‘The Scottsboro Boys’ musical: historical fraud, or artistic license?



A scene from Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys.”

While everyone’s talking about the latest injury at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (someone, please shut this production down — this is getting ridiculous), I have another theatrical shitstorm to discuss.

The beginning of 2010 saw the emergence of a new musical that made several top ten lists for the year: The Scottsboro Boys. Based on the Scottsboro Boys trial, this Kander and Ebb musical moved from off-Broadway to Minneapolis to Broadway, where it became a critical success but a financial failure, closing on Dec. 12 after 29 previews and 49 regular performances. And now, there are rumors producers want to bring this production to Chicago — perhaps the Goodman?

At any rate, I’ve not seen any incarnation of this show, nor have I heard the recently-released cast album (but I hope to soon: I understand the score is Kander and Ebb’s best work since Cabaret). What inspires this blog post was a recent discussion started on a little theatre forum I participate in by a poster named “Vic.” In the thread, entitled “‘The Scottsboro Boys’ Good riddance,” Vic reveals why this musical offended him, citing that the creators tinkered with basic historical elements to such a degree, what we’re presented with is a “fraud.”

I don’t claim to be an expert on this slice of history, but if what Vic says is true, and he stands by his word, I can’t help but be offended, too. His slightly edited post below (which he’s given me permission to reproduce here):

Now that it’s gone, I don’t mind publishing that I vehemently resented that little musical. The performers were all sensational and I was sad to see them working so hard in the service of something so inherently and despicably dishonest.

The message of the musical was worthy, the subject matter important, and the central story the writers eked out of that complex set of facts evolved during the course of the play into an offensive fraud. The writers did a huge injustice to everyone involved, from the actors to the audience to the actual ‘Scottsboro Boys’ themselves. Incredibly, they even managed to be unfair to the villains in the story who really on their own merits were villains.

Haywood Patterson emerges as the heroic character of the musical, dying in prison rather than telling a lie that would gain him his freedom. The musical hangs on that story line. But that pivotal plot point is entirely fabricated by the authors. It didn’t happen.

Patterson escaped from prison in Alabama and made his way to Michigan. The governor of Michigan refused to extradite him to Alabama, essentially making him a free man. A few years later, Patterson got in a bar fight and his opponent in the fight was killed. Patterson was tried and convicted. He eventually died in prison. In Michigan, not Alabama. For a murder he did commit, not a rape which he did not commit.

A thousand powerful points could have been dramatized from the actual facts. The conclusions drawn by the musical purport to be damning, which is as it should be. But when they push the actual facts aside and start making up shit, it makes one wonder what else that was presented was a lie. And the stories of those young men should never be called into doubt. What happened to them was an outrage, a terrible moment in our history. No bigot should be handed such an opportunity to explain it all away. “Well, you see, it didn’t really happen that way at all….”

The liberties taken by the authors of “Scottsboro Boys” are an outrage. It was a stupid thing to do. It is as if William Goldman put Helen Keller in a wheel chair to punch up the story a bit. Put her in a wheel chair because… because she’s a double amputee. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

What do you think? Is it ethical for creators of a musical based on such a sensitive part of our nation’s history to twist the facts so much?

8 thoughts on “‘The Scottsboro Boys’ musical: historical fraud, or artistic license?

  1. Bob, I TOTALLY agree with you on the Spiderman debacle!!! I have lost so much respect for Julie Taymor … I mean, she caused physical injury to actors with her costume design for Lion King, but this shit in Spiderman is seriously dangerous!!!

    On Scottsboro Boys, I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know the story at all. But there is a lot of theatre that dramatizes actual events without sticking to the facts. Are they billing it as a true story? If so, then I think you’re right in being offended…

    1. Isn’t it ridiculous? And, it seems the actor who fell last night was the main aerialist for the show, which means another, less-skilled person will be tasked to do the main stunts. A dangerous disaster. Not to mention a cable whipped out into the audience when the guy fell. Lawsuits!

      As for SB and whether it’s billed as a true story, the show’s website says: “…explores a fascinating chapter in American history with arresting originality.” Pretty vague.

  2. I was appalled when I read Vic’s argument as I really enjoyed the show and did know some background on the trial going in (thanks to a History Detective episode last year that focused on a scrapbook full of stuff including stamps that were used to raise money for their legal aid). It’s a horrifying chapter in our history and one that has basically been swept under the rug (big surprise).

    It’s not so much that liberties were taken — that is to be expected in any depiction of a historical event that isn’t a documentary. The problem is that the show is presented as being a historical truth in the Playbill, which devoted four pages detailing the show’s history — one on the history of the Minstrel Tradition, one titled “The Scottsboro Boys: An American Legacy,” one talking about each of the boys (complete with a photo of each) and one devoted to a timeline, which states “1952 – Haywood Patterson dies of cancer” and says nothing about him ever being released (unlike the rest of the boys…thus implying that he died in prison before George Wallace declared the last of the boys, Clarence Norris, “not guilty,” and released him).

    If they had stuck with the show, liberties taken would have been expected, especially since the show is being presented in a heightened non-realistic format. It’s more akin to watching a fever dream one has after a night spent watching the History Channel and eating Peppermint Bark ice cream. Instead, by being presented with so much detailed “factual” evidence to read and absorb before the show, we are conned into thinking that what we are reading (and then seeing) is an accurate and factual portrayal. By taking liberties in the materials presented to prep us, they are invalidating everything we see and experience, as it has been filtered like a Tea Party press release. And as a result, what we see is less like “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” — which plays its inaccuracies and liberties in its skin tight jeans for the world to see — and more akin to having Anne Frank gunned down in the attic while shouting “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart!” because it makes for a better visual and gives the show a killer ending.

  3. I think audience need to be prepared for artistic license that creators take when producing anything from a movie to a play that is based on people or events. To assume that these works are not a bastardized version of history is pretty naive.

  4. Bob, I TOTALLY agree with you on the Spiderman debacle!!! I have lost so much respect for Julie Taymor … I mean, she caused physical injury to actors with her costume design for Lion King, but this shit in Spiderman is seriously dangerous!!! On Scottsboro Boys, I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know the story at all. But there is a lot of theatre that dramatizes actual events without sticking to the facts. Are they billing it as a true story? If so, then I think you’re right in being offended…

  5. I wasn’t that aware of the full Scottsboro history until after I had seen the show. Unlike that individual, I was not offended in the least by what was not depicted onstage. Anything based in history will have its inaccuracies and freedoms will be taken. Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards took certain liberties with history for “1776”. For me and me alone, the craftsmanship, the theatrical magic and the utter heart with which the story was told superceded dramatic license. It remains the best new musical I’ve seen since ‘Grey Gardens’ (incidentally another musical that took dramatic license with facts, esp. the first act).

    I also defer to the show’s official website which offered the most comprehensive online study guides for any show I’ve ever seen: http://scottsboromusical.com/history.html

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