Nine railroaded men (not boys) hit Broadway



John Kander on the making of ‘Scottsboro’

Pardon me, boy,

Is that the Chattanooga choo-choo?

Track twenty-nine.

Boy, you can gimme a shine.

— Mack Gordon & Harry Warren, for “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941)

On the afternoon of March 25, 1931 — with this country well into the death grip of the Great Depression — a little boy in Kansas City named John Harold Kander was just seven days past his fourth birthday when, far south in a town called Scottsboro, Alabama, nine young men ages 13 to 19 were thrown into jail for the purported rape of two young white women aboard a Chattanooga-to-Memphis Southern Railway flat car.

The Scottsboro Nine would spend the rest of their lives struggling for freedom through one court or another, right up to the United States Supreme Court — and became a worldwide cause célèbre, stoked by the Communist Party USA.

“Yes, sure, I remember the Depression. I’m a Depression baby. I remember it very well,” says John Kander dryly, as he and I sit in a coffee joint down the block from the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street, where “The Scottsboro Boys” — a razzle-dazzle that enthralled audiences down at the Vineyard Theater off (most appropriately) Union Square earlier this year — is now beckoning Broadway theatergoers.

And Kander also well remembers — from a little later than age 4 — hearing about, reading about, the Scottsboro case.

“When I was a kid,” he says, “it was in the newspapers everywhere, every day. Then for some years a little less so. Then, finally, not at all.  Nine people who just disappeared.”

The show — it’s not exactly right to call it a musical, though it is a musical…but, as so often with Kander & Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) so much more than that — is the product of a well knitted, long-standing team: David Thompson (book), John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics), Susan Stroman (director and choreographer).

“It’s sort of a little theatrical family,” says Kander.

Well, this country has just (one hopes) squirmed its way past another Great Depression, and the Favored Four — who had done shows like “Flora the Red Menace” and “Steel Pier” that were set in the Depression — wanted to go back to that era and climate. But where to begin?

“Musical theater works best if it’s just a little removed from reality. We sat around talking and thinking up subjects very randomly. All such sessions are always full of people saying, ‘What if…? What if…?’ It all goes back to what we learned from [producers-directors] George Abbott and Hal Prince, and it’s more fun than anything. I can’t tell you at what point or who said, ‘What about the Scottsboro Boys?’ — but somebody did, and then the huge problem arose, how, and in what form, to make a show out of it.

“It was such a long story,” continues Kander. “Not exactly Aristotelian drama. It would require a narrator — and how to solve that? Then, suddenly, someone got the idea of making it a minstrel show, and once we had that, it solved the problem of the narrator and everything else, so it could proceed in non-linear fashion. I had been in minstrel shows as a kid in camp in Wisconsin.”

The presentation at the Lyceum, as at the Vineyard last spring, does in fact take the form of a historic nineteenth-century cake-walking fancy-dancing (thank you, Susan Stroman) blackface American minstrel show, with, in Kander’s words, “a white master, or interlocutor, standing in the middle of a semi-circle of black men, two of whom, one on each end of the semi-circle, are Mr. Jones and Mr. Tambo, who tell jokes and start the songs. The white master was always a sort of benevolent figure, not a KKK person or a torturer but a Southern gentleman who took care of his ‘boys’ and was puzzled and upset when they wiped off their white makeup at the climax.”

When Ruby Bates, at 15 going on 16, and the harder, older Victoria Price make their entrance — poor white-trash girls who (to save their own skins) say they’d been raped by the nine black “boys” — they’re played by two of the taller black men (not boys) — a funhouse juggling of characters and characteristics reminiscent of the famed Gene Frankel 1950s production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.”

You know, says this non Tea Partying American citizen to John Kander, a longtime friend who was in my brother’s class at Oberlin — You know, John, I’ve always been bothered by the appellation “Scottsboro boy” from the start. In all those newspapers, under all those headlines, all that radio and TV blather — boys, boys, boys, boys. Not men.

“Yes,” says John Kander. “Me too. I’ve always been troubled by it, too. And all I knew before I went off from high school to prep school was that these men were in prison for doing some horrible crime. We talked about that [the “boys’” thing]. It’s just there in the subconscious of the audience until we have Samuel Leibowitz [famed super-successful defense lawyer, a brash New York Jew] walk in and say: ‘Hello, Scottsboro boys!’”

He also says, or sings:

“Back in Manhattan, ask anyone.

“There’s no bigger voice for equal rights than me.

“I fight for it!

“I live for it!

“Just ask my maid, Magnolia….

“Just ask my cook, Jemima….

“Just ask my chauffeur, Rufus.”

I think you were a little rough on Liebowitz, say I to John Kander.

“You should know the whole story. We’ve softened it,” says Kander. “And part of the story behind the scenes was the use the Communist Party was making of this case. The Communists wanted it to look like they were the saviors of these nine men, when actually the party wanted it to go on and on for the propaganda value around the world.”

Just then a man drinking his own coffee — or, more likely, tea — at the next table speaks up.

“Mr. Kander,” he says, “my name is Jody Hall, and I’m from Britain, an actor who has actually been in a couple of your things over there, and I just wanted you to know that I really loved your ‘Scottsboro Boys.’  I’m just wondering how you can sell the show.”

“Thank you,” the composer replies. And then, as dryly as before: “I think there is much to wonder about.”

Once they knew where they were headed, David Thompson, who was to write the book of the show, dug in for extensive research. The most outspoken and angry of the Scottsboro men, Heywood Patterson (actor Joshua Henry), age 18 at the time of arrest, is shown as escaping from prison and fleeing north to Detroit. Actually, says Kander, he escaped three times.

“It’s all an unbelievable story when you think about it,” says Kander. Indeed, one that could make the stuff of some novel by a William Faulkner, an Erskine Caldwell, or, later, a James Baldwin. “Sad to say, just about everything in the show is true. John Cullum, who plays our interlocutor, grew up in that world, in Tennessee, and brings real authenticity to his performance.” 

The drama tightens, of course, when Liebowitz (Forrest McLendon) brings Ruby Bates to the stand and has her recant her accusations of rape.

VICTORIA PRICE (Christian Dana White): I have nothing more to say other than that I am smart enough to know there’s no reason to stand around where I am not wanted and be insulted by a Yankee coot. Come on, Ruby. For Chris’ sake, I said are you coming or not?

RUBY BATES (James T. Lane): No, I am not. I have a statement to read.

VICTORIA PRICE: Read? She can’t read. Well, when you finish embarrassing  yourself, you can meet me at the town pump.

RUBY BATES:  Victoria, you are the town pump….I want to make a statement about those Negroes jazzing me. It is not true. It is the opposite of true. It is a lie!….

SAMUEL LIEBOWITZ (to Ruby Bates): Were you a good girl before you met [Victoria Price]?

RUBY BATES:  Well, yes.

In the coffee joint on 45th Street, I now say to John Kander: This may surprise you, but that very Ruby Bates was once a house guest for a few days in the apartment where I lived for some years as a boy.

Kander jerks upright in his chair. “What!!??” he all but shouts. “Oh my God!”

Yes, it was an apartment on Park Avenue, 955 Park Avenue, top floor, in the middle of the Depression. The building was owned at the time by my grandfather — my mother’s father. In those days — this must have been 1933 or 1934 — my mother, Ilona Marion Lowenthal Tallmer — later Ilona Muller Munk — was going through her radical period, as a courier for left-wing union boss Harry Bridges and all that.

So there she was, Ruby Bates, heroine of the left. And one of those five or six days, Ruby Bates and I came face to face in a corridor of that apartment.

“What was she like?” cool, calm, and collected John Kander again almost shouts.

Well, she was the first painted lady I’d ever seen in my life. My mother certainly didn’t use makeup that way. All red and pink, with bright red lipsticked lips and pink cheeks. A good-sized young woman….

“Then what happened?” Kander asked.

Ruby Bates looked me up and down and crosswise, and then straight into the eyes. It was one of those cool candid appraisals out of a John O’Hara short story. “Do you like what you’re seeing, sonny? I’ll bet you do.” Unspoken, but oh so palpable. This to a scared, skinny uptight kid of 13 or 14 years, at most. Okay, one of the Scottsboro fellows imprisoned for rape was all of 13 years old.

John Kander gives me a look of his own. “Before she died,” he says, “Ruby Bates recanted her recantation.”

I could have shouted myself. I didn’t know that, I never knew that. And only now, three and a half decades after her death in 1976, the Bible of us all, a.k.a Google, informs me that Ruby Bates’ mother was a prostitute — and her father, an abusive alcoholic. Erskine Caldwell isn’t in it, as my own mother (see above) would have said.

I don’t know whether the Ruby Bates of that face-to-face Park Avenue

confrontation would feel much solaced by Fred Ebb’s blunt couplet:

“A girl who finds she’s not a looker

Might well decide to be a hooker.”

John Kander and Fred Ebb were brought together as a songwriting team in 1962 by music publisher Tommy Valando. The team of Kander & Ebb contributed to our world a portfolio of magnificence until Fred Ebb’s death in this, his native city and borough, on September 11, 2004. “The Scottsboro Boys” was then still a couple of years away from being ready for tryouts. I think that if Fred, who was born to terseness, had lived a little longer, he would have struggled to cut about 20 minutes out of the one-hour, 45-minute show. However….

Says John Kander, “At the time of Fred’s death there were four of our projects that were incomplete: ‘Curtains,’ two different adaptations of Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’  ‘The Visit’ and ‘Scottsboro.’ The score of ‘Scottsboro’ was about two-thirds finished. So I had to go down on my knees and ask Fred’s permission to finish his lyrics.”

Heywood Patterson (1913-1952), who, like Malcolm X, learned to read and write in prison — and in fact wrote his own autobiography — looked down over Ebb’s shoulder and said to John Kander, “It’s okay, man, go right ahead.”

Man to man, he said it.