The Theatreguide.London Review
Young Vic Theatre Autumn-Winter 2013; Garrick Theatre Autumn-Winter 2014
Read our review of the Young Vic production and then scroll down for a return visit to the West End transfer.
Kander and Ebb's last musical is ambitious, inventive, audacious and just a little bit disappointing.
In Alabama in 1931 nine black teenagers were convicted of raping two white women, a crime of which they were almost certainly innocent, and condemned to death. The case aroused outrage in more liberal America and, largely supported by the Communist Party, their appeals and retrials lasted through the decade. All were eventually freed or paroled, but their case remains a touchstone in the dark history of American racism.
The task facing John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics), David Thompson (book) and Susan Stroman (direction and choreography) was not just to make this strong material into a musical, but to do so without softening and trivialising it.
Their solution was audacious – to replicate the moral shock of the story they employed the aesthetic shock of violating current standards of political correctness and good taste.
The story of racism at its worst is told through the racist medium of a nineteenth-century blackface minstrel show, scenes of shocking drama are played as broad comedy, and racial, sexual and regional stereotypes are turned against themselves.
Broadly comic 'coon' characters from the minstrel line-up play most of the white characters as cartoon crackers, black actors mince about as the white supposed victims, and a white minstrel show Interlocutor directs things, calling at regular intervals for a happy cakewalk.
'You find any of this distasteful?' they challenge the audience, 'Well, turn that shock on the subject matter.'
Does it work? To an extent, but oddly, they don't seem to go far enough. Thompson's book and Stroman's direction are ultimately too soft at the core, lacking the hard edge of anger or outrage – or theatrical danger – the material wants.
Think of the edge Bob Fosse brought to Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, or Rob Marshall to the film of their Chicago. If anything, this show wants more of that, not less.
You catch glimpses of that nastiness when the imprisoned boys' sincere song of homesickness, 'Go Back Home', is followed a little later by the cliché-filled alternate, 'Southern Days', that their jailors would like to think are their sentiments.
But it's not really until close to the end, with the song of defiance, 'You Can't Do Me', that real anger is generated, and until the finale, 'Scottsboro Boys', in which the accounts of the men's sad ends are presented as a self-parodying big Kander-and-Ebb production number, that the theatrical audacity really pays off.
The cast of the Young Vic production includes some members of the original Broadway version. Kyle Scatliffe is strong as the natural leader of the Boys, and Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo versatile and inventive as the minstrel show's Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones along with a half-dozen other characters each, but Julian Glover just looks uncomfortable and out of his element as the Interlocutor.
Wandering silently through the action, observing but never really interacting with the others, is a young black woman. Some may twig who she is before a kind of epilogue that identifies her as Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal in 1955 to move to the back of a bus was a seminal moment in the Civil Rights movement.
There is some historical basis for adding her to this show – Parks was active in the movement for justice for the Scottsboro Boys – but by ending the musical with her act of heroic defiance, the creators are implicitly saying that the horrors experienced by the Boys were worth it because they led to something good. The audience can leave feeling all warm and fuzzy.
Anyone interested in the American musical will want to see every Kander and Ebb show and every Susan Stroman production. But warm and fuzzy is not what this subject deserves.
OCTOBER 2014: The welcome transfer of the Young Vic's Scottsboro Boys to the West End reaffirms the strength, originality and audacity of this final Kander-Ebb collaboration.
Despite the reservations expressed in my original review – some of which still remain – I would encourage anyone interested in the musical as an art form and anyone wanting more than easy, passive light entertainment to see it.
As I explained previously, John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics), David Thompson (book) and Susan Stroman (director) tell the very ugly story of one of America's most notorious cases of racial prejudice in a style designed to be upsetting and offensive, hoping to transfer the audience's outrage from the medium to the message.
As I wrote in my original review, I'm not sure how successful they are, since the story itself generates most of the musical's moral power. But I applaud the attempt to stretch and deepen the art of the musical, in much the same spirit that many of us celebrate the not-always-successful experiments of Stephen Sondheim.
The West End transfer carries a few changes from the Young Vic production, generally for the better.
Most of the cast remains intact, with Brandon Victor Dixon taking over the role of the most assertive and rebellious of the prisoners. His characterisation is stronger throughout, so that his final big song of defiance doesn't stand out quite as much.
Julian Glover has settled more comfortably and effectively into the role of the Interlocutor, and Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo continue to steal scenes as the protean Tambo and Bones.
An unambitious work in any medium can easily succeed in its limited aims but cheat its audience by making them settle for too little. Any original or genre-stretching work runs the risk of not quite achieving all its goals, but should be celebrated for how close it comes rather than berated for not quite making it.
So, without altering some of the reservations expressed in my original review, I withdraw them as irrelevant. Certainly a musical like The Scottsboro Boys is worth a dozen Thrillers or Miss Saigons.
Review - The Scottsboro Boys - Young Vic Theatre 2013