John Kander Settles the Score on “The Scottsboro Boys”
By Isa Goldberg
“Tomorrow Belongs To Me” may not be a lyric you recognize, but the infectiously haunting tune is one you will. Remember the Nazi anthem in the musical “Cabaret”? “It’s absolutely angelic the first time you hear it,” the composer John Kander humbly, but wryly imparts. “And later when you hear the same song and you realize what it means, you suddenly feel betrayed, guilty, or ashamed to see yourself as one of those people.”
With his partner Fred Ebb, the duo created such popular musicals as “Chicago”, “Zorba”, and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to name but a few. Famous for creating Liza Minnelli’s repertoire, including her signature “Liza with a Z”, “Kandernebb” – as Kander now refers to them – are the longest lasting songwriting team in Broadway history. Their latest “The Scottsboro Boys”, was completed by Kander after Ebb passed away in 2004. Following a brief run Off Broadway last season, the show is now opening on Broadway.
Kander, a Jewish Midwesterner by birth, recalls reading about the trial of the nine black youths, the Scottsboro Boys who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. “When I was a kid” Kander recalls, “it was in the newspaper almost every day. And then some years went on and it was in the paper once in a while…and then it wasn’t in the paper at all. They disappeared as if they had never existed.”
As the musical depicts, the nine youths – ages thirteen to twenty one – were denied the right to legal defense, hastily convicted, and all but one sentenced to death. With more mistrials and appeals, the case spanned two decades, becoming one of the most corrupt and protracted in American history. Fact is: lives were destroyed for a crime that never occurred. “One of the reasons that we chose their story”, Kander says emphatically, “is because it matters to us. It’s an attempt – maybe one you can only achieve in the theater – to bring them back to life.”
When I ask John Kander about the parallels between “The Scottsboro Boys” and what’s happening in America today, he volunteers, “This the most divided time I’ve seen in my life. The revival of racism and hatreds is blatant…Contrary to what a lot of people are saying – ‘isn’t it wonderful that we have a black president’ – it’s like a Pandora’s box. People are doing things openly now that were not allowed when Fred and I started writing this. It’s terrifying.”
That all but one of the Scottsboro Boys were eventually freed is due in some part to the work of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party, which enlisted the foremost criminal lawyer of the day, New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz. In the play, that character is depicted as snide and exploitative of the black youths. Kander explains: “We didn’t want to present a man who’s just angelic and nonexistent. He was a very, very successful lawyer and when he came down to Alabama he really thought, ‘well I have this track record and I’m not going to lose this either’. But to his credit he never gave up on them.”
Kander continues, “Not only were the defendants black, but they were being defended by a Jewish lawyer. It was a double whammy.” The anti-Semitism is depicted in the song, “Financial Advice” with its references to “Jew Money”. That Kander’s music is so ebullient is a direct contrast to the lyrics.
Similarly, the song “Electric Chair” is performed as a big tap dancing show biz number. Grinning slyly, and somewhat childlike, Kander comments, “That is really fun. I admit to it. Fred and I did a lot in our writing to say something horrible and to set it in the most lighthearted or lyrical way. The song called “Class” in “Chicago” is really disgusting. But if you sing those words to a kind of sweet Schubert like piece of music suddenly it takes on an irony that is both amusing and confusing.”
Just like “Cabaret” is staged in a 1930’s German music hall, and Chicago is set to the vaudeville style of its era, “The Scottsboro Boys” is staged as a minstrel show with the main characters appearing in blackface at the end. “Looking back at it now” Kander remarks, “we realize it was something unbelievably racist and demeaning to black people. But it was the most popular form of entertainment in this country for many years and people didn’t think anything about it. Just as the Jewish comedians who were so popular up until recently were funny, really funny. Of course, underneath it there is also something demeaning.”
Clearly, “The Scottosboro Boys” bares the “Kandernebb” signature: incredibly upbeat songs that reflect an unbeatably optimistic view of life. While underlying it all, innocent young men are caught up in historical events far beyond their control.