The Scottsboro Boys: Musical Theater and the Law

I concede bias up front: I am a musical theater nerd. You’ve been warned.

One of the reasons I love musicals is that they often inject serious social commentary between dance breaks and 11 o’clock numbers. The practice is time honored. Show Boat premiered in 1927 and tackled racial prejudice as did South Pacific in 1949. The current Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, which originally premiered in 1943, doesn’t change a word of the original score yet the dark presentation makes clear that everything was not really ok in 1906 Oklahoma. West Side Story retells Romeo and Juliet with warring gangs instead of rival families in the 1950s. More recent examples include Allegiance (internment of Japanese Americans during WWII), The Bandstand (PTSD in WWII vets), Cabaret (pre-war Berlin), Dear Evan Hanson (social media), Hairspray (racial integration in 1960s Baltimore), Memphis (segregation in the 1950s), Next to Normal (mental illness), Ragtime (racial justice at the turn of the last century), and Rent (alienation in the age of AIDS) to name but a few.

Musicals in which the law features prominently are a small subset of the social justice shows. The most famous is Chicago, by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics). Chicago tells the story of aspiring Vaudeville performer Roxie Hart, who finds herself in jail after killing her lover. In the infamous “Jailhouse Tango,” several inmates offer their defenses: “He had it comin’. If you’d a been there, you’d do the same.” (“He ran into my knife. He ran into my knife, ten times!”) But one inmate does not speak English except to say, “Not guilty!” To avoid a spoiler, let’s just say it does not go well for her.

Things work out better for Roxie. She engages lawyer Billy Flynn, who only represents women and claims he does it for “love.” His trial strategy is to “razzle-dazzle ‘em,” which involves turning Roxie into a minor celebrity and the trial into a media circus. Along the way, we meet corrupt prison Matron “Mama” Morton, who explains how quid pro quo works in “When You’re Good to Mama.” For lawyers, the social commentary on the legal system – that corruption exists and justice is not meted out fairly – can be a little tough to take. Still, I love the show.

Kander and Ebb, who also collaborated on Cabaret, joined one last time to write The Scottsboro Boys. Based on real events, the show tells the story of nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women in the early 1930s South. The case of the real Scottsboro Boys led to Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), which my partner Wesley Horton discusses in his blog post. It had a short run on Broadway but enjoyed critical acclaim and earned twelve Tony nominations.

Having missed The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway, I am delighted that the Playhouse on Park in West Hartford is presenting it this summer, June 26 through August 4. And I am proud that Horton, Dowd, Bartschi & Levesque, P.C., is a producing sponsor for this presentation. As with Chicago, I expect to be discomfited by the story (perhaps even more so than with Chicago) but entranced by the show. If you want to be entertained and challenged at the same time, go see the production.

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