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Susan Stroman finds empowerment in 'The Scottsboro Boys'

The musical about the notorious trials of African American men accused of rape takes an unconventional approach. It will be at the Old Globe in San Diego.

May 04, 2012|By John Clark, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Susan Stroman leads cast members during rehearsal for the musical "The Scottsboro Boys."
Susan Stroman leads cast members during rehearsal for the musical "The… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — Director-choreographer Susan Stroman is standing with arms folded, watching a group of dancers run through a number. They have the great athleticism and some serious lung power, all of which is way too big for the rehearsal room. But it won't feel that way once they're onstage.

"Make it a small step," Stroman says. "Make it nice and easy. Don't make a big deal out of it."

Facing a mirror, she demonstrates the Charleston. She doesn't make a big deal out of it, even though most 57-year-olds can't move that way. In fact, as she stops the dancers to tweak a position or deliver direction, she doesn't make a big deal out of anything. Even her pronouncements, are made as if over a cup of coffee.

After they stack chairs and lay planks to approximate a railroad car, she says "Building the set tells the audience that you are in charge of the story. You're taking the art form and flipping it on its head."

This last observation is what makes "The Scottsboro Boys," which is what is being rehearsed here, not just another Broadway musical, full of song and dance and signifying nothing. It's what made it problematic for audiences and some critics during its brief Broadway run (49 performances) at the end of 2010.

Now West Coast viewers will get to make up their own minds when the show opens Saturday at the Old Globe in San Diego. It will then move up to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater on June 21.

"It has its extremes," admits Stroman, who directed and choreographed the original run at the off-Broadway Vineyard Theater, and was Tony-nominated in both capacities for the Broadway production after it transferred. The show picked up 12 nominations but struck out on all of them.

"You either love it and understand it or you're not sure why one would do it," she said. "It's not one of those theater pieces where you leave and forget about it. When you see this show, you go out to dinner and talk about how it affected you. We would wish that happened with every show we created."

The show is based on the notorious trials (there were more than one) of nine African American men accused by two young white women of raping them while hitching a ride on a train in the Deep South during the Depression. The men were repeatedly convicted, even after one of the women recanted her testimony.

Though this might seem like an unlikely subject for a musical, it was just the sort of material that had been handled successfully in the past by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team behind "Cabaret" (the rise of Nazi Germany), "Chicago" (big city corruption), and "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (a Latin American prison).

"Part of what they do is write about ordinary people in extraordinary situations," Stroman says.

That may be, but Kander and Ebb took a particularly aggressive line in telling the story. Much of it is played out in the form of a minstrel show. The idea here, as Stroman told her dancers, is that they are taking this racist art form "and flipping it on its head." They are in control, using chairs to build a train, courtrooms, jail cells. They double as the young women, their own Jewish defense attorney, and various judges and cops.

Not surprisingly, protests came from some who objected to the premise and refused to see the show. Pickets appeared outside New York's Lyceum Theater. Stroman, who was frustrated because she couldn't debate the merits of the approach with people who hadn't seen it, was gratified to hear that several protesters attended a recent revival of the show in Philadelphia and went backstage to apologize. The cast members, she says, "were taken aback."

There probably won't be a similar second look on Broadway. Stroman, who was in on the conception of the show at Kander's legendary kitchen table (where all their shows were conceived), says it was always intended to be an off-Broadway piece and that it transferred from the Vineyard Theatre to the Great White Way only because investors fell in love with it.

It's easy to imagine that the producers also fell in love with their collaborators — not only the celebrated Kander and Ebb (who died during production) but Stroman herself: After all, she brought with her five Tony Awards, two Laurence Olivier Awards, five Drama Desk Awards, eight Outer Critics Circle awards and four Fred Astaire Awards, and directed and choreographed one of the biggest hits in recent memory, "The Producers."

Of course, all of that metal means nothing if audiences don't connect. On the other hand, the creative team can't be blamed for not hitting a target they were never aiming for.

"It's not for beginner theatergoers who come to New York for the first time to see Broadway shows," Stroman says. "It's not a tourist show, and tourism keeps Broadway alive. I think it will have a wonderful life in the regionals, and there's talk of it going to London."

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