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
The creators of The Scottsboro Boys are out to make audiences squirm in their seats with discomfort. This new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb tells the true story of nine black men who were wrongfully accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931 and put through hell in jail before being released years later. What puts audiences of Scottsboro into such discomfort are the grim historical facts and the jolting manner in which the story is told—a painfully wide-grinned minstrel show. This daring method of storytelling should be no surprise, as Kander and Ebb famously highlighted American judicial failure in the musical classic Chicago with tongue-in-cheeked razzle dazzle.
Along with book writer David Thompson, Kander and Ebb (the latter died in 2004) use the creepy, controversial minstrel method to juxtapose the injustice that is done to the nine innocent men and highlight the atrocious crimes of racism. Broadway legend John Cullum plays the minstrel staple of Interlocutor, who orders up the cast to tell a story. Coleman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, two other minstrel fixtures that rotate tirelessly through numerous roles. Domingo, as deranged as ever, is chilling as he brutalizes and tortures the Scottsboro Boys with insane evil as a sheriff, lawyer, and prison guard.
It’s a wonder that Domingo is able to sustain his heightened level of cartoon maniac throughout the show, yet the same can be said for the rest of the cast and the heavy subject matter. In the bluntly-titled number “Electric Chair,” Guard Bones and Guard Tambo terrify the youngest member of the Scottsboro Boys—Eugene, a little boy—with the possible fate of electrocution. The guards perform the number with sadistic pleasure, and it’s jolting to think that Jeremy Gumbs, the young actor who plays Eugene, is involved with such a dark show at his young age. Read more