Theatrical Stumbles of Historic Proportions

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

HISTORY is being quickly shuttled off Broadway stages and back into the library stacks this fall, as three new high-aiming, talent-rich shows that delve into the American past for subject matter are playing to sparse audiences. The musicals “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” are closing with unhappy dispatch, despite reviews that range from respectful to ecstatic. And the new John Guare play about the Louisiana Purchase, “A Free Man of Color,” looks likely to eke out its limited run playing to strictly limited houses after sharply dividing the critics. Staged history lessons, it would appear, are about as appealing to Broadway audiences these days as Shakespeare without celebrities.

Given their unusual subjects, a casual observer might draw the natural conclusion that these ambitious productions were too dark or civics-lessonish to suit the glitz-riddled precincts around Times Square, where flashy musicals merchandising nostalgia tend to thrive.

The harsh suffering of the African-Americans falsely accused of rape in Alabama in the 1930s does not, after all, seem a surefire subject for a musical entertainment. Ditto the ambiguous legacy of Andrew Jackson, the American president whose enforced relocation of the Indians is viewed by many as a major blot on the nation’s moral escutcheon. Mr. Guare’s chosen chapter from the United States history books is similarly no flag-waving Fourth of July picnic, depicting as it does the maneuvering among statesmen preceding the grand Louisiana Purchase and the treaty’s grim consequences for the country’s black population....

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