One only needs the barest grasp of American history to understand the incendiary effect Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys was likely to have; a one sentence description ‘it is a musical about nine black men travelling through a 1930’s Alabamian town’ is enough to give significant pause.
Add in that it would take the form of a musical revue featuring a black minstrel show and a white southern host and one can begin to understand that The Scottsboro Boys is risky proposition, even by the standards of the team that brought Chicago, Cabaret and a musical interpretation of Manuel Puig’s modernist classic, Kiss of the Spider Woman to the stage.
When you have reinvented the musical, as they did with Chicago, and created a rival to Singing in the Rain as the greatest film musical, Cabaret, it is hard to imagine that the last blooming of creativity would be in the same league. This seems particularly true with the output of musical writers; one only needs to look at the careers of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim and even Andrew Lloyd-Webber to see a marked drop-off in the quality of their output as the years tick by.
However in the blend of tone and content that Kander & Ebb have brought to The Scottsboro Boys, they have managed to create a piece of theatre that, of all their work, comes closest to being seen as great art rather than great entertainment.
Technically it may not have the brilliance of Cabaret and it may not have the sheer enjoyment of a Fosse-choreographed Chicago, but what The Scottsboro Boys does, in a way not dissimilarto London Road, is to blow away the audience’s preconceptions and retains the force of a story that needs to be told being told in the only way that it can be. There is a coherence and understanding to the work, and a clear role, purpose and intent to the interplay of theatre, music and choreography which sits perfectly with characterisation and story.
The depressing thing is that The Scottsboro Boys was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won none. In the same year The Book of Mormon was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, winning nine. The interesting thing is that both aim to cover very similar ground despite their plots being a world apart. In a not shocking turn of events, it seems that those giving out the awards got it totally wrong.
Both aim to utilise the time-honoured construct of Juvenalian satire to address prejudices in society, and whilst Trey Stone and Matt Parker’s humour, honed after fourteen years of South Park, takes swings at the big topics it often seems to confuse the scatological for the satirical. At times its views are surprisingly conservative, which perhaps is a reflection of the need to sell those expensive tickets on Broadway to out-of-towners coming across from Middle America. After all there are only so many wise-cracking, elitist New York liberals to sell tickets too.
The Scottsboro Boys, on the other hand, is about as close as one can get to a modern example of this form of satire. It understands implicitly that the purpose of the technique is not to make the audience laugh but to provoke a reaction. Kander & Ebb are well aware of the power of humour to shock and use jokes like verbal hand grenades; the audience often confronted with the sight of two black men forced into playing the archetypal ‘uncle Tom’ roles for their entertainment and internally reconcile the fact that they have laughed at their ‘antics’. This is comedy operating at the very edge of tragedy, and it is all the more powerful for it.