It’s a racially charged story explored in a racially charged art form. Welcome to the latest daring “concept musical” from John Kander and Fred Ebb, the legendary duo behind Cabaret and Chicago.
Dedicated to writing for the underdog, Kander and Ebb have dealt with the rise of Nazism (Cabaret), and the corrupt criminal justice system of 1920s (Chicago). Now they are deploying the controversial device of a deconstructed Black and White Minstrel Show to expose the ugly truths of racial prejudice.
The Scottsboro Boys, which premieres in London later this month, tells the story of nine black teenagers, aged between 12 and 19, wrongly accused of raping two white girls in Alabama in 1931. Their trials made US history and are still very much in the news – an historic piece of legislation posthumously exonerating the convicted youths was passed earlier this year. They are cited as an influence on Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
The 2010 Broadway version was subject to protests by members of The Freedom Party, a black and Latino political group, who misconstrued it as racist. Despite rave reviews and 12 Tony Awards nominations, it closed after a couple of months. Now it is returning with many of its original production team, including Susan Stroman, the renowned director and choreographer, best known for the stage musical The Producers.
It’s an all-black cast, except for Julian Glover, former James Bond villain, Star Wars general and voice of Arapog the Spider in Harry Potter. At 78, he makes his musical debut as the interlocutor, or ringmaster, in the minstrel show. The hugely charismatic Colman Domingo, one of the original Broadway cast, plays several racist white characters. Be under no illusions: this is hard-hitting stuff, he warns, “probably not for the first-time theatre-goer”.
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