By CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY
Wall Street Journal
October 19, 2010
David Thompson wants to do justice to the story of the Scottsboro boys.
Mr. Thompson wrote the book for “The Scottsboro Boys,” the new Broadway musical that tells the real-life story of nine African-American teens who in 1931 were unjustly accused of raping two white women in Alabama.
The show, which opens at the Lyceum Theatre on Oct. 31, features music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb (the Tony-winning team behind such shows as “Cabaret” and “Chicago”), and was directed by Susan Stroman (“The Producers”). It was completed after Ebb died in 2004.
Mr. Thompson, a resident of Millburn, N.J., who received a Tony nomination for his book for the musical “Steel Pier,” spoke with the Journal about the musical and the difficulties of getting it to the stage.
WSJ: How did you come upon this story?
Mr. Thompson: We decided we wanted to write a musical that was based on a true story. That was our idea from the get-go: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to tell a true story in a musical form?” We started looking at the important trials from the last century and the one that jumped out at us immediately was the Scottsboro Boys.
WSJ: When Ebb died in 2004, did you think it spelled the end of the show?
Mr. Thompson: We had just finished one of the last songs in the score; there’s a song called “Nothin’”—Fred had written the lyrics and John had written the music. I was working with John to get it worked into the script. It was Sept. 11, 2004. We finished our work and an hour later I got a call from one of Fred’s assistants saying that he had just died. The project was put on the shelf until about 2008, and Kander called Stroman and myself and said, “Can we get back to work on this? I think there’s something here and I’d like to finish it.” In a way we had to finish it just to honor Fred.
WSJ: The show makes a point of emphasizing the cultural gulf between the Scottsboro boys and the white characters. Did you feel you had a similar gulf to overcome as a white theater team creating a show about black men?
Mr. Thompson: I can’t tell an African-American actor what it means to experience racism. But what I can do is dignify that reality by creating a story, a narrative, that’s honest. And so my responsibility is to write characters or situations that are dramatic and compelling, and during the rehearsal process bring the actors into that collaboration to make sure what we’re creating is as authentic as possible.
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