Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb spent 40 years redefining our understanding of what a musical could be. Decadence and national socialism in ‘Cabaret’; grisly real-life murders in ‘Chicago’: almost every one of their shows has combined hard-hitting subject matter with a search for new musical and theatrical forms.
Their final musical, ‘The Scottsboro Boys’, is no exception. This production – the first in the UK, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman – packed out the Young Vic last year, and has now transferred to the West End.
It tells the true story of the nine young African-American men (one aged just 12) who were wrongfully accused, in 1931, of raping two white women on an Alabama freight train. This would be fascinating enough in a conventional musical, but Kander and Ebb’s masterstroke is to set the production as a minstrel show: a form of light entertainment popularised in the nineteenth century in which both white and black performers in blackface used comedy, slapstick and dance to peddle stereotypes about African-American culture.
To those unfamiliar with minstrelsy, its lexicon is tricky to comprehend: every gesture is exaggerated, every action commanded by a white Interlocutor (Julian Glover). ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ is not an easy watch, but then neither should it be – and a number of quieter, more emotive musical numbers work to leaven the tone.
Arguably we should learn more about the men’s individual stories: only a couple of them, including the dignified, John Proctor-like Haywood Patterson (the astonishingly good Brandon Victor Dixon), really assume three dimensions. But this beautifully-performed, thoughtfully-staged show remains a triumph – not only in keeping alive the memory of a terrible miscarriage of justice, but in taking minstrelsy as a cultural form, and turning it definitively on its head.
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4.9 / 5
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A truly subversive musical. The anticipation of the usual musical theatre goers before the curtain rose was in a stark contrast to the almost "springtime for Hitler" type response to the opening number; jaws could be heard clanking to the floor. This really is what theatre should be about. With a brilliant cast the show is thought-provoking, thrilling, entertaining - Brecht would be proud
Went to this show knowing nothing of the story at the Garrick Theatre. Just to fill a night on a London visit, brilliant joy and pain at the same time. I found myself enjoying the show whils't feeling pain and anger. This shows the power of the theatre and the importance of telling stories that everone should know.
Excellent production of Scottsboro Boys. Very sad but also very funny. Fantastic performances of great songs and brilliant dance routines with a truly shocking real life story of prejudice and injustice.
Wow, what an amazing show. Kander and Ebb have succeeded in making the audience feel both uplifted and extremely uncomfortable. The songs are excellent, catchy performed with amazing energy and excellent choreography, but at the end of each number you feel awkward applauding. The story is sad and shocking, the songs, dance routines and performances are outstanding. Highly recommended and hopefully this new production will see it get the recognition it deserves (having lost out on the Tony awards to Mormon).
A considered and compelling review. Has tempted my husband & I to come down from Scotland to share the experience. Perviz