by staging the original incident – actually a complete non-event – and the subsequent umpteen trials as a minstrel show, the traditional Deep South entertainment in which beaming black performers rolled their eyes and fluttered their hands to make white folk smile.
A cast of 13 – one white man, one black women, the rest young black men including several from the original Broadway cast – play the hapless defendants as well as their racist jailers, accusers and prosecutors.
Along the way they tap, hoof and bash at tambourines, playing the Scottsboro Boys naturalistically and their snarling persecutors as cartoon grotesques.
In that vein, the show is partly a serious examination of the false testimony and the plight of the victims, who range from defiant through terrified to back-stabbing cowardly, and partly a send-up of the clownish trial process, complete with dancing warders and a hymn to the electric chair.
This apparent refusal to be serious about serious things is familiar from the razzle-dazzle show Chicago. With such obvious similarities as the prison setting, the slick lawyer and the vaudevillian approach to storytelling, at times it feels we have been here before.
But this is a much darker and more political piece. Knowing that all this really happened, you care much more what happens to these poor young men then you ever could about Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart.
In the kind of simple staging where train carriages and jail cells are thrown together with planks and up-ended chairs, it’s brought to life by a superb ensemble cast.
Particular stand-outs are a gut-wrenchingly raw Kyle Scatliffe as the angriest, most principled prisoner and, at the opposite extreme, Colman Domingo who plays a minstrel emcee and a ragbag of comic villains with a rubber-faced versatility that makes him more like something out of The Simpsons than a real human being.
Despite some great tunes, including a satirical homage to the song Chattanooga Choo Choo (because that’s where some of the young men boarded the train), you don’t come away whistling. That would be tasteless, and ultimately this can’t help being a feel-bad show because the subject matter is so horrific.
But perversely you are allowed to have great fun along the way and this extraordinary memorial to a key event in America’s civil rights struggle is a compelling ride.
Author: Simon Edge
“Brilliant cast and electrifying choreography”
Kander and Ebb were musical maestros at matching form to content. Cabaret treats the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany as a nightclub act; Chicago turns murder and justice into vaudeville. Their final collaboration was more daring still. The story of a huge miscarriage of justice in 1930s Alabama, which left nine young black men, falsely accused of raping two white women, jailed for many years, is reframed as a minstrel show. Apparently, when some of the defendants were eventually released they ended up in such an entertainment.
Minstrel shows – in which white performers blacked up and played to black racial stereotypes – thrived into the second half of the 20th century. Here, the form becomes inverted to unsettling and often savage satirical effect as a company of black actors, presided over by Julian Glover’s white interlocutor wearing an Uncle Sam hat, gleefully caricature white bigotry, and the failures of a justice system in which the innocent are found guilty because they are black.
Susan Stroman’s production – cleverly and simply designed by Beowulf Boritt – mines the dark, brutal humour to an entirely merited and an almost uncomfortably provocative degree. The choreography is often electrifying, particularly in a brilliantly nightmarish tap-dancing sequence featuring an electric chair. This is a show that boasts a brilliant ensemble, but Brandon Victor Dixon shines particularly as Hayward Patterson, a man who refuses to sacrifice the truth for parole.
The score doesn’t have the earworm catchiness of Kander and Ebb’s best shows, and dazzles more than it delights. But this is a genuinely radical musical, full of stinging indignation and plaintive power, which reminds of the cost to individuals of the civil rights movement that had to fight so hard to bring about the end of racial segregation in the US.
Author: Lyn Gardner
“Dazzingly delivered staging…the impact is both elating and shocking”
It’s almost unthinkable that this shocking story could make fit material for a musical. And yet Kander and Ebb’s account of nine black teenagers in Alabama falsely condemned to death for rape in 1931 has wowed audiences Off Broadway, on Broadway and at the Young Vic. Now it looks set to do the same in the West End.
What struck me is that turning such a shameful episode in history into a jubilant minstrel show is an almost outlandish act of sarcasm directed at Alabama bigots. Yet, if it is sarcasm, it is sarcasm without a trace of cynicism. It is lavishly cheerful yet poignant. As moral outrage, it’s riveting.
Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have handled dark material before, with Nazism in Cabaret and corruption in Chicago, but this is much angrier. Not that you know right away from Kander’s trademark brass or his moody piano and clarinet. Ebb’s lyrics brim with wit despite the grisly accounts of racism slipped into show tunes, gospel and intimate a cappella.
Director Susan Stroman delivers a show that is deliriously upbeat, while the athletic young performers leave no racial stereotype unturned. And watching the black cast blacking up and doing jazz hands as they recount brutalisation by kangaroo courts sends shivers down the spine.
Three proscenium arches preside like gibbets over the action, but you could almost miss the hanged man in the exuberant shadow-puppet sequence.
What a cast, too — well worth their standing ovations. It must be distressing to handle such material each night, but the fact they do is testament to the vitality of their performances. Even so, Brandon Victor Dixon offers a still and charismatic centre as Haywood — the proudest one who never made it out of jail. A disturbing musical one-off, but a great one.
Author: Patrick Marmion
Winner of the Best Musical at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2014, The Scottsboro Boys is a collaboration between legendary composing duo Kander and Ebb
Nominated for 12 Tony Awards, 6 Olivier Awards, Winner of the Best Musical at the Critics Circle Awards and Winner of the Best Musical at The Evening Standard Awards 2014, The Scottsboro Boys is a collaboration between the legendary composing duo John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) who are well known for taking difficult subject matters and turning them into exhilarating entertainment. At once challenging and exhilarating, The Scottsboro boys tells the true life story of a group of nine black teenagers in Alabama who were accused of raping two white women in 1931. The case sparked the American Civil Rights movement and was instrumental in changing the course of American history.
Bruno Wang’s involvement as Producer on the show was prompted by his spiritual work and his belief that all forms of injustice are distortions of spiritual balance and karma.
More information on the production can be found here