I’ve long been fascinated by the audience reaction to the premiere of the play, The Diary of Anne Frank in Holland.
The curtain came down and the audience didn’t applaud. They were too moved, too involved in the story; clapping seemed a totally inappropriate reaction.
Last night at the end of The Scottsboro Boys I found myself unable to show my appreciation. It was as if I’d been punched in the gut, causing me to burst out into tears. It took time for me to compose myself, to get to the lobby where I greeted old friend Christian White, who’d done a fantastic job portraying one of the most evil women in American history.
Yes, Christian’s a man. So now you know the musical includes drag. It also includes racial caricature, tap-dancing, corny jokes, black men dressed in white beating tambourines – the meat and potatoes of the deservedly forgotten tradition of the minstrel show.
It’s an unusual mix: utilizing the entertaining elements of a style of theatre that embarrasses us to tell a very dramatic and tragic story out of history. Quite often, the super-happy and the unbearably sad are played in juxtaposition. At times, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. In some of the show’s weaker moments, you know you’re supposed to cry, but don’t, because your sensitivity meter has been played with. Some things seem unreal; other things seem too real.
One scene involves a pile of dirt. The moment it was spread, I naturally assumed someone would dance a soft shoe through the dirt. It’s that kind of show, after all. But I was wrong, and the emotions of the dialogue that followed caught me by surprise. Many of the songs are excellent, truly lovable on first hearing – a rather rare quality.
The lyricist, Fred Ebb, died several years ago. Composer John Kander is in his eighties. Has there ever been a good Broadway score by an octogenarian? This may be the first.
When I think about the creators’ goals here, I feel a kinship. To take a sad episode of true American history and present it in the most entertaining way possible – that’s what I tried to do in Such Good Friends. The Scottsboro Boys, to me, is a particularly valuable example of what top-level, experienced professionals can do.
It closes December 12. I’ll write about its difficulties filling a Broadway theatre soon.