How I Failed The Scottsboro Boys

It’s easy to gripe about the state of Broadway these days.  Trust me, I do it a lot.  Original musicals are a rarity.  Juke Box shows and movie adaptations dominate the Great White Way, cotton candy and bubble gum pop for the tourist crowd.  Fluff trumps substance.

Who’s to blame for this?  My personal favorite scapegoats are producers.  “If only producers had some balls,” I whine after watching an MTV telecast of a musical about a girl who goes to law school to impress her boyfriend, “Then we’d actually see the high-quality, in-your-face, change-your-life kind of musicals that we should be seeing.”

So, who’s to blame when producers with balls take a risk on something daring, audacious, and effing beautiful and it still “fails” on Broadway?

The short answer: me.

The Scottsboro Boys is a triumph of modern musical theater.  It’s brilliant, it’s bold, it’s provocative, it’s moving, it’s surprising, it’s a whole bunch of adjectives that collectively still do not do it justice.  And most of all, it’s a story that needs to be told, told in an incredibly powerful manner.  It’s the best musical I’ve seen in years.  In no way, NO WAY, can this show be described as a failure.

The cast, Kander and Ebb’s score, David Thompson’s book, Susan Stroman’s direction/choreography, the design… it’s not perfect, but it’s about as close to perfect a production as you’ll find on Broadway today.

And yet, producers announced this week that the show will close December 12th, after 49 performances and 29 previews.

Does that make the production a “failure”?  Does it mean that we need some alternate model for producing smaller, edgier musicals than the Broadway one?  Those are conversations I’ll save for another time.

The simple fact of the matter is this:  People are going to lose money producing a brilliant piece of theater.  And, more devastatingly, A LOT of people are going to miss out on the chance to see The Scottsboro Boys.

It’s an absolute crime, a soul-crushing travesty, that this show is closing, while elsewhere lighthearted Abba tunes will be sung in seeming perpetuity.

Yes, the show had a healthy run at the Vineyard, and no, the point of creating art should not be to turn a profit.  You can even make the argument that it was a mistake to try to transfer such a risky show.  But I’m not buying it.  This show deserves to be seen, and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.  Broadway gives it the best chance to do that.

I refuse to believe, POSITIVELY WILL NOT ACCEPT the idea that there are not enough people out there who want to be moved, to be challenged, to be changed by a musical in order to keep this show running.

It’s going to be easy to blame the marketing of the show, or the subject matter, claiming that it’s just too tough of a sell for Broadway.  Bullshit.  Here’s all the marketing a show like this should need:  “It’s fucking amazing.  Go see it.  Now.”

Years down the road, pundits will shake their heads and say, “The show simply didn’t find its audience.”  I’ll argue differently.  The audience simply didn’t find its show.

If we are going to complain about the state of Broadway, then we, as an audience, AS A THEATER COMMUNITY, have a responsibility to actively seek out productions that are extraordinary, to support them by paying for tickets, and to promote the hell out of them through word of mouth, social media, blackmail, whatever’s necessary to advance the cause of innovative, exceptional theater.

I didn’t do that with The Scottsboro Boys.  I waited until the closing notice had been posted to buy my ticket.  I should have rushed out immediately.  I should have been the first in line.  I should have shouted from the rooftops.

I didn’t do that.

And, apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

-cd

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43 Responses to How I Failed The Scottsboro Boys

  1. Pingback: Empty Seats: Is the ORIGINAL American Musical In trouble?

  2. Taylor says:

    Kudos on the honesty. I’m rushing up there on Sunday, so clearly I’m in the same position. Let’s cross our fingers for a long running national tour… Bring the show to the audience.

  3. Carrie says:

    I had the chance to work backstage on The Scottsboro Boys this summer at the Guthrie. It is an amazing musical and I am so sad it is closing. I wish more people had been able to hear this story.

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  5. TRH says:

    I came from Alabama to see The Scottsboro Boys, thankfully I am one of the fortunate ones to see this thought provoking, heart touching, and hopefully heart changing Broadway show before it closes. It was my first Broadway show to see, and I wouldn’t of have it any other way, even if it is my only Broadway show to see. I am saddened that others wont be able to see it before closing. They had planned on coming from Georgia to see the show in January, now they won’t get the chance as many others will miss…I totally agree with your article.

  6. Aaron says:

    Thank you for this. For your openness and honesty. I recently chatted with my friend, Paul Masse, the show’s conductor about being excited to see the show once I got home from doing Oklahoma in DC just after the New Year. It just didn’t seem plausible that a show that garnered such critical praise and media attention could close so soon. I’m very sad that I won’t get to see it. I suppose we should also take a moment, however, to thank these producers for bringing this show to Broadway in the first place. Let us praise their effort, even if we don’t approve of the early demise of the production.

    • koomandimond says:

      Thank you for your note. And, agreed, kudos to the producers to have the guts to put something on Broadway that they believed in.

      So sorry you didn’t get to see the show. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to see another incarnation of it someday soon.

  7. AC says:

    Broadway is where the money is. Producers do risk a lot to put on a production that they really believe in. There’s a lot of love that goes into the productions that don’t receive the highest box office sales on record. That said, the Great White Way isn’t what it used to be. People flock to Broadway, tourists flock to Broadway because of what it once was, and they feel like they need to see the “hit” musical. They’re there for that one weekend or that one week (after saving hundreds of dollars to buy that ticket) and then they’re gone. The only people who really have the opportunity to see these unsung Broadway productions are the New Yorkers, the out-of-towners who live close enough to Manhattan to pop in and see something new. I believe that those numbers aren’t enough to keep the small shows in production. Tourists aren’t going to see those shows (unless that is their intention and in their plans).

    There are great regional theaters mounting fantastic plays and original musical theater. Los Angeles has a bad reputation of being a soul-sucking cesspool of unoriginality and the theater actors’ nightmare. Los Angelenos will tell you differently. There’s the Ahmanson, the Kirk Douglas Theater, and the Mark Taper Forum putting on fantastic shows year after year that make a transfer to Broadway because those productions were popular here first. Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, cities with theaters that create their own masterpieces for their audiences that make the move to Broadway and “fail” there.

    I don’t think that we as a theater-going audience are to blame. I think that we need to start recognizing that Broadway isn’t the end all and be all of careers or productions. It isn’t anymore. There are great regional theaters around the country that any actor should be proud of to call home. Word of mouth starts in these places and there should be more recognition and an effort to keep them at home instead of watching them disappear or close after only a few performances on Broadway. People travel from around the world to visit Broadway for its history and maybe they should start going elsewhere to look for quality theater.

    • Nick Masson says:

      Well said and I couldn’t agree more.

    • koomandimond says:

      Agreed, there are some incredible regional theaters doing some terrifically daring new work. And certainly Broadway should not be the be all and end all for a show.

      It’s just unfortunate that there isn’t more of an opportunity for sustained Off Broadway runs for pieces that may not be commercial enough to fill a Broadway house for a long period of time.

      I’m certainly not an expert on the economics of producing a play, but it would be great for shows like The Scottsboro Boys to sustain a run in an Off Broadway house. A sustained run in New York, that at least recouped its investment, would also increase the chances of the show having a really healthy life on the regional theater circuit.

      For whatever reason, you just don’t see a lot of shows successfully pulling off the commercial Off Broadway thing. Perhaps its tied to the idea that a lot of folks are still tied to, that Broadway is the be all and end all.

      I feel like I’m rambling, and not making a terrible amount of sense. Anyways, thanks for your comment.

  8. chris says:

    I saw the first preview of “Scottsboro” at the Vineyard, and realized its brilliance nearly a year ago. American society has been so dummied down that we can not stand to look in our own historical mirror for reflection, let alone to the stage. I don’t blame “theater audiences.” The problem is systemic. We think Sara Palin is a genius, unions are bad (don’t fly Delta), and Fox is news. Megamarts, globalization, corruption and greed are normalized. Mamma Mia, we are American Idiots, and not just the folks in Memphis, but everyone across this Wicked land. A brilliantly told thought provoking show like “Scottsboro Boys” sadly doesn’t have a chance.

    • koomandimond says:

      Ha ha! Love it.

      My intent was not to blame theater audiences for the current state of Broadway, simply to suggest that if we are going to bitch about the lack of quality material, then we have an obligation to seek out what quality material there is, and do our best to help it succeed.

  9. Pingback: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 « The Afternoon Report

  10. EJ says:

    So why DID it take you so long to go see the show?

    • koomandimond says:

      Mostly because I am lazy and easily distracted. And I figured there wasn’t a huge rush, since I was foolish enough to think that, since I was hearing such wonderful things, it would be around for a while.

  11. Chapman Roberts says:

    The life of this show lives in the actors who helped bring the vision of its creators and producers to fruition. It has extended life in all who have witnessed the Phenomenon. It cannot be expunged. Watch and see, Chapman Roberts

  12. Ben says:

    All of what you say is very well said, however, it is not the audiences or the producers or any specific entity to put the blame on. The truth of the matter is that the economy is in a bad state and people can’t necessarily afford $135 or so a ticket. Art isn’t what it used to be anymore. Nothing original lasts unless it has a star, of a famous title from a movie or a book, or composed by famous composer which is the reason the “Juke Box” Musical is as successful as it is.

    In the case of The Scottsboro Boys, I do agree that it is a beautifully well done and moving piece of theatre. And unfortunately it was met with controversy from ignorant people who feel the need to protest the negative portrayal of African Americans even though it is a company comprised of mostly all African Americans, very talented African American actors at that.

    Production costs are high, actors don’t get paid as much as people think they do, even on the Broadway Level unless they are a Film/ TV star. When a Broadway Actor goes to film or TV and later return to the stage they become “Glee’s” and so on. Theatre stars aren’t stars anymore and people don’t recognize the music because there hasn’t been a song from a broadway musical on the “Top 40” since the 60’s.

    WE need to challenge people to be open and creative. We need to support one another rather than bash in form of a review or “message board”. How else can we incubate talent if it keeps getting knocked or they cut corners to sell tickets rather than let people discover for themselves.

  13. Greg Wattkis says:

    As one who attended the Grand Opening at the Lyceum Theater, I’d like to say that it is FANTASTIC!! This show is a true testament to what a show should be. It teaches the audience, it displays great skill in all levels. The entertainment value is awesome. It taught me something else of our history that I may otherwise not have known. This is not taught in history classes in its true nature. This show needs to be continued and the world needs to see this. This show will Live On!

  14. David Jacobs says:

    I have been working promoting the Scottsboro Boys and I get a lot of Eurpean tourists who simply aren’t interested in watching a show about American Racism. I see a lot of American Tourists who aren’t interested in seeing a show about American Racism. I see some people who come up to me, tears in their eyes, because they were moved by it. To me, this means that most people do not go to Broadway to see a play that challenges them. Most people. But not all. I agree with your article. I support this show full fledged, but I haven’t even SEEN it. So I guess therein lies the problem. I support the idea of the show, but I don’t support the show (with my money, my time, or myself in the seat). Thanks for the article.

  15. Jonathan Murray says:

    I, too, waited until “the last minute” to see this show. I, too, should have been first in line and then promoted the hell out of it. This is show that must be seen, needs to be seen, deserves to be seen. The men and women involved in this production deserve all the accolades possible for taking the risk to share this production with the audience.

    You’re right. The audience didn’t find this show. And I share the blame for that.

  16. Eric Grunin says:

    I saw it soon after the Broadway opening, and will be taking my 15-year-old son this Saturday. I’m afraid I have to disagree with a couple of your points.

    * The story is inherently difficult to adapt, because there’s no throughline, and the characters aren’t able to move the story forward (they must sit while everything moves around them)
    * Some numbers are brilliant (“Southern Days”), but some numbers (“Commencing in Chattanooga”) are filler.
    * Using minstrelsy as a framing device was a risky solution, and 85% of the time it’s just perfect, but that other 15% turned too many people off.
    * If Spike Lee had been a producer, there would have been less flak, but that was not to be.
    * Ebb would have honed the duller lyrics to his customary razor-sharpness, but that was not to be.
    * It’s not a tourist-friendly show, and 63% of main stem tickets go to tourists.
    * It’s not a foreigner-friendly show, and ~20% of tickets go to foreign tourists.
    * It would have played better in the 70s or 90s, and will play better in 2020 than it does now.

    In all, I found it easier to admire than to love. I told all my friends to see it (and some did), but I can’t honestly say it’s up there with Cabaret and Chicago.

    Still, I predict that this show will be resurrected and remounted successfully in ten years or so.

  17. ejs25 says:

    We saw this show at the Vineyard, and it was sold out for the run, so our friends and relatives (many of them depending on our recommendations) did not get to see it then. As soon as the Broadway opening was announced, we got tickets for our daughter and son-in-law (NYC high-school teachers) both of whom loved it, and arranged for their high school kids to see it, in conjunction with a unit on the death penalty. One of the teachers at the school paid himself for the kids to see it. On that basis, I think word of mouth could have spread thru the neighborhoods, etc. It’s too bad that K+D didn’t think of finding some way to provide high school kids and their parents an opportunity to see it, or if they did, to publicize the opportunity. I was in the process of arranging for some kids and parents from Philadelphia to come up to see it over the school holidays. This was an amazing play, and I’m so sorry it’s closing. I think the idea here is a terrific one. Scottsboro Boys is unique, but there were other shows around that were worthwhile and could speak to kids…Photograph 51 is another, and there were kids there because of their teacher at the New School, who was sitting next to us. Lovesong of the Electric Bear, where kids could learn what the bitten apple on their laptops was a tribute to, was another.

  18. jeanne marie says:

    A show has to be more than good to succeed – it has to sound good when described. SCOTTSBORO BOYS – which I haven’t seen – seems to me too much like earnest d-gooderism. I know racism is bad; I know the lynching and lack of justice in America, especially the South, was bad – and remains bad, though not quite as bad as it was. Someone wrote of needing shows that “challenge” an audience, but they always seem to speak of challenging only racist, sexist, or homophobic conservatives – who don’t go to the theatre, anyway. How was SB challenging? It seems to me to be preaching to the choir, speaking as one of those audience members who chose not to go (though I admit I might have liked it ONCE I SAW IT – never got that far).

  19. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for a great article!

    First off, I WOULD support shows like these if I had the money to. I am a performer and the only way I see any shows, let alone Broadway ones are if I get a comp or severely reduced ticket. Then…if I promote it to my friends…it is to many in the same position as I. We, the people who really appreciate and can promote works like this CAN’T AFFORD TO. The only people who seem to be able to don’t have a clue what theatre really is and/or are tourists who wanna rock it out to something familiar. I have been wondering what has changed. Did something change? Has Broadway always been like this? I think there used to be much more appreciation for something that made an audience think but perhaps that never truly had a place on Broadway. I am pretty sure things have changed for the worse. But one thing is true. Producers can’t keep a show open that isn’t making any money. It just isn’t possible really. So it isn’t their fault, they pick the shows that will make money. And a we see, the ones that they take a risk on which do not succeed have to close. It isn’t the fault of marketing. But I don’t think it is our fault either. Anyone who is sitting here reading anything about this topic understands the importance of theatre like this. I would be willing to bet that perhaps we just can’t afford to see it unless we get a comp which doesn’t do anything for the show’s run on Broadway really (unless your “word-of-mouth” extends beyond other poor artists like my circle of friends!).

    Who can I put the blame on? I don’t know. I can’t even say it is “the rest” of the “audience” (aka tourists and such)…because, well…who can blame people for being ignorant to something that potentially could change their life?

    Perhaps this is just the state we are in. Blame it on reality T.V., blame it on Sarah Palin, blame it on the terrorists. It doesn’t matter where you put the blame. The fact is that Broadway isn’t “Broadway” anymore. It is in name but it is becoming just another place. I love what AC said here:

    “I don’t think that we as a theater-going audience are to blame. I think that we need to start recognizing that Broadway isn’t the end all and be all of careers or productions. It isn’t anymore.”

    There are so many other places in the world creating amazing and inspiring art through theatre. The only control we do have is in creating a new level to aspire to by looking at those places and creating/seeing work there. I’d like to think that the pendulum will swing the other way sooner or later….and in the meantime we can stop shedding tears for the “Broadway” of today.

  20. JM says:

    Thank you for a great article!

    First off, I WOULD support shows like these if I had the money to. I am a performer and the only way I see any shows, let alone Broadway ones are if I get a comp or severely reduced ticket. Then…if I promote it to my friends…it is to many in the same position as I. We, the people who really appreciate and can promote works like this CAN’T AFFORD TO. The only people who seem to be able to don’t have a clue what theatre really is and/or are tourists who wanna rock it out to something familiar. I have been wondering what has changed. Did something change? Has Broadway always been like this? I think there used to be much more appreciation for something that made an audience think but perhaps that never truly had a place on Broadway. I am pretty sure things have changed for the worse. But one thing is true. Producers can’t keep a show open that isn’t making any money. It just isn’t possible really. So it isn’t their fault, they pick the shows that will make money. And a we see, the ones that they take a risk on which do not succeed have to close. It isn’t the fault of marketing. But I don’t think it is our fault either. Anyone who is sitting here reading anything about this topic understands the importance of theatre like this. I would be willing to bet that perhaps we just can’t afford to see it unless we get a comp which doesn’t do anything for the show’s run on Broadway really (unless your “word-of-mouth” extends beyond other poor artists like my circle of friends!).

    Who can I put the blame on? I don’t know. I can’t even say it is “the rest” of the “audience” (aka tourists and such)…because, well…who can blame people for being ignorant to something that potentially could change their life?

    Perhaps this is just the state we are in. Blame it on reality T.V., blame it on Sarah Palin, blame it on the terrorists. It doesn’t matter where you put the blame. The fact is that Broadway isn’t “Broadway” anymore. It is in name but it is becoming just another place. I love what AC said here:

    “I don’t think that we as a theater-going audience are to blame. I think that we need to start recognizing that Broadway isn’t the end all and be all of careers or productions. It isn’t anymore.”

    There are so many other places in the world creating amazing and inspiring art through theatre. The only control we do have is in creating a new level to aspire to by looking at those places and creating/seeing work there. I’d like to think that the pendulum will swing the other way sooner or later….and in the meantime we can stop shedding tears for the “Broadway” of today.

  21. Clare says:

    Three of us were in New York from the UK (London) in November and saw The Scottsboro Boys. We thought it was absolutely terrific and are dismayed and baffled that it has not been a roaring success.
    Clare

  22. Michelef1 says:

    I too waited until the closing notice was posted to buy my tickets. Why, despite rave reviews from several friends and family who saw the show? It’s expensive! Decent tickets for two totaled over $250. That is 13 movies or 5 trips to the museum for this culture couple. A play has to be something special to take me away from that many other options. So we’ll see it this Friday night, and we’ll probably agree with you and those who told us “You’ve got to see this play!” but it probably should have stayed at the Vineyard to keep it affordable and running longer. “Bloody Bloody AJ” should have stayed at the Public too. Great for a small hall but can’t fill a larger place night after night.

    • ejs25 says:

      we saw bloody bloody AJ at the Public….it couldn’t stay…it was in the theatre with about 5 rows. I think if the shows could transfer sooner people would catch the original enthusiasm.

  23. Brian says:

    I share your disappointment that Scottsboro Boys is closing, but I really must take umbrage with both the tone of your post and many of your points.

    First, as a musician working on the “Great White Way” you so lament, I took a night off last year, to see the show in its original incarnation — which is why I, in turn, didn’t buy a ticket to see it on B’way until closing was announced. But I certainly sang its praises to my friends, and encouraged folks to see it.

    You say, “If we are going to complain about the state of Broadway, then we, as an audience, AS A THEATER COMMUNITY, have a responsibility to actively seek out productions that are extraordinary…” I would respond that the audience for Broadway is not the same as the theatrical community. But I can assure you that the New York theatre community is deeply passionate about their art, and there are plenty of us who support and pay (as best we can afford in time and money) for theatre (and other arts) we care about. Not everyone likes the same sort of material, however, and that’s fine. I bet there are a few musicians and cast members of Mamma Mia (I have nothing to do with that show, FYI) who love performing those tunes every night to cheering audiences and getting paid to do it. Don’t knock it!

    You write, “Does it mean that we need some alternate model for producing smaller, edgier musicals than the Broadway one?” Well, yes, and we do. It’s called Off-Broadway, it’s called regional theatre. This is nothing new. When you say, “Here’s all the marketing a show like this should need: “It’s fucking amazing. Go see it. Now,” I have to wonder what it is you envision Broadway being. It’s located in Times Square and caters to tourists — not Williamsburg. What I mean, is of course you need effective, imaginative marketing that is a tribute to what the show is. I do happen to feel this show could have been marketed better — but that would’ve meant spending money they probably knew they would lose anyways.

    I am just be delighted and proud that such a challenging and artistic piece was brought to Broadway at all — and will certainly go down in the books as a legend. I really wish ROAD SHOW would’ve had a life on Broadway, even a brief one, just so I could see it again. (Hopefully it will be produced in London, however, soon.)

    I don’t share your insistence that shows should run a LOOONG time. I would really welcome a return to the days when there was more turn over in the Broadway houses, and writers and producers would regularly open 2 or more shows per year! Wouldn’t that be more fun for all involved?

  24. Anonymous says:

    Three Londoners greatly enjoyed The Scotsboro Boys. I personally thought it better than La Cage aux Folles . We are amazed to be told that it is closing. What a loss.It was exciting,beautifully performed,imagnatively directed ,informative and moving.
    Roly Harris London

  25. Bettie Laven says:

    I saw it 3 times, and that didn’t seem to help. Frankly, I think the producers lacked balls and creativity. There were so many avenues of promotion for this show. The entire country should have known of it’s existence. History isn’t told very well in our schools today…this might have helped…Oh, and don’t think that for a nanosecond those idiot protesters had anything to do with it’s fate….they never saw the show, but most people who saw them out in front of the theater knew that.
    A travesty…just terrible!

  26. Lynne says:

    I saw the show and loved it. Most of the audience didn’t seem sure how to react, but I did—I laughed, marveled at ow we the artistry, absorbed the drama, and was so thrilled to see an incredibly intelligent show that entertained as well. As a mixed-race woman, I too initially froze a bit when I heard “minstrel show,” but it was the perfect framework that was true to itself and the story it told: it ridiculed the hypocrisy and prejudice the innocent suffered and those who tormented them , and magnified the strength, dignity and convictions of the men and those who fought for them. It is a painful yet necessary story that needs to be told, which will hopefully make us realize that we all are God’s children, equally valuable no matter what color skin He put us in.

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