Monday, April 26, 2010

The Best Musical I’ve Never Seen: A Look at Parade

" don’t make sense the way the world can let you fall.” ---Parade

At first glance, the true story of a young girl’s brutal murder and the fate that befell the man falsely accused of the crime might not seem like the likeliest inspiration for a Broadway musical. And yet, this story laid the foundation for my new favorite musical and one of the best musicals I’ve ever encountered despite never having seen it, Parade. You could say that the stories behind the gruesome Sweeney Todd or the (fittingly) miserable Les Miserables also seem unlikely for musical and yet these have gone on to become icons of the Great White Way. I consider myself a Broadway buff but I had no idea this musical existed until a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon the Original Broadway Cast album on iTunes by accident and found myself immediately struck by the poster (see above). When Parade premiered on Broadway in 1998 with a book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (both won the Tony for it), and directed by Harold Prince, it closed after only 39 previews and 84 performances. This isn’t surprising. It’s a dark, disturbing show and probably not what most people go to the theater to see. I’m now kicking myself for not seeing it when I had the chance even though I was only eleven at the time and probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Now I’ve listened to not one but TWO recordings of Parade so many times I have most of the songs memorized. I’m currently reading a book about the case and I’m cursing Netflix for not carrying the documentary PBS made about it last November. Chalk it up to my ever reliable obsessive personality. It may not seem like a likely musical, but Parade is brilliant and I wish more people knew about it.

Of course, as if being ashamed of my failure as a Broadway fan weren’t enough, I’m also ashamed by my failure as a true crime fan. I had never heard of this case before discovering the musical. The simplistic run-down will shortly follow.

A word of warning. I am about to unashamedly spoil how Parade ends. However, this is one instance where I feel going in knowing the ending makes for a more enriching experience. It is, after all, a piece of history.

On Saturday, April 26, 1913, the day of the Confederate Memorial Day parade in Atlanta, Georgia, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan went to the pencil factory where she worked to collect her pay for the week. Early the next morning, her body was found in the factory basement. She had been strangled to death after possibly being raped. Despite a lack of concrete evidence and conflicting stories from his accuser, suspicion fell on 29-year-old Leo Frank, the factory superintendent, a man set apart in the community by his Northern upbringing (he had been born in Texas but raised in Brooklyn) and by his Judaism. Frank never stopped professing his innocence and his wife, Lucille stood by his side throughout the sensationalized trial. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Two years later, the governor of Georgia commuted the sentence to life in prison after reviewing the case, effectively ending his political career in the process. An outraged mob took matters into their own hands, kidnapped Frank from the prison farm where he was being held and lynched him on August 17, 1915 in Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta not far from her grave. The case ultimately led to a revival of the KKK and the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, a major civil rights organization. It is now remembered as a gross miscarriage of justice and a tragic reflection of American anti-Semitism, particularly acute in the South at the time.

The show opens in Marietta, Georgia during the Civil War with an idealistic young Confederate soldier going off to fight for the freedom of the South. Over the course of the haunting opening number “The Old Red Hills of Home,” the years go by and come to a standstill on April 26, 1913, Confederate Memorial Day. The same soldier, now a bitter old man with only one leg, sings again of Southern pride and honor, mourning a faded past that’s still alive and vibrant in the minds and memories of the people. Leo Frank, however, can’t bear to join in the festivities. He’s bewildered and alienated by everything he sees. He misses Brooklyn and the security of a community he belonged to. Even his wife, Lucille, a lifelong Georgian, acts more Southern than Jewish. To Leo, the two seem so antithetical, he doesn’t understand how you can be both Southern and Jewish. The show wisely avoids making Frank a wholly likeable character. In fact, in the beginning, he’s almost unsympathetic. He comes off as incredibly close-minded and judgmental remarking that his neighbors “belong in zoos.” He can’t even warm himself to Lucille who desperately wants to make the marriage work but is too timid to get close to him. At the start of the show, their relationship is a cold one. After the murder and Leo’s arrest, this characterization becomes surprisingly effective and highlights one of show’s most powerful statements: just because a person is different and/or difficult to be around doesn’t make him a murderer. It does, however, make him an easy target.

As Leo falls prey to the political maneuverings of a community hungry for a scapegoat, other factors enter in to seal his fate. His status as an Other, a college-educated Jew from up North, destroys him in the public’s eye. An unscrupulous journalist seeing his chance at a career-making story starts a smear campaign against Leo casting him as an unhinged pedophile. An anti-Semitic zealot arrives in town calling for his head. The prosecuting attorney provides Mary’s friends with false testimony, manipulating their grief to his advantage. The show provides subtle, powerful commentary about prejudice, the media, child labor, class conflicts, racial tensions and the danger of groupthink. Meanwhile, the case forces Lucille to summon the inner strength to stand by her husband and fight for his innocence when no one else will. After being married for years, she and Leo slowly start falling in love. This love story acts as the emotional core of the show and makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. Mary Phagan’s murder is never portrayed as anything but the tragedy it was, but in Parade, Leo Frank becomes its other victim.

Now please take into account I have not actually seen this musical. Everything you’ve just read is the result of my reading reviews and plot summaries (thanks Wikipedia!) and listening to the score almost non-stop since I discovered it. Writer Alfred Uhry, who grew up Jewish in the South and also had to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting facets of his identity, managed to create characters who breathe as individuals, not as stereotypes. Incidentally, his grandmother—the same grandmother who inspired the title character of his Pulitzer prize winning play, Driving Miss Daisy—was a friend of Lucille Frank’s. Of course, I’m judging from the taunting tracks of dialogue I’ve heard on the London cast recording. When I finally see the musical, I’ll be able to contribute further on the book.

The score, which Jason Robert Brown started writing when he was only 24, is truly astonishing and deserved every award it got. It catered shamelessly to my ever-growing love of early 20th century music combining ragtime, blues, traditional hymns, and gospel. It beautifully evokes the time period. The lyrics are quietly poetic and move the story along while also reflecting the inner feelings of the characters. Since much of the first act takes place during the trial, some songs emerge from fantasy sequences conjured by the witnesses’ false testimony. For example, when several of Mary’s friends testify that Leo made sexual advances towards them in the factory, Leo performs a lively song and dance number showing his attempts to seduce them. In this song, he transforms from a nervous, priggish man to a charismatic lecher. The effect of the song is to show us how nonsensical the charge is. By now, we know Leo could never act this way. However, heard out of context, it could give someone a very different impression. Parade is one of those musicals where few of the songs can stand on their own but it doesn’t matter. In every song, there’s a real sense of story. They're so intriguing that listening one grabs your attention like a hook. You have to listen to the rest and find out what's going on. Incidentally, some of the most beautiful songs are also the darkest. One of the most heartbreaking songs in the show “My Child Will Forgive Me,” sung by Mary’s mother at the trial is achingly lovely like a mournful lullaby, but it ends with a moment of biting racism.

I’ve become so enamored of the music that I’ve acquired two versions of it: the original Broadway cast recording and the recording of the 2007 Donmar Warehouse London production. Though I prefer Brent Carver as Leo Frank on the OBC album, on the whole I think I like the Donmar Warehouse recording better. It includes a few new songs written especially for the production and best of all, it has dialogue. The album gives the impression of a radio play complete with whole tracks of dialogue and sound effects. You can listen to it and get the whole story. Also the Donmar Warehouse used dual and triple casting (one actor playing two or three roles) and I’m a sucker for that. And what do you know, the Donmar Warehouse recording is on YouTube in its entirety (see Track One below)! But get a hold of them both if you can—support your local libraries! I really can’t choose. They complement each other. Listening to the album of a musical is a lot like reading a book--you have to imagine everything. I’ve seen pictures of the cast, sets, and of course, the real people who inspired the characters, and winced at how much they differed from how I imagined them. Still, as soon as I get a whiff of Parade playing live somewhere nearby, I will be going to see it.

Parade is not a history lesson. As always, certain liberties were taken for the sake of story—for example, the real Leo and Lucille Frank were very happily married before the murder. There are those, including Mary Phagan's relatives, who believe Leo Frank was the killer but that's a question for Hermes.* But the story that inspired it is very real. Look at it as musical and use it as a jumping off point to discover the history. It’s a story everybody should know.

*Question for Hermes: A question that probably won't have an answer in our lifetime. Refers to Ancient Greek mythology. The god Hermes escorted the dead to the Underworld. In other words, it's a question to ask Hermes on your way to the Underworld after you die because you won't find out before then. Suggested by Marie Phillips's Gods Behaving Badly.


  1. Oh, man, I love this show too. Enjoyed your thoughts about it.

  2. I know, I can't wait to actually see it. Until then, I have the music. Thanks so much for reading!

  3. Refuels! Must continue to publish the good article!.........

    Thank you!

  4. I think you would love it. And as always, I love spreading my obsessions. As I said, you can hear the whole Donmar Warehouse recording on YouTube (and that one gives you a more complete sense of the story because it has dialogue!) But the OBC recording is awesome too. I have them both now so I'll be happy to supply you with anything I can.

  5. This musical sounds oddly interesting. What I want to know is... who DID kill Mary in the end?

  6. Again...question for Hermes. Leo Frank was the only one convicted for the murder so officially, he's the killer, but the trial was such a poorly conducted sham, it's widely supposed he had nothing to do with it. The musical alludes to the fact that Jim Conley, an African-American who worked as a janitor in the factory, was probably the actual killer as he acted as the chief witness against Leo Frank and told an elaborate story in which Frank told him about the murder and made him move the body. Ironically, the case proved to be somewhat progressive because it marked the first time a white man was convicted due to a black man's testimony. But then Leo Frank was Jewish. As I said, there are those who think Frank actually did it, but who knows?

    I highly recommend checking it out. It's incredibly absorbing. Thanks for reading!