'Scottsboro Boys' creative team lovingly tells a tale of hatred

Posted: January 22, 2012

The man who wrote the music for Cabaret and Chicago, Curtains and Kiss of the Spider Woman, and more than a dozen other shows - to say nothing of "New York, New York" - leaned against the side of an upright piano in a Center City rehearsal room and broke into a smile.

"Yes, yes," said John Kander, to the dozen men on folding chairs who had just finished another run-through of the song called "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!," which opens The Scottsboro Boys, a musical about a true travesty of American justice, about racism and anti-Semitism, hatred and hypocrisy, told in the form of a minstrel show put on by blacks with a white "interlocutor," or onstage ringmaster. It did not sell well enough on Broadway last season to stay there, but received 12 Tony Award nominations after it closed.

Kander's approval came after he had told the cast that the happy-sounding song is sung by men who, at its end, are clearly very angry. That's the effect the cast achieved vocally in the run-through - the transition in tone that made Kander grin. It came earlier this month, on the first day of rehearsal for the show, now in previews at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre and opening Wednesday.

Musical director Eric Ebbenga was at the piano, accompanying the cast and fine-tuning their delivery. But for this first day, Kander himself - he finished the score after his lifelong collaborator, Fred Ebb, died in 2004 - was on hand to start things off. He liked what he saw.

"Good rehearsal!" he would later tell director-choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers and many others), a five-time Tony winner who hails from Wilmington, and David Thompson, who wrote the book for The Scottsboro Boys and other shows with Kander and Stroman.

The three had come to sit with the cast that day and talk about the show, its evolution, and its subject - the court case in the '30s in which the lives of nine black boys were ruined by a lie that continued to destroy them in prison even long after it had been recanted.

Kander, Ebb, Stroman, and Thompson first had the idea for the The Scottsboro Boys 10 years ago this month. They worked on it - Thompson doing major research, the others digesting it all - and then it sat untouched for four years after Ebb's death.

In 2008, Kander called Stroman and Thompson and suggested they pull it off the shelf and finish it. They nursed it through an Off-Broadway premiere at the Vineyard Theatre, then moved it to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, then to Broadway last season.

It's still very much their baby. When Philadelphia Theatre Company's producing artistic director, Sara Garonzik, called last year to say she wanted to produce The Scottsboro Boys, they said yes, making it the first production post-Broadway. They also had an unusual plan: Instead of the Philadelphia Theatre Company starting from scratch and with its own vision, as usually happens, the company would use Stroman's original direction and choreography, which is being re-created under her aegis by Jeff Whiting.

Half the actors at the first rehearsal earlier this month were also in last season's Broadway production, whose ardent following was not enough to keep it going for more than 78 performances. The actors include Philadelphia native Rodney Hicks, as the lead at Philadelphia Theatre Company, and Forrest McClendon, re-creating his Broadway role here. McClendon, known in Philadelphia as both an actor on various professional stages and a teacher at Temple University and the University of the Arts, was one of the Tony nominees.

The feeling among the show's creators: This musical will flourish with regional companies. "When we found ourselves on Broadway," Thompson says, "the audiences were spectacular, as invested as at any other theater we played. But this is not an easy show, this is not a starter show.

"What we discovered when we did the show at the Vineyard and the Guthrie was that the audiences were subscribers, people who'd been to the theater before - people who were expecting difficult theater, interesting theater, controversial theater, but not first-time theatergoers and it was either this or Mamma Mia!. They were ready for it, and they were excited."

"The show," says Stroman, "belongs in the regional theaters where people who are real theatergoers go. It's perfect for this in Philadelphia."

On a March day in 1931, nine black boys were hobos along with passengers on a train between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tenn. They were riding the rails to find work. Most of them did not know one another. "They were not even on the same cars," Thompson says.

Two white girls on the train - also riding illegally, and afraid of being suspected of prostitution - said that the boys had raped them. The case was heard in Scottsboro, Ala., and the racially motivated accusation at the time was tantamount to a death sentence.

The case bumped around the courts many times; it was a cause célèbre in the North, at one point drawing a New York lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, to the boys' defense. This added a new element of hatred - anti-Semitism - to the racism that was already a hallmark of the case.

The creative team knew of the case - cases, really. "The idea that there were nine stories we could tell - nine lives destroyed by a single lie - we thought, wouldn't it be interesting to find who these boys were and tell that story," Thompson says.

Some people cite the Scottsboro Boys - press accounts, says Kander, 84, used the collective name "as if there was no person in them" - as the case that ended all-white juries. Some credit it with the beginning of a national awareness that later became the civil rights movement. In any case, the travesty had, by now, departed from the American consciousness - overlain by more recent events in the evolution of the civil rights movement.

"What is really appalling," Thompson says, "is that it's so relevant today - a story of the truth being obscured, of people being accused of things they didn't necessarily do, and the prevailing prejudice in society."

As for creating the theatrical tale as a minstrel show - a form that automatically sets people on edge - Thompson, Stroman, and Kander all say that they got the idea directly from press reports of the time, which repeatedly referred to the trials that way. "Once you have that form to work with," says Kander, "it immediately becomes a musical." (It also became the object of protests by a small group of people who did not see the show or understand that the minstrel aspect was being used, in the story's context, to expose the racism of that form of entertainment.)

The three creators are staying with the show because they are committed to telling the story, and because of the effect they know it has on audiences.

"They're feeling something," says Stroman. "They're feeling their own history about their mother and father and grandfather or they're feeling another kind of awareness. For those of us in the theater to create something where an audience will leave it and then discuss it - it's everything to us. I think I can speak for all of us - it's the most fulfilling show we've ever done.

"And you know," she says, "being able to tell this story is really important to us. It makes people aware that when they walk outside, they might treat someone differently."

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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