Scottsboro Boy James T. Lane double dips in the Kander and Ebb catalogue
Late last September, it would probably have been difficult to find a Broadway actor who was more engulfed in the music of John Kander and Fred Ebb than James T. Lane. The Philadelphia native was concluding his commitment to the Kander and Ebb classic Chicago and rehearsing for the famous duo’s final show, The Scottsboro Boys. Last April, Lane kicked off Stage Rush’s Ensemble Watch series while he was part of Chicago’s company. He now plays the key, dual role of Ozie (one of the Scottsboro Boys) and Ruby, a white woman (yes, white woman) who falsely accuses the nine black men of raping her and her friend. Lane sat down with Stage Rush to discuss his Scottsboro transition, his new spotlight, and ladies hats.
The last time we spoke, it was April and you were in Chicago. How did The Scottsboro Boys come about?
I had done a reading of The Scottsboro Boys in June 2009. But before then, I auditioned at the end of 2008 for a reading of the show and I didn’t get it. I had a horrible audition, actually. I accidentally made cuts in the song, so obviously the accompanist and I didn’t gel. So when it came around again, I was like, “I’m doing the whole song!” I sang “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and then they asked me a funny question: “Do you think you could sing it as a girl?” I said, “Do you mean in my falsetto?” and they said, “No, as a female.” So I did it 1920s, flapper style, very cutesy with shoulders and knees. I didn’t know what they were getting at! I got the reading.
You weren’t involved in the production at the Vineyard Theatre last February. How did the Broadway opportunity come your way?
When they announced that Scottsboro was going to go to the Vineyard, I had obligations with Chicago and some concert work that I had already agreed to. So the Vineyard happened and then they announced it was going to Broadway and I felt, ugh, like I really missed my opportunity. My chance came around again midway through the tryouts in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater over the summer. September 20 was when I started rehearsals, and our first preview was October 7. So much had changed since that reading I did.
What is the process of switching shows like?
I did double duty on Chicago and Scottsboro Boys for about a week and a half from September 20 to sometime in October. I was doing rehearsals for Scottsboro during the day and performing Chicago at night. Luckily, both shows have the same producers. I had to put my four-weeks notice in, but they knew what I was doing and were lenient.
Video: James T. Lane talks spotting Kristin Chenoweth at Scottsboro‘s opening night
It’s so interesting that you jumped from one Kander and Ebb show to another.
I know! I mean, that doesn’t happen every day, huh? I don’t know too many people who have done that, but that’s what happened. I said to John Kander the other day, “The content of these shows!” Chicago’s about murder, Scottsboro Boys is about rape and it’s a minstrel show—these are heavy, heavy topics. He said, “You know James, we were never really interested in doing boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love shows. We were always interested in human stories that were filled with a lot of drama.” He mentioned how he and Fred Ebb were lucky, and that he feels his luckiest with Scottsboro.
Tell me about that period when you were pulling double duty.
I was enjoying it, because I didn’t think this opportunity was going to come again. It’s John Kander and Fred Ebb’s last show—that opportunity was like, wow, I can’t believe this is happening. The chance to work with director Susan Stroman. This cast—when have you had nine African American men on stage together in a major musical? I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into that and the camaraderie that happens when you have that type of energy. I was going a little cuckoo also. I couldn’t wait till dinner break. Rehearsals for Scottsboro were over at 6 p.m. and half-hour call for Chicago was at 7:30 p.m. I had an hour and a half to turn around. The first couple of evenings in Chicago, my head was filled with Scottsboro Boys. I always had to remind myself: be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment for where you are right now.
What was your reaction to being cast in the dual role of Ozie and Ruby? Did you think, ‘I’m going to be playing what?!’
Absolutely, I wondered how they were going to do that. I’m playing a girl? What an opportunity. Talk about range! Outside of La Cage aux Folles, who has the opportunity to do something like that? It’s amazing what you can do with the flip of a hat, the adding of a sash or a scarf, and you can become something totally different and the audience takes that ride with you. It speaks to the writing of the show. Christian Dante White plays Victoria [the other white woman] and we work so well together and feed off of each other, so the characters grow because of that other person.
What have your interactions with John Kander been like?
I remember when we were rehearsing [Ruby’s solo] “Never Too Late” for our tech. I did this thing where I went really high vocally and John Kander came from the back of the house and told me to do it again, and said, “Let’s put that in.” I was like, John Kander has strolled down to the orchestra and changed the score. It is forever to be like that. Musical theater classes from now on, that’s how they’re going to [perform this song].
Talk about what it’s like to perform the choreography in this show. It’s very complicated, in addition to being performed on stacked chairs.
Yes, stacked chairs! I think you have to just go for it when you’re on those chairs. Are you going to step timidly or are you going to step? Those chairs are something else. A lot of it has to do with trust.
Your performance as Ruby is very heightened. Is it difficult to sustain?
“Never Too Late” is shot out of a cannon. You ride that wave and when you think it’s over it goes up even more. I think it comes in a good time in the show, so it is supported by everyone on stage. I get the support of the ensemble. I’m dead tired after that. I’m glad I get to sit down. But it’s really needed at that moment in the story.
So many shows are following in this trend—what is it like performing with no intermission?
Once you get on the train, it doesn’t stop. That’s what keeps you going. Emotionally and physically, it doesn’t stop. If there were moments where actors got to leave the stage for a while, that would be such a different ride. But because we’re basically on stage for most of the show, you’re all on the ride. You’re agreeing to go on that ride for the evening, and that really helps. It’s definitely nice to be out of here by 10 p.m.
This is a heavy show. Do you feel the subject matter weighing on you? How do you shake it off?
I would be inhuman if I didn’t say the show affected me, as a black man, as a human being, as an American. But it’s an educational piece, a look back into our past to the things we don’t necessarily want to look at. When we look at those tough things, we’re able to shed a little bit of light on them. Christian Dante White talks about us being activists in telling the stories of these nine men. We bring new life to these men, so that people remember who they are.
What is your favorite thing about “Never Too Late”?
I really love that hat. I love that I get to kick my face [with high dance kicks]. I never ever really get to kick my face, but I get to do a huge bon mot in my face and be all coy about it. I love playing a woman. I love it! I never thought I would get a chance to do something like that.
The last time I saw you, we talked about the urge to break out and take the spotlight. Seven months later, would you say you’ve got that ability?
Yes, I definitely am in that position, but I still want more. I’m learning and growing and one thing is always leading to the next thing. I like where I am, but I know that there’s more there.