Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman on ’The Scottsboro Boys’
With hit musicals like The Producers, Contact, and Crazy for You on her resume, and providing her mantle with multiple Tony Awards, director-choreographer Susan Stroman is not naive to the commercial realities of Broadway. She knew the odds were stacked against The Scottsboro Boys when it opened on Broadway in 2010, and her instincts were right.
"This is not a show for beginners," she said recently from New York. "When tourists come into town and they have the choice between seeing Mamma Mia! or The Scottsboro Boys, well, we’re not going to win that battle." And they didn’t. The musical closed after just 49 performances, but its creators knew that regional theaters, free of Broadway hoopla and hype, would be more receptive to a musical that deals with serious issues in an unexpected manner.
Stroman agreed to direct a mostly new cast in a production that would play San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre before arriving June 21 at ACT as the closing show in its current season. "When we created The Scottsboro Boys, we always intended it to be an off-Broadway show and hoped it would find a life in the regional theater," Stroman said. And indeed it did start as an off-Broadway show, at the Vineyard Theatre, where business was brisk and the run extended.
"Some producers saw it, and I think they knew in their hearts that it wasn’t commercial, but they loved it and wanted to bring it to Broadway," Stroman said. "We weren’t going to stand in their way. In the end, it got 12 Tony nominations, so that gave it a little bit more weight for it to then have a future."
And now it is finding its home in regional theaters, just as Stroman had hoped. "It’s perfect for regional theaters, because those audiences are devotees of the theatre, and want the new and the interesting."
The story behind The Scottsboro Boys was a media sensation in the early 1930s, but its details had faded over time. Nine black teens had hopped a freight between Chattanooga and Memphis, and were yanked from the train outside Scottsboro, Ala., by a deputized posse that also found aboard two white girls who accused the nine of rape. In a series of rushed trials, all but one of the nine were sentenced to die. A grandstanding Jewish lawyer from New York, hired by the American Communist Party, arrived in Alabama expecting to be the next Clarence Darrow, but further stirred prejudicial waters as cases dragged on for years, even after both white girls recanted their testimonies.
When Stroman had been working with lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander on a revival of Flora, the Red Menace, a musical comedy centered on communist recruitment in the 1930s, and then on the Depression-era Steel Pier, their research led them to references to the Scottsboro Boys. In 2002, sitting around Ebb’s kitchen table, Stroman, Kander, and Ebb began brainstorming how the story of the Scottsboro Boys could be told as a musical.
"Fred said, ’If you don’t make it entertaining, no one will listen,’ and we wanted to make it informative but not like an after-school special," Stroman said. "Some shows you walk away from and you don’t discuss them at dinner, but this one you will discuss no matter how it makes you feel. I think if a musical can make a group of people have a conversation, that’s everything to its creators."
Kander and Ebb had treated serious subjects in musical-comedy terms before, such as using a nightclub in Cabaret to help explore the Nazi rise in Germany, and casting a story of judicial corruption and media manipulation as a vaudeville in Chicago. But the decision to use a minstrel-show format in which the Scottsboro Boys would tell their story was a risky one because of the minstrel show’s racist roots, and the stigma that has basically exterminated it as an entertainment form.
Although there would be a brief flurry of protests against the show’s minstrel format, they wouldn’t arise for years. When Fred Ebb died of a heart attack in 2004, Stroman assumed the project died with him, and moved on to other ventures. "About three years ago, John Kander called me and said, ’Can we look at this again?’ And as we started to go through it, I realized how much had already been done, and we worked on it some more with [librettist] David Thompson." The Vineyard Theatre, where Stroman got her first big break choreographing Flora, the Red Menace and became friends with Kander and Ebb, offered to produce it.
In the production, a cast of nine young African-American actors play not only the Scottsboro Boys but also all the other characters, black and white, male and female, sympathetic and cruel. There is one white actor on stage, in the traditional minstrel role of the emceeing interlocutor (Hal Linden at ACT). The set consists mainly of a collection of chairs that the cast maneuvers to create scenes ranging from the boxcar to the courtroom, to jail cells, and even to the electric chair.
"Once we got on a roll with the idea that the boys could take over a minstrel show and use it to tell their story," Stroman said, "we just wanted chairs on stage so they’re building their own sets as well, which allows them to be in charge of the whole show."
Stroman was in San Diego working with the largely new cast before the opening at the Old Globe, and will be in San Francisco for a few days to get the production through tech and first previews. Then it’s back to New York, where she is at work on four productions: a musical adaptation of the movie Big Fish, a retrospective of Hal Prince’s career titled Prince of Broadway, a collaboration with Woody Allen to turn his movie Bullets over Broadway into a musical, and a musical inspired by the Degas sculpture Little Dancer of Fourteen Years .
"Living the freelance life is a little tricky, so you keep working on multiple projects hoping someone will take your work and share it," she said. And her busyness is also an antidote to any encroaching sadness. "I feel like I’ve lost lots of people, and the theater keeps me going," Stroman said. "You want to think that if you’re forced to get on that giant rollercoaster, there must be a reason someone put you on it. There has to be some payoff, and hopefully it’s in your art."
The Scottsboro Boys will run June 21-July 15 at ACT. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 729-2228 or go to www.act-sf.org.