Reporting from New York — — It all started at lyricist Fred Ebb's kitchen table about eight years ago. Ebb and composer John Kander, the legendary songwriting team that crafted celebrated scores for "Chicago," "Cabaret" and nearly a dozen other Broadway shows, were ready to start a new show, and so were their frequent collaborators, director Susan Stroman and librettist David Thompson.
As the four friends talked first about the Depression, in which two of their earlier musicals were set, then about great American trials, they returned again and again to the infamous Scottsboro Boys case. On March 25, 1931, nine black teenagers bound for Memphis were pulled off a freight train in Scottsboro, Ala., then falsely accused, imprisoned and convicted for raping two white women. Their convictions were later overturned — twice — by the U.S. Supreme Court, and one of the two women recanted her testimony. But each youth spent at least six years in jail, and nine lives were ruined.
"When I was little, I remember the Scottsboro case being in the newspaper all the time," recalls 83-year-old Kander. "But as I grew older, it was there less and less until it wasn't in the newspaper at all. These were real people, and our show could bring them back to life again."
Fred Ebb died on Sept. 11, 2004, but the power of the material drew his three collaborators back to the project a few years later. Kander says he "channeled" his longtime writing partner to finish lyrics as well as music, and their new musical, "The Scottsboro Boys," opens on Broadway on Sunday after sold-out runs this year at both the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre and Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater.
"The stories that Kander and Ebb connect to musically are stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations," says Stroman, the Tony-winning director of such shows as "Contact" and "The Producers." "This is a piece of American history that we are not proud of, and Fred Ebb said the only way to make this story resonate with audiences and have them pay attention is to make it entertaining. Theater audiences don't want to sit through a history lesson."
To deliver their entertainment, the collaborators wrap prejudice and injustice in an unlikely package: a minstrel show. Their story starts in a frenzy, with cast members charging down the aisles, unruly, loud and a little too friendly. Performers sing of some pretty awful things, often to melodic Southern ballads or upbeat ditties, and the evening's song-and-dance numbers are peppered with talk of lynching, electrocution, Dixie justice and mobs outside the jailhouse.
Nobody remembers who came up with the idea of a minstrel show format, but all refer to the added tension of using a racially charged entertainment form to tell their racially charged story. The decidedly stylized and satirical minstrel show ironically skewers 1930s Southern justice much as Kander and Ebb employed vaudeville and burlesque to take on the Nazis in "Cabaret" and fame-seeking murderers in "Chicago."
Consider the staging. Onstage is the minstrel show's traditional semi-circle of chairs filled with minstrels flanking a well-dressed MC or interlocutor. The "end men," seated at either end of the semicircle and known as Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, are also a minstrel show staple, telling jokes and stories. The only Caucasian on this stage, however, is the interlocutor (Tony winner John Cullum), while African American actors play not just the Scottsboro boys but a procession of white drunken lawyers, lying women, prejudiced lawmen and sadistic prison guards.
"We're playing these horrible human beings, Forrest McClendon [Mr. Tambo] and I, and we need to show a delicious amount of fun being completely inhumane," says actor Colman Domingo, who plays Mr. Bones. "That's what helps land the horror of what happened to these boys. The more wicked and playful we are, the more we don't take their case seriously, the more powerful it is."
Domingo admits he'd never heard of the Scottsboro case himself until he was a junior in college, while another cast member says he didn't know about it until his audition. Actors went in small groups to such archives as New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and, says Domingo, "We'd sit there for hours, researching the minstrel form or learning about the boys' individual cases. And we keep doing that. We know the responsibility of this piece and the integrity that must be attached to it, so we want to make sure we have as much knowledge as possible."