Civil rights history takes stage at Guthrie

Scottsboro Boys
The cast of Kander and Ebb's "The Scottsboro Boys."
Image courtesy Guthrie Theater, photo Paul Kolnik

John Kander, half of the Kander and Ebb team which wrote the musicals "Cabaret," and "Chicago," is in Minnesota working on a new show. He says it's possibly his most important theatrical piece.

"The Scottsboro Boys," which opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, tells the story of a pivotal civil rights case.

Kander was born in 1928, three years before the Scottsboro incident. He remembers reading about it as a boy.

"There would be a Scottsboro story in the paper at least once a week," he says.

In March 1931, police took nine African Americans off a freight train in Scottsboro, Ala. after a fight with a group of white youths. The officers were surprised to find two women, in the same car.

The women, both white, accused the Scottsboro boys of rape.

Word spread quickly and a lynch mob of thousands assembled. The authorities stopped the mob by promising a speedy trial, conviction and execution for the defendants. Twelve days later, the Scottsboro boys trials began. All but one, who was a minor, were convicted and sentenced to death.

John Kander
Veteran Broadway composer John Kander is completing the final show he was writing with his long-time creative partner Fred Ebb when Ebb died in 2004. Kander says "The Scottsboro Boys" is a story which he and Ebb just couldn't set aside, even as for many years most other people seemed to have forgotten about it.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The trials were deeply flawed, with tainted witnesses, all-white juries, and an unprepared defense. A new lawyer launched a series of appeals, and in the years following the cases went repeatedly to the U.S. Supreme court. Eventually the courts vindicated and released all of the Scottsboro Boys. It was an early victory for what was to become the civil rights movement.

Then, Kander, says something else happened.

"I'm old enough to remember when this story was forgotten," he says wryly.

But for composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb the story wouldn't go away. Kander talks about his horror at how society had tried to erase nine people. He's fuzzy on the details and can't remember who suggested it, but around 2002 he and Ebb began working on a show.

"It's one of those stories that you lock into when you can't get it out of your head, but we had no idea how to do it," he says.

The intricate story -- spread over so many years -- just didn't lend itself to a Broadway musical treatment. Then someone suggested a minstrel show, the once widely accepted vaudeville standard where a benevolent white interlocutor would lead a semi-circle of performers, all in black-face.

"Sometimes they'd tell stories, sometimes they'd sing songs," he says. "It allowed us to be as flexible as possible."

"The Scottsboro Boys" tells a long and complicated tale spread over several years. John Kander says he and Fred Ebb couldn't work out how to encapsulate it it for a while, until someone suggested using an old-fashioned minstrel show as the form for the musical.
Image courtesy Guthrie Theater. Photo:Paul Kolnik

There was one important difference though. In Kander and Ebb's vision, there are no white people in blackface. All the performers, except for one, are black.

"I don't want to give anything away," he says. "But we do deal with that fact."

With the form decided, the show began to write itself.

"We had a version, almost a version, and about two-thirds of a score," Kander says. "And then Fred died."

Fred Ebb died of a heart attack in 2004. He and Kander had worked together for 40 years. Kander decided he owed it to Ebb to finish the four pieces they had underway.

"The Scottsboro Boys" is the last.

It had an off-Broadway run in February. The Guthrie run is preparation for a Broadway opening in the fall. Kander says they are tweaking the show. He does that by listening, but not just to what's on stage.

"You sit in the audience, sense what's going on, and you try to find moments that need clarification," he says. "When you hear a lot of coughing going on you sort of pay attention to it, or things that aren't clear."

Kander says "The Scottsboro Boys" is the biggest thing he has ever done in theater, quite a claim given the raft of Tonys and Emmys he has gathered in his career. But he says the Scottsboro Boys story is important -- especially today.

"This is all related in its own way to the way we are living right now," he says. "I have never in my long life seen the country this divided. And it's scary."

John Kander says he believes the combination of music and theater can have a huge impact, and he's ever hopeful for the Scottsboro Boys.