West End Review: The Scottsboro Boys

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How do you create a musical about a horribly tragic story, but still make it entertaining? Well, Kander & Ebb definitely did that when they wrote The Scottsboro Boys. The other day, I happily awoke to an email from Be the Red Carpet, alerting me that I had won two top tier tickets to see The Scottsboro Boys. So I picked the night I wanted to go, and went into the play with little knowledge of the subject matter, other than a short glance at the Wikipedia article about it. It’s a very sad story about nine, young black men who were accused of raping two white girls in 1931 and spent the rest of their lives in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. I wondered how they were going to make a musical based on this subject, especially with that topic.

But I wasn’t disappointed. Kander & Ebb were certainly making a statement with this piece. In keeping with their traditional music style that they wrote Cabaret and Chicago in, they used the same flapper vibe to create a show-like performance. But this time, rather than using the settling of a jazz club, they used a controversial Minstrel Show theme. What’s interesting about this, is normally a Minstrel Show were white performers in blackface, but they turned that trope on its head and used the degrading aspects of the style with black actors in those roles. Now, from that description, you may think the show is racist; but it is definitely not. It’s hard to explain from a writing perspective what it’s about, but to see it live is truly a powerful experience.

The Scottsboro Boys Company. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

The show starts in a Minstrel fashion, with a white man (played by the prolific actor Julian Glover) as the Interlocutor, who basically controls the beginning of the story. There’s a Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo characters, who help run the show, and the nine Scottsboro boys act as the rest of the characters. From the dancing to the singing and staging, you forget what you’re watching could potentially be racist. But because it’s black actors, it can’t be, right? I think that’s a big factor that the director wants you to think about while you’re watching.

The thing I liked best about this music (besides the beautiful and haunting music and the fabulous choreography) was the fact that you could go from laughing very hard at one moment, and then immediately want to cry in the next moment. Is a musical supposed to do that? I think so. Not all musicals are happy and upbeat the entire time. You go to the theatre wanting to experience a lot of emotions, and I was constantly on the edge of my seat, wondering what was going to happen next (despite knowing what would happen based on the historical facts). I was entranced and entertained, and the cast was perfect. I am glad I won tickets to this show, because I wouldn’t have probably known about it otherwise. I may actually pay this time to go see it again.

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One thought on “West End Review: The Scottsboro Boys

  1. Kind of like explaining to someone how “Sweeney Todd” can be a musical comedy. I remember explaining it to someone and watching their face and I finally said, “You have to see it to understand”. Great job at making me want to see it!

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