The new Kander and Ebb musical is quite simply the most astonishingly successful new musical on Broadway this year if you judge by artistic merit and the success of the creative team at accomplishing what they set out to do, rather than simply the box office gross. And, it has given us the most impressive new original cast recording of the year.
The score is the best we’ve had from John Kander and Fred Ebb in many a season. It features Kander’s music but lyrics credited to both of them because the songwriting wasn’t complete when Fred Ebb died in 2004, so John Kander completed that side of the songwriting task as well as his own traditional duties as composer.
With a book by David Thompson and the intelligently focused direction of Susan Stroman, the show grabs your attention from the first moment and doesn’t let you take a breath or relax its hold on your emotions for its full one and a half hour run. It uses the unorthodox conceit of presenting a dreadfully serious subject in the guise of a highly entertaining minstrel show. That show, however, does something no minstrel show did before. Turning the tables on the racial insensitivity of the format in all its nineteenth-century assumption of the superiority of whites and inferiority of blacks, this modern minstrel presentation tells the story of the wrongful arrest, trial and conviction of nine young boys for a rape that never happened. That the boys were black, while the two accusers in Alabama in 1931 were white, makes the minstrel approach both shocking and disturbing. The high spirits of the minstrel-style performances underline the injustice at the core of the historic atrocity in a way no scholarly tome or theatrical drama could.
The album on John Yap’s JAY Records is nearly as compelling as attending a live performance. Perhaps that is because, just like the minstrel shows of the 1840s through 1880s, The Scottsboro Boys doesn’t rely on sets, special effects or massive choruses. Thus, the recording isn’t missing essential elements because it isn’t a video. The color production photos do all that is necessary to let you know what the show looked like and Yap’s success at incorporating the sound of taps and soft shoes in the dance sequences gives a very atmospheric representation of the live event.
The show was recorded during its run Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre prior to its transfer to the Lyceum on 45th Street. When it transferred, one of its stars didn’t make the shift and, so, while the recording does capture the fine work of Brandon Victor Dixon as the eldest of the nine Scottsboro Boys, it doesn’t give you a chance to experience the visceral anger that Joshua Henry burns into your consciousness in the role on Broadway. There are two other cast switches as well. Cody Ryan Wise and Sean Bradford are on the recording instead of young Jeremy Gumbs and James T. Lane who are appearing on Broadway.
Another difference between the Broadway experience and this recording is the very telling song “It’s Gonna Take Time” which also didn’t make the transfer to Broadway. The recording benefits from its message inserted at a strategic point in the story and we can be grateful to Yap for including it. Another item we can be grateful for is the inclusion of a “bonus track” of John Kander singing the lovely “Go Back Home,” a song that works nicely both in context for the show as it is recorded in the main body of the recording and out of context as a simple lovely song of homesickness in the bonus track.
The use of the conceit of staging the entire piece as a minstrel show has caused some controversy among those who feel that any reversion to the racial insensitivity of that format must be in itself insensitive. One listen to this fabulous recording will convince you that the choice was both inventive and appropriate and that it drives home the horror of the injustice behind the true story in an unforgettable way. In fact, to paraphrase one of the lyrics in the show “it is the opposite of insensitivity.” Buy it. Listen to it. Then decide for yourself.
Richard Seff reviews the Vineyard production of The Scottsboro Boys, includes a video clip from the show.