This is Kander and Ebb’s worst show. Yes, worse than The Happy Time, worse than The Act. If you even count this as a “real” Kander and Ebb show (and given that it was an out-of-town discard that was only resuscitated and brought to Broadway after Ebb’s death, that itself is up for debate), then it is without question their absolute low point.
The show has its defenders, but they are wrong, and largely fall into the category of people that consider any serious, socially conscious theater “good”, regardless of its actual quality. This show’s clearest influence is Parade, which is already an extremely bad sign. Parade has its admirers for the same reasons mentioned above, but its gratuitously depressing subject matter was hardly necessary for its ‘bigotry is bad’ message, and this show suffers from many of the same problems. Given that two vastly better Kander and Ebb compositions than this one suffered from commercial failure due to being too depressing (Zorba and Kiss of the Spider Woman), you’d think that by now they would know better than to try this kind of thing.
Then again, it may not be entirely fair to compare this show to Parade: at least Parade had a wonderful score. Granted, The Scottsboro Boys has a few decent songs (this is Kander and Ebb, after all), but it also has a number of embarrassingly labored shtick-based minstrel show pastiches. Indeed, as bad as the initial idea was, the show might have been at least partially salvageable if not for the minstrel show frame. This frame was clearly intended to be a takeoff on the formulas used in their two most successful shows, Cabaret and Chicago, but all it amounted to here was heavy-handed, on-the-nose satire, absolutely ghastly acting from the hammy “Bones and Tambo” pair who wound up playing all the supporting parts, and a bunch of utterly floppo musical numbers.
The only good thing about this show is that its failure seems to have discouraged Kander’s plan to bring every project he and Ebb deemed unworthy at the time to Broadway in some kind of misguided tribute to his partner’s memory. Thank God for that, at least.