You would think that at age 91, John Kander would have been there, done that, won three Tony Awards and not be impressed by much anymore.
But that’s not the case for the composer, who, with the late lyricist Fred Ebb, brought the world musicals such as “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” as well as the Big Apple anthem “New York, New York.”
Kander is making his first trip to Alabama in 55 years this week to help announce the Alabama premiere of his acclaimed musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” and it ranks right up there with anything else he’s done in his storied career.
“This really is a dream come true,” Kander says from his home in New York. “Honest to God, this sounds so phony, but it’s as if you had a dream and your fairy godmother came down and said, ‘Honey, what would you like?’ When they came to us with this idea I kind of didn’t believe it because it was so exactly what all of us had talked about and wished would happen and, of course, knew it never would. The fact that they’ve been so kind with us and given us carte blanche to do exactly what we want – how often does that happen?”
Kander’s fairy godmother, in this case, is five Alabama groups – the Alabama Center for the Arts, Calhoun Community College, Athens State University, Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre Company and Decatur’s Princess Theatre. On Thursday, they’ll announce the 2020 Alabama premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” which earned 12 Tony nominations after it ran on Broadway in 2010. They’ll be joined by Kander, Susan Stroman (who earned a Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Musical for “The Scottsboro Boys”), David Thompson (Tony nominated for writing the book) and others. While in Alabama, they’ll be scouting theaters for potential stops on the Alabama tour, which may go to multiple cities.
“The show will be a re-creation of the original Broadway production with this celebrated creative and producing team overseeing their work in Alabama,” says Philip Mann, director of promotion and economic development for the Alabama Center for the Arts, based at Calhoun State.
Mann will produce the Alabama premiere along with Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre Company and Broadway producer Catherine Schreiber.
“The arts, especially the theater, are a perfect means to inspire conversation and transform communities,” says Keith Cromwell, RMTC’s executive director. “RMTC is proud to bring this project to fruition and is dedicated to Birmingham and its place as the epicenter of the human rights movement.”
“The Scottsboro Boys” – based on the true story of nine African-American young men falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931 – came after Kander and Ebb, Stroman and Thompson collaborated on “Steel Pier,” a musical also set during the Depression.
“We felt that we kind of weren’t finished with the period, and we began sort of messing around with ideas and also looking into court cases,” Kander recalls.
The Scottsboro Boys, whom Kander remembered seeing in newspapers as a child, is what the group landed on.
“The more we read about it, the clearer it was that something really, really terrible had happened,” Kander says. “Also, digging into the story it became clear to all of us that there was something theatrical about the way the whole story had happened. Somehow or another, we began to think how we could best tell the story without making it a piece of sociology.”
What they came up with is what made “The Scottsboro Boys” controversial when it was first produced. Though the cast is black, the story is told as a minstrel show, a 19th-century burlesque/variety show form performed in blackface and often lampooning the black race. Some people were not amused that the creative team was using that conceit as the framework for the show.
What protesters – many of whom had not seen the show, Kander says – didn’t understand was that Kander and Ebb were condemning minstrel shows and what they stood for, not celebrating them. “What a wonderful way for us as writers to take the form and turn it on its head and make use of it in ways it wasn’t intended,” Kander says.
Sadly, “The Scottsboro Boys” was the last show in a 50-year collaboration between Kander and Ebb. Ebb died in 2004 before the show was finished, and Kander completed the lyrics.
“I had my doubts about myself, of course, but I also had worked with Fred for 50 years, so you gotta learn something,” Kander says. “I’m all about making stuff, so I don’t think too much about what surrounds that. I have a tendency to just go ahead and do it.”
“The Scottsboro Boys” earned 12 Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical, and Kander thinks it’s among Kander and Ebb’s best work.
“I think it’s one of the pieces that we did right,” he says. “With every piece that you write you come back and do a revival of it and get a chance to revisit it and you find things you wish you could change. This is not one of those pieces. A lot of that has to do with our collaborators and Stro in particular. For instance, every time ‘Cabaret’ is revived, even today, we go in and make some changes or rethink some things. That was true with ‘Spider Woman’ and ‘Chicago,’ too. … I think with this one we feel this is what we wanted.”
That’s one of the reasons Kander is so excited about the Alabama run of “The Scottsboro Boys.”
“We will be quite involved,” he says. “We have control over who is on that stage, who stages it, the musical director. We won’t be around a lot, but we’ll be hovering. The people who will be doing it will be people who know this piece very, very well. It will be a reproduction of the original. … Very often with musicals, the idea of taking a fresh look and having somebody else’s point of view is something you usually welcome. In this instance, at least for the time being, I’m very much for seeing it the way it was intended.”
Kander, who is hard at work on a new musical based on the French play “The Enchanted,” says the Alabama run of “The Scottsboro Boys” came out of the blue.
“Seriously, after the Broadway run, if you knew the number of times people heard me say, ‘I wish we could do this in the South, and Alabama, in particular,’” he says. “It really is like a dream.”