Kander & Ebb’s Final Masterpiece
By most standards, Broadway is enjoying a banner year. Last year’s huge musical hits – Next to Normal, Memphis, Promises, Promises, Rock of Ages and Green Day’s American Idiot are still running to great houses. Many of these shows are heading out on the road if not already. Current news in New York has the $65 Million gamble – Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (directed by Julie “Lion King” Taymor with music by U2’s Bone and The Edge) generating huge buzz and new film-turned-musicals Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act, and Leap Of Faith all announcing spring openings. Even in the world of non-musical fare, the hits keep on coming – Free Man Of Color, Driving Miss Daisy, War Horse, Time Stands Still, Lombardi, and a star-studded The Merchant of Venice.
“Slowly but surely, Dayton seems ready to embrace NEW ORIGINAL work, but is it enough?”
Here in Dayton this season, we’ll see the arrival of Avenue Q (after a much lauded tour of Spring Awakening just passed through) as well as NEW emerging musicals and plays in development from Dayton Playhouse, The Human Race Theatre Company, Encore Theater Company and others. Slowly but surely, Dayton seems ready to embrace NEW ORIGINAL work, but is it enough?
Amid all of New York openings is a terrifying reality as well. Two of the most critically acclaimed and game-changing ORIGINAL musicals have opened and posted closing notices despite being considered by many as changing the course of American Theatre. The emo-punk musical history lesson – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys – the final work from the legendary creative team of John Kander & Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, etc.)
Directed by 5-time Tony® Award winner Susan Stroman (The Producers), this daring and wildly entertaining musical explores a fascinating chapter in American history with arresting originality. The show is based on the notorious “Scottsboro” case in the 1930s, in which 9 African-American men were unjustly accused of a terrible crime. Their shocking and inspiring story – told though a mix of innovative staging and piercing new songs – demands to be shared. And yet, after December 12 – it will be gone.
Christopher Dimond – a New York-based musical theatre composer and good friend of Encore Theater Company – recently discussed his sadness – not only about the closing of this definitive show – but what it says about audiences willing to take risks on something ‘new’ instead of always falling back on the tried and true. We here at onStageDayton felt it was well worth re-printing here.
How I Failed the Scottsboro Boys
It’s easy to gripe about the state of Broadway these days. Trust me, I do it a lot. Original musicals are a rarity. Juke Box shows and movie adaptations dominate the Great White Way, cotton candy and bubble gum pop for the tourist crowd. Fluff trumps substance.
Who’s to blame for this? My personal favorite scapegoats are producers. “If only producers had some balls,” I whine after watching an MTV telecast of a musical about a girl who goes to law school to impress her boyfriend, “Then we’d actually see the high-quality, in-your-face, change-your-life kind of musicals that we should be seeing.”
“It’s an absolute crime, a soul-crushing travesty, that this show is closing, while elsewhere lighthearted Abba tunes will be sung in seeming perpetuity.”
So, who’s to blame when producers with balls take a risk on something daring, audacious, and effing beautiful and it still “fails” on Broadway?
The short answer: me.
The Scottsboro Boys is a triumph of modern musical theater. It’s brilliant, it’s bold, it’s provocative, it’s moving, it’s surprising, it’s a whole bunch of adjectives that collectively still do not do it justice. And most of all, it’s a story that needs to be told, told in an incredibly powerful manner. It’s the best musical I’ve seen in years. In no way, NO WAY, can this show be described as a failure.
The cast, Kander and Ebb’s score, David Thompson’s book, Susan Stroman’s direction/choreography, the design… it’s not perfect, but it’s about as close to perfect a production as you’ll find on Broadway today.
And yet, producers announced this week that the show will close December 12th, after 49 performances and 29 previews.
Does that make the production a “failure”? Does it mean that we need some alternate model for producing smaller, edgier musicals than the Broadway one? Those are conversations I’ll save for another time.
The simple fact of the matter is this: People are going to lose money producing a brilliant piece of theater. And, more devastatingly, A LOT of people are going to miss out on the chance to see The Scottsboro Boys. It’s an absolute crime, a soul-crushing travesty, that this show is closing, while elsewhere lighthearted Abba tunes will be sung in seeming perpetuity.
Yes, the show had a healthy run at the Vineyard, and no, the point of creating art should not be to turn a profit. You can even make the argument that it was a mistake to try to transfer such a risky show. But I’m not buying it. This show deserves to be seen, and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. Broadway gives it the best chance to do that.
I refuse to believe, POSITIVELY WILL NOT ACCEPT the idea that there are not enough people out there who want to be moved, to be challenged, to be changed by a musical in order to keep this show running.
It’s going to be easy to blame the marketing of the show, or the subject matter, claiming that it’s just too tough of a sell for Broadway. Bullshit. Here’s all the marketing a show like this should need: “It’s fucking amazing. Go see it. Now.”
Years down the road, pundits will shake their heads and say, “The show simply didn’t find its audience.” I’ll argue differently. The audience simply didn’t find its show.
If we are going to complain about the state of Broadway, then we, as an audience, AS A THEATER COMMUNITY, have a responsibility to actively seek out productions that are extraordinary, to support them by paying for tickets, and to promote the hell out of them through word of mouth, social media, blackmail, whatever’s necessary to advance the cause of innovative, exceptional theater.
I didn’t do that with The Scottsboro Boys. I waited until the closing notice had been posted to buy my ticket. I should have rushed out immediately. I should have been the first in line. I should have shouted from the rooftops.
I didn’t do that.
And, apparently, I wasn’t the only one.