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John Kander and Susan Stroman on the making of The Scottsboro Boys

A report has found that 14% of musical theatre performers are black. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I won’t deny that it is one of the considerable perks of my job that I sometimes meet my heroes.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but I am happy to say that sometimes it works out. It’s almost exactly a year since I last met John Kander, the legendary Broadway composer of such shows as Cabaret and Chicago, at his townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, before The Scottsboro Boys had its UK premiere at the Young Vic.

Now that production has deservedly resurfaced at the West End’s Garrick Theatre. I was thrilled by the performance, and very happily proved wrong about the show’s ability to find a commercial home in London.

Read the five-star review of The Scottsboro Boys

When I met the then 86-year-old Kander the day before previews began for his newest show The Landing at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, he told me then that because of it, he was going to have to miss the Young Vic opening of The Scottsboro Boys.

I’m delighted to say that a year later, he was in London this week for the West End opening instead.

It’s a show that has been worth waiting for – but nearly didn’t happen at all. Director Susan Stroman and book writer David Thompson had joined forces with Kander and Fred Ebb to write The Scottsboro Boys. As Stroman told me last year:

We got it to a really good point, but then sadly we lost Fred. I thought it would go on the shelf and never be seen again. But about four years ago, Kander said, ‘What if we look at this again?’ When we did, I realised how much had been done, though it still needed fleshing out with new songs. Kander said, ‘I’ll do it!’ His relationship with Fred went back over 40 years, so their writing of music and lyrics melded into one – they really went back and forth helping each other out, so it came quite naturally to him. Whenever he needed a lyric, he told me he’d just channel Fred, and somehow it would come down.

Kander confirmed this in our interview:

It was as if we were still working together. The most difficult adjustment was when we did Curtains, because that was the beginning of a whole new time for me without him there, but with The Scottsboro Boys, it just seemed kind of natural that we should go ahead and finish it.

So they did. Recalling the show’s origins, Kander told me:

The story of The Scottsboro Boys seemed like a really, really, interesting idea for a show. I’m old enough to remember when they had their names in the papers, which was at least once a week. They were always called The Scottsboro Boys, but as I grew older they became mentioned less and less, and finally they just disappeared until you didn’t read about them at all. There are two generations who have no idea who they were. So what touched us what that here were these nine men whose lives were ruined, but who disappeared from memory.

Despite strong reviews and earning twelve Tony nominations, it failed to run when it transferred to Broadway.

There’s a gorgeous number in The Scottsboro Boys called Go Back Home. And for Kander, the theatre itself provides him with his true home.

I found that the theatre is a place that is most comfortable to me. As the world, at least in our country, seems to get meaner and meaner, the theatre community is a wonderfully supportive place to live. I said once in a drunken acceptance speech of some award that I think that people who spend their lives in the theatre are the best people in the world. And I don’t mean that just glibly. They’re openly accepting of everybody.

And they say you should never meet your heroes.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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