Susan Stroman, Brandon Victor Dixon and David Thompson on bringing The Scottsboro Boys to the West End

The acclaimed Young Vic production is transferring to the Garrick Theatre next month

Susan Stroman is going over dance steps with Brandon Victor Dixon as we walk into a small rehearsal room at Nola Studios in Manhattan. In three days' time, Dixon, late of Broadway's Motown The Musical, will head to London to begin rehearsals for the West End production of the John Kander, Fred Ebb, and David Thompson musical The Scottsboro Boys, but Stroman, the director and choreographer, wanted a few days of extra time with her leading man.

Dixon originated the role of Haywood Patterson, one of nine young black men wrongly accused of raping two white woman on a boxcar train in 1931, at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre in 2010. He didn't follow the show to Broadway, where it played only 49 performances at the Lyceum Theatre but, despite these odds, received 12 Tony nominations (the most by a closed show in Broadway history). Dixon is back now, ready to rejoin his fellow American original cast members Forrest McClendon, Colman Domingo, and James T Lane, and take the show to the Garrick Theatre after a sell-out run at the Young Vic.

Once the rehearsal ended, Stroman, book writer Thompson, and Dixon sat down with TheaterMania and WhatsOnStage to discuss the importance of this piece, the re-exploration process, and the thrill of bringing the show to London.

Susan Stroman and Brandon Victor Dixon in rehearsals for The Scottsboro Boys
Susan Stroman and Brandon Victor Dixon in rehearsals for The Scottsboro Boys
© David Gordon

What do you think of the Garrick Theatre?

Susan Stroman: It's a beautiful theatre, and perfect for The Scottsboro Boys. It's intimate and the audience is really raked up, so you're looking right down onto the guys. It's kind of like [off-Broadway theatre] the Vineyard in a way, but on a bigger scale. Everybody feels like they're part of the story.

How did you come to the decision to use a mixture of American and British performers?

Susan Stroman: I just felt it would be better to have a few Americans peppered into the company, mainly because it is a very American story. They don't have the history that we have here, so the investment is slightly different. They know about the history, but they haven't experienced it like our American cast has. There is an authenticity that our American cast brings to it. The British actors really jumped on board and love the story. I've never done a show where the cast was so invested in telling that story.

David Thompson: [American actors] Forrest McClendon, Colman Domingo, and James T Lane really built those parts, so they own it. Brandon owns that part in a way. We had the opportunity to work with him to create the show, so it's great to see the person who inspired it be able to think it over again. It's interesting to see what the British cast brings to it. They have many chapters of their own problems with racism. There were cases that people knew immediately that they could draw the correlation to make it resonate with them.

Brandon Victor Dixon: I said when we first started rehearsals that they had to take this thing to the West End. The level of the work is such that I knew they would appreciate it. The nature of the show, the lens through which you all decide to tell the story, is just really extraordinary. I knew the British audience would be able to appreciate the work.

Was there much changed for the London production?

David Thompson: We didn't change much going into London. We even left things in that we knew the audience might not understand – references to George Wallace, things like that. We felt it wasn't necessary to pander to that audience. They were going to come with us on the journey, and they really did. You don't deconstruct it to make it easier; you make it what it needs to be.

Susan Stroman: It's the same in structure, but the actors bring more to it, even though they're saying the same lines and doing the same choreography. The designers always show up, too. It is the same footprint. But it changes slightly in its breath with each company.

Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson in the Vineyard Theatre production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Susan Stroman, in 2010
Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson in the Vineyard Theatre production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Susan Stroman, in 2010
© Carol Rosegg

Brandon, this is your first time working in London. How are you feeling about it?

Brandon Victor Dixon: I'm excited! I studied in Oxford when I was in high school, and I've spent time in London. It's one of my favourite cities. You always want to do great work in a great place for great people, and this is all of that. I've always wanted to do a show in London, and I couldn't ask for a more perfect production to go over there with. This show has always been special to me. The energy we were able to create as a group was such a unique and thrilling experience. I talk to my fellow actors to this day about certain nights. You want to be filled with that. I've longed for the opportunity to jump back into it and tell the story myself.

Was bringing The Scottsboro Boys to the West End ever a thought in your mind?

David Thompson: If somebody would have told us ten years ago that this would have been the path of this show… We were just looking for one person to do it once. We just wanted to have a reading. After the Vineyard, it was such an incredible experience. You always wanted everything to be that perfect, in terms of the material, the company, and an audience. It's just great to know it'll be up on its feet again.

Susan Stroman: The fact that it's going to the West End is thrilling.

The Scottsboro Boys opens at the Garrick Theatre on 4 October 2014