The legendary songwriting team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb always relished pushing the envelope with mordant musicals of social comment wrapped in flashy packages. The sardonic “Chicago” is vaudeville-style parable lampooning the media’s penchant for turning crime into entertainment. With “Cabaret,” they satirized the decadence and degradation of Weimar-era Germany and how it obscured the country’s growing anti-Semitism. In “The Visit,” the duo skewered the corrupting influence of money in an allegory about an impoverished town that strikes a Faustian bargain with a wealthy billionaire.
But their 2010 show “The Scottsboro Boys” might be their most daring and risky gambit ever. The musical, which SpeakEasy Stage Company is mounting at Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, uses the stereotypes of the minstrel show to explore the true story of nine African-American men and boys, ranging in age from 12 to 19, who were falsely accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train in 1931.
The case led to a series of trials that dragged on for years in which several of the men were wrongly convicted, even after one of the accusers recanted her entire account. The case became a galvanizing cause for a then-nascent civil rights movement and led to two landmark Supreme Court rulings.
To tell their tale, the show’s creators, including its composers, book writer David Thompson, and original director and choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), framed the story as a minstrel show, employing the racist caricatures, derogatory comedic tropes, and grotesque blackface of that disgraced tradition, which was once the most popular form of live entertainment in America.
The idea behind the framing device is to connect the dots between the degrading stereotypes of the minstrel tradition and the rampant racial prejudice within the Southern judicial system and among its accomplices in the media.
“You begin the show as a real upbeat entertainment and it’s about seducing the audience. Then little by little, the audience finds itself starting to get comfortable with what’s happening on stage,” says Kander, in a phone conversation from his “little shack in the middle of the woods” in upstate New York. “It’s a funny technique to balance — to be uncomfortable and then back to suddenly doing something where the audience is going, ‘Oh, well, that’s entertaining’ or ‘That’s funny.’ None of it’s funny when you really think of it. But you can delude yourself into believing that.”
Kander compares the way the comic exaggerations and hoary gags in “Scottsboro Boys” sour in your throat to the effect of the song “If You Could See Her” from “Cabaret,” when the Emcee dances with an ape inside the Kit Kat Club.
“You have the audience just having the best time while he is dancing with this gorilla. Then at the very end of it when he says, ‘If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all,’ the audience is shocked to realize that they’ve been watching a very anti-Semitic carnival act and they’ve been complicit in it.”
With “Scottsboro Boys,” book writer Thompson says, “There’s a wonderful tension in the theater because audiences are not really sure how they’re supposed to react to the numbers. It becomes very provocative without a lot of finger pointing.”
Audiences and critics have had diverse responses to the minstrel framing device. After premiering at the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway in spring 2010, the show opened on Broadway that fall to mixed reviews, ran for only 68 performances (including previews), and even spurred some protests in front of the theater. It pocketed 12 Tony Award nominations, including one for Kander and Ebb’s score, but was swept by the “Book of Mormon.” A tour of several US regional theaters and a London production in 2013-14 prompted its reconsideration.
At first, Thompson says, it was a hard story to crack open. It wasn’t until the creators stumbled upon an account in a Northern newspaper that a light bulb went off.
“The reporter said the boys were forced to perform as if they were in a minstrel show, and he described the whole circus surrounding the trial as being like a minstrel show,” Thompson says. “So we thought, wow, what if we used this very racially charged art form to tell a story that’s about a very racially charged subject? That could be a really interesting way to tell the story.”
The Scottsboro Boys case may seem like faraway history, but Kander, who’s 89, recalls reading newspaper accounts of the case and trials when he was a kid. He also grew up at a time when the minstrel show was still prevalent, if considered old-fashioned. “I knew all of those songs. I’d heard them since childhood,” he says.
He had even conducted a minstrel show at his summer camp when he was 13. So when it came time to write the score, which blends gospel, jazz, ragtime, and vaudeville sounds, Kander says it was more a process of “recalling than investigating” the music of that era.
‘None of it’s funny when you really think of it. But you can delude yourself into believing that.’
“Sometimes you can take very familiar material and just by turning the knob a little bit to the left,” he says, “it will seem familiar and yet you’re making it do something else it was not intended to do.”
The creators insist that the show doesn’t celebrate the minstrel tradition. Instead, it deconstructs and delegitimizes its tropes — the high-stepping cakewalk, the tap dancing and tambourine playing — while the characters ultimately revolt against it.
Pushing theatrical boundaries, Thompson says, is the Kander and Ebb hallmark. “John and Fred would always take you to very dangerous places, but while you’re going there, you’re enjoying every minute of it. ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago’ are perfect examples of that — where you all of a sudden find yourself some place you never thought you would go in a musical.”
Still, Kander says, the formal constructs must always serve the story, “We weren’t all consciously thinking: ‘Boy, how could we shake the audience up, or how could we teach a lesson?’ We’re not sociologists. We’re making theater.”
When Ebb died in 2004, about three-quarters of the show had been written, and after his passing, Kander picked up his lyric writing duties.
Despite Ebb’s death, Kander has been plugging away as hard as ever. He and his new writing partner, Greg Pierce, have several musicals in the works, including, “Kid Victory,” which makes its New York debut this coming winter at the Vineyard Theatre.
“He lives to get into a rehearsal room and just create,” says Thompson. “His energy never flags.”
Indeed, Kander says, there’s no time to waste. “I think when you’re 89 years old, maybe you better not put things off.”
The Scottsboro Boys
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, through Nov. 20. At the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets: From $25, 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.