In recent memory, it would be hard to recreate the palpable on-(and off)-stage chemistry, the extraordinary effervescence, and the striking, penetrative emotional bond of the entire creative ensemble of The Scottsboro Boys, and it is this, that leads us to introduce a Showmace that includes not a pair, but an especially tight group.
Ladies and Gentleman, I give you:
In 2002, Susan Stroman first met with Thompson, Kander, and Ebb.
“I'd collaborated with Kander and Ebb before (on And the World Goes Round, Steel Pier, and Flora, the Red Menace among others), and we all wanted to work together again,” says Stroman. They started from scratch, all sharing the desire to tell a true story, one based entirely in fact. “In the theatre, most worlds are fantastical. We wanted to do something true." With that, the team went about researching the great American trials—one was the trial of a group known simply as ‘The Scottsboro Boys.’”
As Douglas O. Linder says in his book The Trials of "The Scottsboro Boys,”
“No crime in American history—let alone a crime that never occurred—produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged [crime supposedly committed] by nine black teenagers on a Southern Railroad freight run on March 25, 1931.”
The Scottsboro Boys ordeal lasted over two decades, and served as a catalyst for a host of civil issues, all still chillingly relevant today.
“Kander and Ebb do shows about ordinary people in extraordinary situations" Stroman continues, “It very quickly became evident—this was the right project.”
Stroman, Thompson, Kander and Ebb met once every week or two developing the project, until, sadly and suddenly in 2004, Fred Ebb passed away. The project went on the shelf. But four years later, compelled by the nature of the work they had done, Kander called and wanted to look at it again. They started back at it.
A reading with actors was arranged by Doug Abel at The Vineyard Theatre.
Then it moved to The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
And then on to Broadway.
Casting was a tall order— the creative team had to assemble a group young men with a very specific, highly developed, and wide range of abilities. The young men had to play many parts— not merely the individual The Scottsboro Boys themselves, but also the minstrels, the female accusers, the defense lawyers, prosecutors, guards, and judges.
“They truly got to stretch their chops” Stroman confirmed.
It was an triple threat tour de force for everyone involved.
But what you cannot always measure in an audition room is the heart of each individual, nor can one predict the manner in which a company will weave itself together.
“It is something you always hope for—” Stroman says when asked if the team consciously attempted to create so tight an ensemble, “you try to pick a company that will get along! But sometimes—and this can’t be helped—people have one foot out the door. Everybody was ‘in it’ at The Scottsboro Boys; every last person was present, feeling it in the moment.”
The cast had their “roles” within the group, too,
“Many times a leader comes out of the company, only had it a couple times in my life. There I had it—Colman Domingo really became a father figure who gathered them together. And we were fortunate to have John Cullum leading the company” she says of the actor who celebrated his 50th year on Broadway during the run of the show, “he’s a wonderful actor for a director who challenged me to think and make decisions, you could tell the boys learned from him.”
"I think that when you read about The Scottsboro Boys, you only ever hear of the group, of their alleged crime, but you didn't know the boys.That company put gave those boys an individuality they were never afforded in life."
In rehearsal the Susan Stroman says she was inspired by them,
“As a director I can only give them a venue to tell this important story. They bring their own experiences and history and apply it, that is something I can’t teach them.”
Because the story was told predominantly with simple chairs that the actors build into the train, the prison cell, the courtroom, etc., the cast takes complete charge of the story telling and depend on one another to do so. To an audience it appears they end up taking over the show. As the story unravels, the boys confront John Cullum’s character [of The Interlocutor], tipping their chairs over and walking off in defiance.
Stroman describes that day as a 'defining moment' of this ensemble.
“The day that happened was very emotional, it had a historic feel to it.”
UP AND RUNNING
“I felt so proud to hand the show over to them on opening night,” Stroman muses, “I have never been involved in a company that was so invested in telling the story. I knew they would treat it with care and respect.” They were not so much ‘taking a chance together,’ they were extending themselves, “It was like being in a big pool together, sometimes swimming, sometimes keeping one another afloat, but always fueled by our passion for the show.”
They were doing something that hadn’t been done before, “Of all the shows we’ve ever done the most fulfilling emotionally. The entire time we were working we felt alive.”
At the end of every day, the team was so drained by the story, everyone had to connect—they couldn’t leave
the building without connecting with someone physically or verbally in a lovely positive way, it became something necessary for them to do.
"But what was most extraordinary…" adds Stroman thoughtfully, "…When stage management would call places, some one—usually Christian Dante White—would start to sing. Gospel, Broadway, whatever it was each guy would hook on in harmony, singing along as they descended the stairs, and by the time they got to bottom they finished singing backstage in great harmony and joy! All to bring them together to start the evening. Then they would put their hands together and 'remember The Scottsboro Boys…'"
After what the real-life people, as well as this extraordinary piece, company and creative team gave us— how could any of us ever forget?