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?