At 86, legendary Broadway composer John Kander still remembers how, as a small boy in an assimilated Jewish home in Kansas City, Mo., he first heard the searing story of the Scottsboro Boys: nine African-American teenagers who had been falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama.
“I was terribly aware of them, and that they were connected with something frightening,” said Kander, who with lyricist Fred Ebb created such iconic musicals as “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Their latest, the Tony-nominated “The Scottsboro Boys,” is at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 30.
“ ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ was almost a daily phrase I would hear as a child, then it wasn’t so frequent, and by the time I was a teenager, they were basically forgotten,” Kander said during a thoughtful conversation from his country home in upstate New York. “That’s one of the things that compelled Fred and I to create this show. It’s our attempt, in a way, to bring them back to life.”
The musical is Kander’s last collaboration with his longtime writing partner before Ebb’s death in 2004; it employs the controversial format of a minstrel show to tell the saga of the teenagers accused of rape by two white prostitutes and repeatedly put on trial (and convicted), even after one of the women admitted she had lied about the attack.
Among the show’s heroes is the star New York Jewish attorney Samuel Leibowitz (played by JC Montgomery), who in real life took on the case pro bono but received a rude awakening upon arriving down South. “He was a showman, and a bit cocky, and he thought he could get the boys off in one day,” said Susan Stroman, the show’s award-winning director and choreographer, whose last Broadway hit was “The Producers.” “And then he could not believe the anti-Semitism he encountered; there was more prejudice against a Jew from New York than against the nine defendants. Some people think he lost the case because his name was Samuel Leibowitz. He ended up having to have bodyguards, but, to his credit, he becomes very determined to get these guys off and said he’d do anything for the rest of his life to help them.”
“Financial Advice,” one of the show’s most startling songs, is based on court transcripts recounting how the prosecutor actually sniffed Leibowitz up and down and proclaimed, “I smell Jew money,” while insisting that the New Yorker paid one of the prostitutes to recant her testimony.
“Freddy wouldn’t let me write that song, because he thought it was too extreme,” said Kander, who penned it on his own after Ebb, at 76, died of a heart attack just as the duo was finishing a rough draft of the musical.
“What it does is take a very popular image of Jews from the time — and, God knows, to a certain extent today — which is that the Jews have all the money and some of it ought to be yours.”
The melody is deceptively languid and bluesy as the prosecutor advises: “Once you get their money/here’s my advice to you/Keep that money, but get rid of that Jew.”
During Kander and Ebb’s four glorious decades together in musical theater, they became famous for setting upbeat or lyrical music to dark subject matter, including prison torture in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and the rise of the Nazis in “Cabaret.” Their intention, Kander said, was “to lull the audience into having a good time at the expense of others, and then to figuratively step on their necks.”
The tactic got the iconic duo in trouble during the Broadway run of “Cabaret,” especially for the number “If You Could See Her,” in which the character of the emcee dances with a gorilla. “The audience would be toe-tapping and having a great time until the last line, ‘If you could see her through my eyes/she wouldn’t look Jewish at all,’ and then they got very uncomfortable,” Kander recalled. “A lot of people didn’t get the satire — they thought we really were saying that Jews were gorillas — so we had to take the song out of the show for a long time.”
After that disastrous experience, Kander said, he was “very careful” about how he manipulated the racist format of a minstrel show in “The Scottsboro Boys,” as “a metaphor for how the boys were treated.
“The device also allowed us to tell a story in a way that was not linear,” added Kander, who as a boy participated in minstrel shows at a summer camp frequented by Jewish boys from the Midwest. “We could go from one time to another, and to interrupt the action with jokes, songs and stories.”
From left: Joshua Henry and JC Montgomery in “The Scottsboro Boys.” Photo by Craig Schwartz
Not everyone has understood the satire of “The Scottsboro Boys.” Protesters picketed the show during its 2010 run in New York: “Perhaps I was naïve, but I was shocked,” Kander said. “I had thought it was so clear what we were doing.” He was relieved when some of those protesters changed their minds after actually viewing the musical in Philadelphia.
As Montgomery recalled: “They profusely apologized to me and everyone else in the cast.”
Stroman insisted that the show “actually takes the minstrel format and flips it on its head. All of our black actors play all the white characters — mean sheriffs or buffoonish white people — which is the complete opposite of a minstrel show.” And the actors, she said, “are actually in charge of building and deconstructing the sets, so it’s the deconstruction of a minstrel show.”
Even so, she warned, “This show is for people who are theater-savvy. It’s not for first-time theater-goers.”
Stroman was involved in the conception of “The Scottsboro Boys,” in 2003, along with book writer David Thompson. It got its start around Ebb’s legendary kitchen table in his apartment off Central Park West — the place Kander and Ebb wrote all their hits. “But when Fred died,” she recalled, “the musical went on the shelf, and I didn’t know if John would ever go back to it.”
Kander still remembers how the call came about Ebb’s passing, on Sept. 11, 2004: “I was just numb,” said the composer, who speaks of their 42-year partnership like a marriage. “We were committed to each other,” he explained. “We were very different people, and yet when we worked together we became like one person. We improvised together so the process was never lonely for either of us. It was just fun.”
The grieving process took its toll, and Kander took a break from writing, in part, because he believed he was the “untalented” member of the duo.
But the team had four musicals still in development, and while his emotions were complicated — “part of me felt like I was cheating on Fred,” Kander said — he eventually put aside his sadness to tackle the projects.
For “The Scottsboro Boys,” he wrote new songs, including lyrics, this time at Stroman’s kitchen table. “I was never the lyricist Fred was, and while working on the show I would curse him every day, like, ‘Where the f--- are you?’ ” Kander recalled. “But I did my best to channel Fred. I would have dialogues with him, and it eased me. And the more I wrote, the more confident I got.”
Kander said his Jewish values infuse the musical. “What came to me through my family has to do with compassion and a sense of justice,” he said.
For tickets and information, visit centertheatregroup.org.