An Evening With the Scottsboro Boys, John Kander, and the Resurrection of Fred Ebb
October 25, 2010 at 10:30 am, by Jonah Rank
On Thursday night, I had the opportunity to see The Scottsboro Boys, the newest musical by songwriting-team John Kander and Fred Ebb. You might know their names from the shows Chicago and Cabaret and the song “New York, New York.” They are responsible for some of the music that has best captured the twentieth century’s glitz and grit, the spotlights and the shady spots. John Kander is currently 83, and Fred Ebb is currently dead. His latest show hasn’t even officially opened yet (I saw it in previews), yet these words of the late Fred Ebb are beginning a new life of their own—just a little over 6 years after his death in September 2004. The story of The Scottsboro Boys is basically that of the infamous trial of the actual Scottsboro Boys, who were put on trial on charges of rape—not because a rape actually happened, but because these men were black. In fact, one woman who was supposedly raped spent much of these trials (apparently lasting a few decades) reneging her previous (false) accusation of the men’s rape. As these trials took place in an Alabama filled with anti-Semitic suspicion of the Jewish lawyer defending the “Scottsboro Boys,” prejudices of all stripes filled the courtrooms of these trials. The show, a reflection on the lives of 9 falsely accused males in (and after) prison, takes on the form of a minstrel show. Following form, the stage switches between being a platform for cakewalk/rag-like music, story-telling, and brief comedy routines and much more (including a fantastic shadow-puppet show). The Scottsboro Boys is a show within a show, taking after that much-watched trial put on for the sadistic amusement of a prejudiced South, which in turn was then watched by a Northeastern America heavily populated with progressives. The music to the show, as can be expected, is beautifully crafted and appropriate, and the same can be said for the lyrics. Highlights for me from the actual production I saw go back though to the fascinating lighting-work, the creativity in the choreography (especially one scene involving the organized kicking of tambourines), and the conception of narrating the story in the form of a minstrel show. All in all, the musical is a solid show and a very good one at that. But to me, the most moving part of seeing The Scottsboro Boys was the pervasive sense of Techiyyat Hammetim, or resurrection of the dead, that I felt in the theater that evening. The Jewish idea of Techiyyat Hammetim is something that was almost never discussed when I was growing up. Probably for at least three reasons: (1) when Americans hear about “resurrection,” Jesus often comes to mind; (2) many liberal Jews probably don’t believe that the dead will literally come back to life; and (3) liberal Jews who believe that the dead will come back to life very often only believe that in a metaphorical sense that is very abstract. Even though Techiyyat Hammetim is often not “talked about” among liberal Jews, most prayer books do praise God for enabling Techiyyat Hammetim in the second blessing of the Amidah, which is recited three times daily (and on certain days, even more times). But to have a better idea of what Techiyyat Hammetim can mean to us today, it is useful to recognize that these words just mean “Giving life to the dead,” which, though still hard to believe on a literal level, is able to be understood as all sorts of metaphors. The Jewish belief in Techiyyat Hammetim does not need to be limited to the belief that the dead will rise from their graves and be healthy. Belief in Techiyyat Hammetim may be as simple as believing that there are ways in which humans, in the Divine image, can breathe life into works and values espoused by those who are no longer with us. Techiyyat Hammetim can be passing along a family heirloom or telling a story about a friend who passed. And, among countless other activities, Techiyyat Hammetim can be the reading of the book of an author who passed, inspecting the painting of a long-gone artist, and listening to the music of a deceased musician. So, Thursday night, I was there watching Techiyyat Hammetim. Of course, any form of theater that tells the stories of real people who have since passed is Techiyyat Hammetim. I see such people of old living their lives anew in front of me. But I was even more moved that evening by knowing that Fred Ebb, a deceased lyricist, was still giving birth and new life to a new work of art. Art captures a moment in time, and both Ebb and his lyrics were somehow caught in this moment; dead particles were suddenly full of life. Ebb, a dead man, could have had his final words in 2004, but he still had more words to say. Through his art, Ebb’s life and prolific writing was somehow prolonged. Something else fantastic about the evening was that, since I had ordered the ticket through my alma mater’s arts organization, I was allowed to go to an exclusive talkback with John Kander, a few actors, and the playwright. This session was both a conversation among the brilliant artists on the stage as well as a Q&A with the audience. One moving moment came when one woman asked Kander what it was like to write a musical without Ebb. Evidently, work on the project had begun in 2002, and Ebb had finished just about all of the lyrics to this show before dying two years later. That being said, revisions do need to happen, and the show was not premiered anywhere until 2008. “If anyone knew how Fred wrote words,” I remember John saying, “it was me.” John Kander, left with the remnants of Ebb’s creativity, had to do just a little tweaking. Through his partner in art, Ebb’s creative self lived on just a little longer. The Talmudic principle of O Chevruta O Mituta (“companionship vs. death”) presents us with the option of greater longevity by imparting a piece of ourselves onto our companions in life. Hearing John Kander reminisce about his time working on the musical without Ebb was very powerful to me. Kander explained that somehow it still felt just like he was working with Ebb all over again. “Even though he’s not on the stage right now,” Kander said, “Fred is here in the room with us tonight…” With a very slight smirk, Kander then added, “giving me Hell.” Maybe it’s just that I don’t believe in Hell, but I think that Ebb wasn’t giving anyone Hell. If anything, Kander—by his persistence in working with the spirit of Ebb—brought us a little glimpse of artistry that is both Eternal and representative of truth in the name of the Divine One in Heaven. Just as the Scottsboro Boys can live on in their eponymous musical, Ebb lives on in the late birth of this late libretto of his. For an artist like me, feeling the spirits of the Scottsboro boys and Ebb on the stage that evening, I watched Techiyyat Hammetimbefore my eyes.