‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me” may not be a lyric you recognize, but the infectiously
haunting tune is one you will.
Remember the Nazi anthem in the musical
Cabaret? “It’s absolutely angelic the first time you hear it,” the composer John
Kander humbly, but wryly imparts. “And later when you hear the same song and you
realize what it means, you suddenly feel betrayed, guilty, or ashamed to see
yourself as one of those people.”
With his partner Fred Ebb, the duo
created such popular musicals as Chicago
and Kiss of the Spider Woman
name but a few. Famous for creating Liza Minnelli’s repertoire, including her
signature “Liza with a Z,” “Kandernebb” – as Kander now refers to them – are the
longest lasting songwriting team in Broadway history. Their latest The
, was completed by Kander after Ebb passed away in 2004.
Following a brief run Off Broadway last season, the show is now opening on
Kander, a Jewish Midwesterner by birth, recalls reading about
the trial of the nine black youths, the Scottsboro Boys who were accused of
raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.
“When I was a kid” Kander
recalls, “it was in the newspaper almost every day.
And then some years
went on and it was in the paper once in a while…and then it wasn’t in the paper
at all. They disappeared as if they had never existed.”
As the musical
depicts, the nine youths – ages 13 to 21 – were denied the right to legal
defense, hastily convicted, and all but one sentenced to death. With more
mistrials and appeals, the case spanned two decades, becoming one of the most
corrupt and protracted in American history.
Fact is: lives were destroyed
for a crime that never occurred. “One of the reasons that we chose their story”,
Kander says emphatically, “is because it matters to us. It’s an attempt – maybe
one you can only achieve in the theater – to bring them back to
When I ask John Kander about the parallels between The Scottsboro
and what’s happening in America today, he volunteers, “This the most
divided time I’ve seen in my life. The revival of racism and hatreds is
blatant...Contrary to what a lot of people are saying - ‘isn’t it
wonderful that we have a black president’ - it’s like a Pandora’s
People are doing things openly now that were not allowed when Fred
and I started writing this. It’s terrifying.”
THAT ALL but one of the
were eventually freed is due in some part to the work of the
International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party, which
enlisted the foremost criminal lawyer of the day, New York attorney Samuel
Leibowitz. In the play, that character is depicted as snide and exploitative of
the black youths.
Kander explains: “We didn’t want to present a man who’s
just angelic and nonexistent.
He was a very, very successful lawyer and
when he came down to Alabama he really thought, ‘well I have this track record
and I’m not going to lose this either.’ But to his credit he never gave up on
Kander continues, “Not only were the defendants black, but they
were being defended by a Jewish lawyer. It was a double whammy.”
anti-Semitism is depicted in the song, “Financial Advice” with its references to
“Jew Money”. That Kander’s music is so ebullient is a direct contrast to the
Similarly, the song “Electric Chair” is performed as a big tap
dancing show biz number.
Grinning slyly, and somewhat childlike, Kander
comments, “That is really fun.
I admit to it. Fred and I did a lot in our
writing to say something horrible and to set it in the most lighthearted or
lyrical way. The song called “Class” in Chicago is really disgusting. But if you
sing those words to a kind of sweet Schubert like piece of music suddenly it
takes on an irony that is both amusing and confusing.”
Just like Cabaret
is staged in a 1930’s German music hall, and Chicago is set to the vaudeville
style of its era, The Scottsboro Boys
is staged as a minstrel show with the main
characters appearing in blackface at the end.
“Looking back at it now”
Kander remarks, “we realize it was something unbelievably racist and demeaning
to black people. But it was the most popular form of entertainment in this
country for many years and people didn’t think anything about it. Just as the
Jewish comedians who were so popular up until recently were funny, really funny.
Of course, underneath it there is also something demeaning.”
bares the “Kandernebb” signature: incredibly upbeat songs that
reflect an unbeatably optimistic view of life. While underlying it all, innocent
young men are caught up in historical events far beyond their control.