Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Lyceum Theater (New York City)

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Of all of the shows opening in New York this autumn, the one I was most excited about was Scottsboro Boys. Not Elf, not Pee Wee Herman, not Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – but a (for all intents and purposes) new musical by the brilliant team of Kander and Ebb. I couldn’t wait to have the chance to hear their musicality and wit applied anew (albeit somewhat after the fact given that Ebb died in 2004, leaving the lyrics behind). Frankly, the chance to see this show was a cause for hootin’ and hollerin’ and practically reason enough to support my pilgrimage across the pond to the Great White Way (though I was mostly going to see ballet). Previews were starting the last three days of my visit, and by gum, I was gonna go!

Four days later, I’m still finding it a bit difficult to summarize the show in a review-worthy way. In its offensiveness, it’s right up there with Jerry Springer:The Musical – a show I adored for its high-kicking, multi-racial chorus line of Ku Klux Klansmen at the end of act one. But watching a play that digs so hard at America’s racist past without feeling uncomfortable was pretty much impossible on the face, and add to it shovelfulls of creepy “ole time” images (such as black men in white face and an actor scratching his head like he was a gorilla) with a thick helping of anti-Semitism on top (what was the name of that song, “Don’t Take That Jew Money?”* – not one I’ll be singing at the piano bar any time soon), and you, too, may be asking yourself if this is a show worth sitting through (like the African-American audience woman I queried at the end of the show who was ready to walk after 20 minutes). I had to ask myself: if we support this show as audience members, are we supporting the racist and anti-semitic messages of its characters and of several aspects of the production?

This question is further complicated by the obvious anti-racist message: the whole point of the show is that the nine black men accused of rape in 1930s Alabama were individuals with hopes and dreams, talent and ambition. Our ability to tolerate the evil attitudes of the society surrounding them is somewhat tempered by having all of the roles played by these men (other than the near-invisible “interlocutor”): thus the sherrif who beats them and the women who accuse them are all black men, a situation which, I think, just barely manages to temper the evil words that come out of their mouths. Still, when the Alabama attorney goes on an anti-Northern, anti-Jewish rant … suddenly I was brought back to the history of enmity between these two communities, and I didn’t find it the least bit comic. It was ameliorated by the fact that the character being reviled was quite decent, just as much as his defendents (if clearly suffering from his own superiority and racist issues, per one of his songs), but … nails on a chalkboard, I tell you. Letting the nine men rip apart a song about the sweet old South – and how crappy it really was if you weren’t white – didn’t do enough to sugar over these other vile words.

Being uncomfortable really does seem to be at the heart of this show. The actors were the creme de la creme, and I was thrilled to see, finally, a stage full of black talent (how long has it been?), in a show that really let them show off their skills as performers. The show has great singing, a horrifying (yet well-executed) tap dancing routine, and an execution that lets the actors display their range as they (nearly all) play several roles. I was disappointed that the music didn’t show the lyrical wit of other works by Kander and Ebb …. yet there was no doubt that what I saw was extremely powerful. I’m not familiar with the conceit of a minstrel show, so I can’t say to what extent it held up (or held a warped mirror up to) the tradition.

Still …. when I thnk back on all of the musicals I’ve seen this year, Scottsboro Boys will stand out for many reasons. I’m still out on whether it’s a must-see or better-to-avoid. Yet, as someone who’s dedicated to theater as an art form, I am leaning toward see, because anything that makes me this uncomfortable and sparks as much discussion as this show did is probably better faced and dealt with than avoided.

* Actually the song is called “Financial Advice,” but, like “Dance 10, Looks 3” it’s unlikely to be known by its actual title.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 8, 2010. For another view, see David Finkle’s review in the Huffington Post or Steve On Broadway’s review of the Guthrie production. The show is booking at least through the end of February, 2011. For a deeper analysis of what this show is trying to do, please see Patrick Healy’s New York Times article.)

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7 Responses to “Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Lyceum Theater (New York City)”

  1. LYNN Says:

    You missed the genius of the show…if you are a bigot in anyway it comes after you with both guns blazing! Love it! It is a TRUE story.Kander and Ebb ,wow, the intelligence…”Jew Money” came from the case. Samuel Leibowitz, from NYC, came down to represent the boys.He “used up” MANY ” years of his life to keep them alive. During the Decatur trial one of the southern prosecuting attorneys exclaimed, after Ruby came in with new clothes and recanting her story,”She was bought with Jew money!” blah, blah ,blah…Kander and Ebb did their homework, you did not….Also Ruby’s song is almost a direct copy of her letter to her “boyfriend”. Please tell your readers to google Scottsboro Boys and learn about the case. Very entertaining and scary…Learn before you go…You will GET IT! Also a museum in memory of the boys opened about the same time the musical opened offBroadway not knowing about the musical. They do now, the musical uses a fan onstage from the Scottsboro Boys Museum! Go visit in Scottsboro, Alabama. May it play forever! We must fight hate…..

    Please do NOT print my email address….

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Lynn, I did as much research on this show as any typical audience member might. Still, I found it offensive, as did two black ladies and a Jewish woman I spoke to after the show. Unfortunately, it may not matter how well-researched this show was if it’s repeating hateful racist and anti-semitic attitudes; they still have the power to hurt. America circa 2010 may just not be ready for this show.

      PS: please lay off the ad hominem attacks – it’s bad netiquette.

  2. Dale Says:

    I saw this show last night, and like you I was really looking forward to it. Not only was the score from Kander and Ebb, but the historical story the show is based on is extremely powerful/sad/fascinating–and plus, Colman Domingo is in the cast, and he wowed me in PASSING STRANGE.

    Like you, however, the show made me uncomfortable on many levels. I still don’t know what I think. What I can say, though, is that the cast is impressive throughout, including Domingo, and that the finale, with the Rosa Parks moment, and the heavy beat of the drum, has the same heart-stopping power as the end of the most recent revival of CABARET. With the finale, I felt the show came together all at once, and a note of hope was sounded: I.e., the horrible injustice dramatized in this play may have pushed later Americans to take risks they would not otherwise have taken.

    I agree that SCOTTSBORO BOYS is a piece of theater that generates discussion. I saw it with my partner and we’ve been talking about it off & on all day, glad that we saw it, even though we both agree it’s not a show we want to see again. It’s just too intense. That said, the directorial decisions are interesting throughout–especially the use of the drum mentioned above, which for much of the show reminded me of a funeral march, but at the end seemed to announce that a life-changing moment, on the bus, had occurred.

    Unlike CABARET, the show has few tender moments, or warm comedy. The jokes are difficult to laugh at, b/c they grow so directly out of racism. But, the main character, Haywood, does say at the start of the show that he wants to “tell the truth”–and I do think there’s something truthful in the ugliness of this show. In that way, the show is a success, and does what it intends to do.

  3. idia Says:

    Yes, it is tough. Yes, it is rough. Yes, it is uncomfortable. It is one hard play to stomach — and yes, it is mandatory for all to see it.
    It isn’t your usual romp in the park despite the cover of it being done in Minstrel Show fashion.
    Though it is likely to promote some guilt, this raw story needs to be told and it cannot be watered down in any way.
    One particular song, “Jew Money” left me uncomfortable and reeling and even wondering if it was necessary at all. In retrospect, I do believe that it was.
    This is not an easy show to swallow. It leaves everything you’d rather not like to know about right up front and in your face.
    The cast, to a person, was superb and the dancing wonderful.
    The characters and their plight get under your skin and you may have some lingering thoughts that haunt you after you’ve left the theater.
    I gulped back the tears at the end of the show when I heard of the fate of those four boys who were eventually released.
    It worries me that the very content of this show might sadly make it a short run because not too many like to leave with a bad taste in their mouths even if it is because they have seen some truths about themselves they’d rather not face.
    A worthy evening in theater.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      “”Guilt?” Black and white people alike found the minstrel idiom offended, not helped by depiction of one young man as an ape. I think this show may have fell off the edge of what our society is willing to tolerate today in our still very racist America.

  4. sandra Says:

    I eagerly anticipated attending viewing this play. I knew the powerful story and wanted to see thehow exploration of this travesty would be played. I am soooo sorry I attended this performance. The portrayal of this compelling piece of my history through a minstrel was disgusting. To see the audience laughing and clapping as these black male performers acted like buffoons was demeaning. I left disgusted and angry after 20 minutes ofviewing the play. This was NOT art. This was a sad excuse for perputuating racial sterotypes under the guise of art. I’m glad it has closed.

  5. Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Young Vic Theater | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] been a three years since I saw The Scottsboro Boys in New York. At the time I saw it as a failure, in part because of its negative reception by local […]

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