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The Scottsboro Boys

Let's give a listen to the London production of Kander & Ebb's look at the case of The Scottsboro Boys which has resulted in the second cast album of this score. It remains a powerful and compelling one.


JAY Records

I'm glad to have another version of the fine score of The Scottsboro Boys, a musical that dares to make you cry while tapping your feet. It makes a brave choice that works: using the form of a peppy minstrel show, with its trademark elements, to tell the horrifying true story from the 1930s of African-American teens in Alabama falsely accused of rape by two white women. Hearing it again cuts even deeper with the recent rash of racially charged violence in America. And for the sense of history and dramatic timing, it's well worth noting that Alabama finally pardoned the last few of the Scottsboro boys while the production was running last year.

John Kander and Fred Ebb's excellent work joins The Visit and Curtains as the trio of the late lyricist Ebb's last teamings with his longtime collaborator. While having a second cast album of a score when a production is mounted elsewhere is hardly unusual, it is more surprising in this case because it's just been a couple of years between albums and three of the main actors return to their roles. Also retained are the director/choreographer (Susan Stroman) and the talented gentlemen who dressed the songs so irresistibly: orchestrator Larry Hochman, arranger Glen Kelly, David Loud with the vocal arrangements. Phil Cornwell conducted in England. While a business motivation could be different record companies for sales of competing versions, in this case both CDs are put out by the same company, veteran producer John Yap's JAY Records. Given the disappointingly short Broadway run (after a birth at The Vineyard Off-Broadway), had Fred Ebb lived, it's conceivable that the writers might have added a few new songs or tweaked others for the London airing. Overall, they aren't clones, but fraternal twins with some clear differences. I listened to both this new album and the cast recording of the New York City production again this week. Either is highly recommended, though I don't think the differences justify highly recommending purchasing both for a casual theatre fan. The words "casual theatre fan" are oxymoronic to those of us who are avid collectors and who relish Kander & Ebb and especially this show. Those folks deciding between the two will want to compare and contrast.

The new CD has the instrumental Exit Music, quite brief (listed as a minute and 24 seconds), but terrific. Unlike the New York album, representing the Vineyard production, there's no reprise of "Commencing in Chattanooga" (itself a similarly short track) and "It's Gonna Take Time," the Interlocutor's solo, a plea for patience, is absent altogether. And while both discs end with a bonus track of the score's gem, the touching "Go Back Home," the London album presents the actor who sings most of it in the show with an alternate version, while the New York album instead has composer Kander presenting it. Lines from David Thompson's book, spoken between sections of songs, are included a bit more frequently on the London album, though there are occasions where something's a bit longer or shorter, missing, or added on one CD or the other. Some have more impact than others, such as the new album including the Interlocutor commanding the Boys to smile and shake those tambourines during a minstrel number, lest we forget the irony and ugly realities. As in songs, some of the line readings in these spoken bits are shaded differently, and a few have very slight variations or trims if you compare word by word with a fine tooth comb. There's a more significant lyric change in "Make Friends with the Truth" where the earlier version, about a little boy's lies, had him kill his teacher with a gun; in the later saga, he kills a kitten instead. In the denouement, it's especially impactful in this new recording that we get to hear the eventual fates of more of the Scottsboro Boys, well worth the extra time, even if some key details are omitted. Doing the math—that is, comparing the timings of the tracks—most are pretty close (some within a couple of seconds or several more). While both booklets offer some color photos of the production, (similar) comments by Kander, and a plot synopsis by Thompson, only the Vineyard album includes the lyrics (along with the spoken lines heard).

Let me point out what I hear as the most striking differences. When the London Boys sing as a group, the sound of the blend is very sweet and more homogenized in attractive purity. This makes a significant difference, whether one appreciates the prettier blends for their own appeal or for the extra layer of dramatic irony in such beauty's contrast with the horrors of impending doom it can't hide. While Haywood, the most prominently featured in songs and story among the Boys, is again played by the formidable Brandon Victor Dixon, he's even more nuanced, heartbreaking, and fierce here. Having lived in the role, there are more shadings. He takes more time with his final "You Can't Do Me," refusing to plead guilty to shave years off his sentence. In addition to the previously heard prominent defiance, there are more colors of hurt, pride, and clung-to dignity. Repeating the roles as the trademark minstrel characters of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon again shine with energy and panache, taking on various roles in the story and commentary. But they find moments to underline and stretch out a bit for spiffy comical impact. In the white man role of the Interlocutor who also takes on the personas of the judge, governor, and bus driver, the London cast features Julian Glover. More threatening and nefarious than the folksier, subtler John Cullum in the American cast, Glover is almost relentlessly imposing and, frankly, scary.

Those new to the company all deliver the goods quite effectively. The cast is very strong and songs and moments land with aplomb and power. The sound quality is superb. It's worth repeating that this unusual score on its surface has many dazzling, "cheery" set pieces that can't deny their infectious fun. At the same time, we know we are witnessing a nightmare that was all too real. So well performed it all is—in this sorrowful, enraging story told with seeming irreverence (the gallows humor of a number about the electric chair presented as a dance; the clownish drag depictions of the women accusers who in fact are the villains inflicting the original pain with horrific aftereffects). And also worth repeating is the preservation of this important musical that makes us want to wiggle our jazz hands when we're not using them to hold a handkerchief to wipe away tears or stifle a scream of horror.

- Rob Lester

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