A Frank Conversation
Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello are Leo and Lucille Frank in Parade
by Michael Portantiere
They're the kind of roles most actors would give their eyeteeth for, based on the central figures in one of this century's most compelling real life dramas; Leo Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn living a fish-out-of-water existence in Atlanta in 1913, wrongfully convicted of murdering young Mary Phagan; and his wife, Lucille, who does everything in her power to save her husband and clear his name, only to see him lynched by an anti-Semitic mob.
It's not Hello, Dolly! Rather, Parade exemplifies the kind of thought provoking work that is director, Harold Prince, has favored during his more than 40 year career as a Broadway legend. Happily, the balance of the show's creative team is also worthy of the challenge: Parade's book is by Alfred Uhry, whose credits include shows as diverse as Driving Miss Daisy and The Robber Bridegroom; its music and lyrics are by talented newcomer Jason Robert Brown; and its stars are extraordinarily well chosen. Leo Frank is played by Brent Carver, the Canadian actor who leapt from relative obscurity to wow Broadway with his 1993 Tony winning performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman, while Carolee Carmello--beloved for her roles in musicals ranging from Hello Again to Falsettos to 1776--is Lucille. During a chat in the lobby of Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, Carver and Carmello talked about Parade and about the future of "serious" musical theater.
I thought we might start off with a tough question. Given the popularity of lightweight and/or visually spectacular musicals, some people fear that more intellectually stimulating, text based shows like Parade are an endangered species. What's your opinion?
Carmello: I think there's room for both.
Carver: All of Sondheim, the great lyrics of Kander and Ebb--people certainly seem to be attracted to those. Gypsy has one of the great texts, and that will last forever. It depends on the subject matter, and the time. So often, we've seen the more serious musicals not quite being related to. Then they're revived, and people appreciate them more.
Carmello: Like Sweeney Todd. That show was less popular when it opened than we remember; now, it seems like such a important piece of theater. A friend of mine who came to Parade said she wasn't quite sure how she felt about it, and she really thought she should see it again. That may happen. I also think there are some people who are never going to be attracted to this show--who are going to go to Footloose instead, and love it. There's nothing wrong with that. Another person may feel like seeing Footloose one night, and Parade the next. You've got to have variety.
Carver: That's what's fantastic about the New York theater. It's like going to a festival and deciding, "I want to see a comedy this time," or "I want to see a tragedy." Parade is a musical tragedy, to a certain extent. But, for me, great tragedies are always uplifting.
Carmello: There does seem to be a turn toward happy, visual musicals. That's why it's great that there are places like Lincoln Center and the Roundabout that are willing to do shows like this. They can afford to take artistic chances and still survive, because they know they have patrons who'll support them.
Have you noticed any differences between subscription audiences and general theatergoing public?
Carver: People tend to subscribe to a place like Lincoln Center because they know they'll be given an array of choices and genres of theater. Because of that, they're introduced to all sorts of plays that they might not necessarily choose on a one shot basis. I think that's very advantageous.
Carmello: Also, a subscriber to Lincoln Center is certainly not expecting a fluffy musical comedy, because that's not usually what they get here.
Carver: But they're certainly entertained.
Carmello: And challenged.
In playing Leo and Lucille Frank, can we assume that you researched the actual historical figures and then brought what you learned to rehearsals?
Carver: Yes. I think that's the only way to do it--even though this is a story unto itself, based on their lives. And there's such an amazing amount of material on these two people.
Carmello: I have read quite a bit. But, at some point, you have to say, "This has been somewhat dramatized for the stage," and kind of remove yourself from the facts. No one really knows all the day-to-day goings-on of this case. And, still, no one knows who killed Mary Phagan. So there's room for liberties to be taken. The writers have decided which story they're going to tell; they've focused on certain parts of it.
Having played these characters for several weeks now, what have you learned about them?
Carmello: My feelings about Lucille have changed as the writers have made changes. I did a reading of this show almost three years ago, and they've made the characters stronger and stronger. Just last week, they added a couple of lines at the very end of the show that made me re-examine some things.
Carver: I did the staged workshop of Parade last year. That was my first experience with the piece. What's different for me, I think, is what the show is about: hearing the story night after night, and seeing it from Alfred's, Jason's, and Hal's points of view.
I didn't expect the show to be so much about the Franks' marriage.
Carmello: I don't think Hal and the writers expected that, either. I remember having a conversation wtih Hal after the second reading that we did. He said, "We've learned that the relationship between leo and Lucille is so important, and we really want to develop that." So, in the next go around, they added the duet "This Is Not Over Yet" and they fleshed out the relationship further. I think they realized that's what brought humanity to the show.
Carver: Jason has said that it took him the longest time to be able to write for Leo; then he started to be able to write for Leo; then he started to think of his grandfather, and that helped him. It's the writers' and the director's point of view that has changed what I'm doing with the character.
The arc of the relationship is so believable. I didn't know a lot about the story before I saw the show, and I wondered whether Lucille would walk out on her husband.
Carver: That's so dramatic, all that stuff. How does anyone deal with a situation like this? What realizations do they come to about themselves and the other person in their lives? It must have been extraordinary for Leo and Lucille. One never knows, under such circumstances, how one would respond. There is a case in Canada now of a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder. His mother stood by him for 20 years, and he was finally exonerated. Support is all. It's about the priorities in one's life.
Brent, the two characters you've played in New York--Leo in Parade, and Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman--are victims of persecution. Are you drawn to those types of roles and that subject matter?
Carver: Certainly, it's a subject that must always be addressed. I find the word "tolerance" very odd, because it assumes that one will only "tolerate" someone else: there's still a position of judgment. "Acceptance" has to be acceptance of everything; it's not conditional. People need and want to hear these stories. And, for me, to be working with great writers and a great director is a gift.
Carmello: I think it's interesting when people say to actors things like, "You've played three different wives. Do you try to play wives?" It's like, "No, I just try to get a job!" I guess it's different if you're Meryl Streep, or whoever. And I do think there's a certain amount of who you are in how you're cast. [To Carver] I'm not saying you look like someone who should be put in jail! You and I have been fortunate that we've had a chance to play all different kinds of roles. But actors do have certain personas that we walk in with when we audition for a show. And, sometimes, people cast you according to what they've seen you do before.
Carver: Hamlet says "There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." We put our own walls or barriers around ourselves.
Did you feel any pressure, Brent, to follow up your great success in Spider Woman with more high profile shows, or films, or TV work?
Carver: That was certainly not my agenda. After Kiss of the Spider Woman, I played wonderful parts on stage in Canada--Richard III, Cyrano de Bergerac--and I shot five or six independent films that I think are just terrific. That's the kind of thing I want to do, and [the Tony Award] enabled me to do what I want to do--which includes coming back to new York now and working in Parade. It's generally the piece itself and the people involved that attract me to a project.
Hal Prince is one of the godfathers of serious musical theater. What's it like to work with him?
Carver: There's a real earnestness and an innocence about what he does that creates a kind of excitement you might not have with another director.
Carmello: Hal has incredible passion. It's like having the world's greatest football coach; he believes so much in the piece, and the art form. Here's this 70-year-old man bouncing around with enthusiasm, like he's a teenager and it's the first play he's ever done.
Carver: He really does notice everything. When something is off, he will see it or hear it really quickly.
Carmello: I clearly remember him talking about the lighting cues at the first reading. The first reading! It's like he had the whole show in his head, and he just had to fill everyone else in.
Carver: His imagination is really . . .
Carmello: . . . fertile.
Carver: And he loves telling a good story, but in a non
sentimental way. I think Hal made the choice to have some things
inferred in Parade, rather than to stage them graphically.
That can be a better approach with a profound subject like anti-Semitism.
What is the truth? That's exactly what everyone is looking for in
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