Theatre Is Easy: “The Scottsboro Boys” (Broadway)

Written by Theatre, Theatre Is Easy

The Scottsboro Boys, Kander & Ebb’s final musical, is gloriously entertaining, moving, and socially relevant. It’s the best thing to happen to Broadway in quite some time, and it serves as a reminder why musical theatre can be a powerful form of entertainment.

BOTTOM LINE: The best thing to happen on a Broadway stage in quite some time.

The musical often gets a bad rap, and understandably so. High kicks do not intrinsically make for enjoyable entertainment, and breaking into song is an unusual method of communication. With the birth of Glee came a renewed indulgence in the art form, but I doubt it made non-believers into converts.

Although I am a personally an enormous fan of musical theatre, I can recognize its inherent cheesiness, and I can see how this would turn people away. But for all the jazz hands and glitter, musicals also have the ability to express the most meaningful ideas – and we all know how a good song can get under one’s skin. $100 tickets to see a kick line might feel extravagant, but add an important, moving story to that kick line and it becomes much more worthwhile.

With that sentiment, I suggest you make it a point to see The Scottsboro Boys, the new (and final) Kander & Ebb musical about racism in the 1930s, now playing on Broadway. If you can’t make it to midtown New York, catch its inevitable national tour, which will likely take off within the next 18 months.

This show isn’t perfect, and the reviews have been mixed, but it does what so many other shows don’t even attempt: to make audience members feel something in their respective guts. It’s not some glossy, candy-coated extravaganza. Rather, it uses its method of storytelling to convey its point. And it’s wholly successful.

The very first sounds that come from The Scottsboro Boys’ orchestra pit suggest the tone of the following two hours. First, the thump of a deep bass drum, then the ting of a tambourine. The silence in between these sounds is the same breathless pause that will grip the audience throughout the show. This seemingly simplistic percussive opening (which subsequently interchanges with a peppy, plucked riff) evokes the dichotomy at the heart of the musical: the heaviest of subject matters told through a rollicking form of classic American entertainment: the minstrel show.

The Kander and Ebb canon is full of dark musicals like Chicago and Cabaret. The Scottsboro Boys, their last collaborative effort as Ebb died in 2004, utilizes the same emphasis on social commentary and historical relevance. Era-specific stylizing and minimalistic sets further exemplify the Kander-and-Ebb-ian vibe. Susan Stroman’s direction and choreography are appropriately theatrical for this show, and also as clever as you would expect from this grand dame of musical comedy. The show’s cynical self-awareness is reminiscent of her work on The Producers. David Thompson’s book supports the story well, and the overall effect is concisely defined; if it’s a little long, at least nothing feels superfluous.

Based on the true story of nine young, black men falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama, The Scottsboro Boys presents its story through the conventions of a minstrel show. How do they get away with it?  For starters, the entire cast is black, except for the uncomfortably charming interlocuter (John Cullum). This musical format, although gloriously entertaining, is always tinged with its racist implications; the audience smiles, but it’s often through unease.

The brilliance of The Scottsboro Boys lies in its ability to draw from its audience an emotional response completely separate from the intellectual discovery. Anyone with a propensity for musical theatre will delight in this traditional and downright lovely score, while at the same time experiencing an absolutely gut-wrenching story about a disgraceful time in the not too distant past. And I have a feeling that even those who are disenchanted by the genre will be moved by the unfolding action. As the opening number professes, “Everyone’s a minstrel tonight.” It’s a kiss on the lips and a punch in the stomach.

There is a reason satire is more common than ever on the Broadway stage. Artists are figuring out how to manipulate the genre to better communicate a point. Music can be such a prolific tool to effect emotion, and when its done right, live and on stage, the result can be absolutely captivating. And you might just cry like a baby during the curtain call.

(The Scottsboro Boys played off-Broadway last spring at the Vineyard Theatre. You can read that review here.)

The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Performances are Tue-Fri 8 PM and Sat-Sun 3 and 8 PM. Tickets are $39.50-$131.50 and available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200; student rush seats are available at the box office, day of performance, for $26.50 (two per person). For more information visit scottsboromusical.com, and for more theatre reviews visit theasy.com.