Susan Stroman interview: 'One has to make it believable'

The choreographer behind 'The Scottsboro Boys' tells us why she's turned the story of a racist trial into a minstrel show



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© Paul Kolnik

Once you’ve choreographed a chorus line of tap-dancing Nazis, presumably no subject is too touchy to deal with. But turning the real-life trial of nine young black men falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama into a minstrel show sounds like a controversial idea.

That’s the premise of ‘The Scottsboro Boys’, the latest show from Broadway choreographer and director Susan Stroman, who is best known for putting ‘The Producers’ on stage. ‘We decided to write something that was really based in truth,’ says Stroman, who created the show in collaboration with songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb (‘Cabaret’, ‘Chicago’). ‘Because a lot of the time in musical theatre you are really surrounded by fantasy.’

© Paul Kolnik

They started to research famous American trials and soon came to the Scottsboro Boys, one of the most shocking miscarriages of justice in American legal history. ‘In doing the research we found out that when the Scottsboro Boys were brought into trial the journalists would always say, “Here comes another minstrel show.” That was the first spark that came to us.’

Putting on a minstrel show is, of course, rife with racist implications. ‘We couldn’t just do a minstrel show,’ says Stroman. ‘It had to be done in a way that was making a point. So this art form is actually deconstructed by the actors on stage.’ By the end of the show the performers have dismantled the stereotypes of the form and walked away from it.

For Stroman, choreographing for musical theatre is about much more than putting steps to songs. ‘We’ve all been to musicals where all of a sudden someone starts dancing and it doesn’t quite make sense. One has to make it believable that the character launches into song and dance,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t have to be true, but it has to be believable.’

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