Time was, audiences went to musicals--more often called musical comedies then--to see famous entertainers sing great songs written by first-rate lyricists and composers. Ticket buyers wanted to indulge in the fun of mild social satire, disregard inane plots and have themselves a gay (in the unaltered sense of the word) time.
Matters started to change in 1927 when Oscar Hammerstein II adapted Edna Ferber's Show Boat and Jerome Kern wrote the melody for "Old Man River," which might be the greatest Broadway song ever introduced. As years and decades passed and songwriters like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wielded influence, the belief that musicals could tote a heavier load acquired more, sometimes subtly self-congratulatory, advocates.
Nowadays, the notion of producing a musical simply to showcase great songs sung by great performers is all but regarded as laughable, crass. Prominent among those of the 20th-century's second-half pledged to avoid the seemingly trivial are the forever melodious and sharp Fred Ebb and John Kander. With Harold Prince guiding them, the team initially clicked on Cabaret, tackling within the framework of a sleazy night club revue the mounting horrors of Weimar Germany that Christopher Isherwood chronicled in Berlin Stories. Their infectious songs are largely meant to comment ironically and with grim exhilaration on life's realities.
Kander and Ebb followed that blockbuster with Chicago, wherein numbers shed cynical light on American corruption as exemplified in a big city during, again, the Jazz Age. Approaching Manual Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, the pair surrounded a harsh environment--this time Argentina's political prisoners--with songs reflecting wryly on the focal plight. They've gone after The Visit, Friedrich Durrenmatt's screed on humanity's weakness, and have even put their sardonic stamp on Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth with All About Us, which evidently won't progress beyond its 2007 Westport Country Playhouse try-out.
Now at the Vineyard from Kander and Ebb comes--not surprisingly--The Scottsboro Boys, boasting a minstrel show, the conceit within which they and librettist David Thompson set the many literal Alabama trials and unceasing tribulations of the nine young Southern African-American men arrested in March, 1931 for the alleged rape of two white girls. The failure over more than two decades to bring justice to bear on the egregious event remains a significant step in the country's slow march toward civil rights. Its prominence makes it almost inevitably a target for Kander and Ebb, who missed out on the Leo Frank case when Hal Prince developed it in Parade with songwriter Jason Robert Brown.
Do Kander and Ebb, who apparently completed most of the lyrics before his death in 2004, hit the bull's eye? Despite some rousing work by director-choreographer Susan Stroman that keeps spectators engaged for a time, the issues-oriented tunesmiths don't, uh, score--and to a great degree exactly because the subject matter appears to be right up their Non-Tin-Pan-Alley.
The show-within-a-minstrel-show structure, which has presiding over it with frozen leers not only an interlocutor (John Collum) but a Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and a Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon), is an instant flashback to the Master of Ceremonies that Joel Grey won awards for in Cabaret. Kander and Ebb have their formula, and it's palled. Within the set-up, the scenes depicting the nine boys' intensifying plights are sketchy, the characterizations (almost all white characters are played by the actors, including a forceful Brandon Victor Dixon) hovering in a blurred area between reality and caricature.
Many of the songs fired at the audience by the cast of 13 commendably energetic men (and one woman who wanders silently through the plot to a purpose only revealed at curtain) are meant to ring sour. They have the Ebb-Kander flair, but they're overly familiar, their irony tired. The best, "Southern Days," is intended to recall Stephen Foster at his most sentimental and opens with the sentiments "Don't you miss the sight of willows drippin'/On a balmy Southern day?" before evolving into "How the sights and sounds come back to me!/Like my daddy hangin' from a tree." Though this echoes Cabaret's "If You Could See Her"; it has punch.
The boldest ditty is listed in the program as "Financial Advice." It's about Southern anti-Semitism--the boys' lawyer, Samuel Liebowitz, is played (by McClendon) as a cartoon glad-hander)--and shocks with the words "When your bills ain't paid/And the goin's rough/And your bankbook says/You ain't got enough/Let me tell you, Sonny/There's nothing like Jew money." With this sort of blunt statement, Kander and Ebb are hunting bear.
Or are they? Stroman contrives things so that the applause she's encouraged at the end of previous numbers is bypassed. The implication is that little applause might result from an audience unsympathetic to this particular lightning bolt. So how intrepid are the creators? At first, John Kander's determination to have everything reach the stage that he and his extraordinarily talented lyric-penning partner wrote looks like a praise-worthy goal. But maybe it isn't.