Why The Scottsboro Boys shouldn't close.

Notes on the stage.
Nov. 29 2010 4:11 PM

The Scottsboro Boys

Is the most ambitious new musical of the Broadway season racist?

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The Scottsboro Boys imagines an alternate, fictional history where the minstrel show does not hide the reality of the cruel racism of the South but describes and comments on it. The minstrel show represents the lies that African-Americans are forced to tell, and while it exploits its performers, in Kander and Ebb's imagined world, they aren't merely victims. The actors can exploit the conventions of the minstrel show to better tell their story.  

Of course, it's not quite that simple—if it were, Kander and Ebb's show would feel too easy, too didactic.  Kander and Ebb clearly set out to provoke their audience. And veteran Broadway director Susan Stroman, who turned jokes about Hitler into blockbuster musical theater in The Producers, demonstrates that old fashioned musical theater salesmanship can unsettle as well as entertain. Watching The Scottsboro Boys, you may squirm in your seat, and not only because of the caricatures of African-Americans. Consider the condescending Jewish defense lawyer, played in the minstrel show with a nasal, anti-Semitic whine by an African-American actor. It's an ugly caricature, capped off by an outrageous song delivered by his opposing counsel that repeatedly emphasizes the power of "Jew money."

After invoking the lawyer this character is loosely based on, the Voice'sFeingold calls this portrait "remarkably shabby." But if Feingold looked up from his history book at what's onstage, he might notice that despite his arrogance and silly voice, this stylized character does not resemble the miser described in that number at all. In fact, he is a talented if condescending advocate who believes passionately in civil rights, fights hard to defend his clients, and gets half of them released. When he cuts a deal, it seems at first like a sellout, but it may well have been the best deal he could get. And despite skepticism from Patterson, he keeps working to get him freed. In The Scottsboro Boys, caricatures can be complex.

In the end, the governor of Alabama agrees to let Patterson go free if he admits he was guilty. The lawyer encourages him to do so, but Haywood refuses to lie. Here the musical represents a possible thematic evolution from Chicago, which presents an amoral world where lying to get out of jail is a benign, even endearing sin. Patterson stands his ground and dies in jail. Did he make the right choice?

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The Scottsboro Boys concludes with a strained connection between Patterson's plight and the battle for civil rights suggesting that his truth-telling established a noble legacy. But the show also allows for the argument that choosing death over a lie was rigid, misdirected pride: Patterson even delivers a monologue that suggests his inability to tell a perfectly understandable lie has as much to do with a childhood trauma than some abstract principle about justice or honesty.

Maintaining such ambiguity isn't the only challenge The Scottsboro Boys presents to its audience. By staging its minstrel show with verve, polish, and razzmatazz, Stroman and her spectacular cast remind us that the power of show business can for a moment (or more) overwhelm moral considerations. This may trouble some audiences. But if the show's laughs catch in the throat, that only makes the musical more interesting. The Scottsboro Boys uses show business to expose the corruption of the 1930s legal system, but it also uses a story about the legal system to expose the corruption of show business. The hysterical criticism it's occasioned is evidence of its success.

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Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.