Destined for D.C.?: ‘Children of Eden’ and ‘Scottsboro Boys’ draw creative interest


The cast of “The Scottsboro Boys” performs during the 65th annual Tony Awards, Sunday, June 12, 2011 in New York. (Jeff Christensen/AP)

Attend the tale of two wandering musicals with imperial bloodlines, one by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell”), the other by John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Chicago”).

The first, Schwartz’s 1991 “Children of Eden,” has a remarkable cult following even though it has never been produced on Broadway. The second, Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys,” triumphed on Broadway, sort of — well, not really. It earned a whopping 12 Tony Award nominations in 2011, but won no trophies as “The Book of Mormon” cleaned up. “Scottsboro” had already closed in December 2010 after a disappointingly brief two-month run.

On Monday, “Children of Eden” — based on the Book of Genesis and featuring everything from the voice of God to the animals boarding Noah’s Ark — comes to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a one-night-only concert. The cast includes Jeremy Jordan (“Smash”) and Ashley Brown (Broadway’s “Mary Poppins”), and Schwartz himself will be there. Schwartz has never heard a live performance of the full orchestration that’s on tap for his sweeping “Eden” score — in fact, the score that he rates as his very favorite among his works.

“The Scottsboro Boys,” which brazenly uses a minstrel show format to retell the infamous 1931 incident of nine Alabama teenage boys accused of rape, successfully barnstormed up the California coast in 2012 and 2013. Last fall it was a success at London’s Young Vic, and the production moves to the West End this October.

So far, though, it’s not on Washington’s docket, even through the 2014-2015 season.

Is Schwartz’s “Children of Eden” sidewinding through Washington toward Broadway? Could Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” finally be inching toward D.C.?

Maybe . . .

‘Children of Eden’

“In a way, this is a world premiere of the full piece,” Schwartz says from his home in Connecticut.

That sounds funny for a show that began in the 1980s and was briefly nursed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, thanks to Schwartz’s pursuit of his eventual collaborator, John Caird. Caird was the co-director (with Trevor Nunn) of “Les Miserables” and “Nicholas Nickleby”; Schwartz recruited Caird to direct, and to write the show’s book.

Bad luck kept the project off the RSC’s stages. Instead, “Children” opened commercially on the West End, where it closed after three months. Schwartz and Caird kept working on it, though, as the show was revived by a series of U.S. regional theaters. When it surfaced at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 1997, Schwartz felt their work was done.

Variety liked it. The New York Times did not. Perhaps more fatefully, 60 people were in the cast.

“It requires the marshaling of a lot of forces,” Schwartz acknowledges. “Thus far, there hasn’t been a producer who has been interested who has figured out a way to make it viable.”

Even so, the Paper Mill cast album helped get the show into the ears of singers, producers and Schwartz buffs all over the country. Jason Cocovinis, marketing director of Music Theatre International, confirms that for a show that’s never had its passport stamped by Broadway, “Children of Eden” enjoys an unusually busy licensing life — hundreds of amateur and school productions annually.

“ ‘Children of Eden’ is in its own special category,” Cocovinis says.

Schwartz terms the piece a “semi-oratorio,” demanding not just a chorus (with Broadway overtones that he doesn’t think quite fit), but a choir. And it’s not that no one has been interested in trying to mint another Schwartz hit on Broadway, where the business is brisk for his “Wicked” and “Pippin.” But it would involve cutting corners in ways that Schwartz isn’t comfortable with so far.

“Why would you do something on Broadway that is not up to the level of what you could do in Milburn, New Jersey?” he says. “It doesn’t make artistic sense.”

After Monday’s semi-staged concert, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge (of the Kennedy Center’s “Ragtime”) and featuring the Opera House Orchestra, Schwartz figures that his show “will continue to have its happy life. It’s going to be nice to have a big showy concert of it, with fantastic singers and big orchestra and a choir and everything. And it’s possible someone could see it and then say, ‘I have a plan for this.’ But this is not intended as a step toward a goal. It is a goal in itself.”

Or perhaps this is a controlled early look by the powers at the Kennedy Center, much as “Side Show” — the 1997 Broadway flop that was part of a peculiar Kennedy Center concert in 2008 that included condensed versions of “Girl Crazy” and “Bye Bye Birdie” — has since blossomed into a full production taking the Eisenhower Stage next month. “Side Show” is being directed by Bill Condon, screenwriter of the movie “Chicago” and writer-director of the film version of “Dreamgirls.”

Asked if there are now film possibilities for that musical, Max Woodward, the center’s vice president for theater programming, coyly replies, “I wouldn’t say no.”

Likewise, he’s crossing his fingers for “Children of Eden.”

“Maybe, just maybe,” Woodward says, “there’s another life for it.”

‘The Scottsboro Boys’

Lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004, with “The Scottsboro Boys” among his unfinished projects. Four years later, his career-long composing partner, John Kander, suggested to David Thompson and Susan Stroman — the book writer and director-choreographer, respectively, of Kander and Ebb’s 1997 “Steel Pier” — that they see it through.

The show opened in 2010 off-Broadway and quickly transferred to a commercial run on Broadway — two months and done.

Yet Stroman’s bare-bones production, with a strong cast of singer-actors driving the story through its minstrel show paces on a minimal set, popped up in Philadelphia. Then San Diego. San Francisco. L.A.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long,” the Los Angeles Times judged last year, calling it “a sophisticated knockout, a musical for those who like their razzle dazzle with a radical, unsentimental edge.”

Even now in England, half of the original New York cast is still with the show. And there’s the rub, or at least one rub: Because the licensing rights haven’t yet been released by the creative team (“selfishly,” Thompson says a little wryly), the only way for “Scottsboro Boys” to have played Washington since it shuttered in New York is for a theater to have booked that same Stroman-directed production.

A theater like, say, Ford’s.

“I’m a fan of the piece,” says Ford’s director Paul R. Tetreault, who confirms that he’s been talking with the “Scottsboro” team since at least 2011.

Presenting the Stroman production — which is sneaky-expensive, even according to Thompson — means housing the out-of-town actors, a cost not easily borne by a lot of troupes. But perhaps Signature Theatre could shoulder it? After all, Signature brought Chita Rivera and George Hearn in for the big-cast Kander and Ebb show “The Visit” in 2008.

“It’s been on our list,” says Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer, who premiered Kander and Ebb’s “Over and Over” here in 1999. Signature, though, would prefer to produce the musical on its own.

And there’s the other rub: “The Scottsboro Boys” is framed as a minstrel show. Race is still America’s ultra-touchy subject and minstrelsy is a dangerous lightning rod; just ask Spike Lee. His 2000 movie “Bamboozled,” about a frustrated TV performer who angrily turns to stereotypes and blackface and shockingly uncovers a huge audience, was brilliant, but a box office dud.

“Scottsboro” drew protests in New York — small and, according to Thompson, not informed, with objectors declining invitations to attend the show. Nonetheless, the creative team fretted enough about the show’s brief but powerful use of blackface that in Philadelphia, they cut it.

“We realized immediately it wasn’t better,” Thompson says by phone from New York. Blackface remains a part of the show.

Navigating the hazards of racial representation is part of why Thompson, Kander and Stroman have
been shepherding their production around the country. “Just so we could have control of how it was working,” Thompson says.

“We didn’t want that bell tied around its neck, that the piece was somehow going to be too difficult to take,” he adds.

Thompson guesses that the show will appear in Washington fairly soon (and in a local production, not the Stroman staging). “It’s a tough piece of theater, but I think a lot of regional theaters embrace that. That’s what their audience is comfortable with.”

Even Washington audiences?

“I think there’d be an uproar about it,” says Tetreault, who, like Schaeffer, avows that he is undaunted by the theme and treatment. “But I think there’d be as many people who would say, ‘This is really powerful.’ ”

“It is the kind of show that some people will be afraid to produce, so it may not get as many productions as it deserves,” Schaeffer says. “But it will be amazing, because people will do it with such heart and soul. That’s going to be the harder thing: Who’s going to have enough [guts] to do it?”

Children of Eden, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by John Caird. Monday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $49-$110. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

The Scottsboro Boys, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson. Beginning Oct. 4 at the Garrick Theatre, London. Visit scottsboromusicallondon.com.

Nelson has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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