When Alfred Uhry was a kid in Atlanta in the 1940's, nobody in his family would ever talk about a lynching that had taken place in Georgia 21 years before he was born--the lynching, not of a black man, but of white man, a Jew, named Leo Frank.
"I suppose it was just too horrible," says Uhry. "Well, not too horrible, but too painful a memory, because they"--the affluent, 100 percent American parents and grandparents he'd so lovingly re-created in Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo--"had been victims of the anti-Semitism that flared up in Atlanta as a consequence."
At 4am Sunday, April 27, 1913, the night watchman of the National Pencil Company factory in Marietta, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, came upon the raped and strangled body of Mary Phagan, a pretty 13-year-old who worked at the factory attaching the metal eraser clasps to the ends of the pencils. She'd come that Saturday--Confederate Memorial Day, the day of a big parade, so she was dressed in her finest--to pick up $1.80 owed her in back pay, collecting it from Leo Frank, the tense, bespectacled newlywed who'd come from Brooklyn to Atlanta to run the pencil factory and who, as a workaholic, was at his desk that Saturday.
Arrested, tried and convicted largely on the basis of testimony from an illiterate sweeper named Jim Conley--"the first time in the history of the South," says Uhry, "that a jury believed the testimony of a black man over that of a white man"--the same Leo Frank two years later, on Aug. 16, 1915, after the case had become an international cause celebre, and after a gutsy Gov. John M. Slaton had commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment, was yanked at midnight from his bed in the state pen at Milledgeville, Georgia, by 25 armed members of a group calling themselves The Knights of Mary Phagan, and hauled back and hanged by them from a oak tree in Marietta. All Georgia rejoiced.
"I knew the Leo Frank story, but not in any depth," says Harold Prince, director of Parade, the new musical at the Vivian Beaumont Theater starring Brent Carver--the brilliant Molina of Kander & Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman (also directed by Prince)--as Leo Frank. "So when Alfred [Uhry] proposed it as a Broadway show, I thought it a wonderful idea.
"Why? Because it's impossibly difficult when you first look at it. What I've learned over the years is that the impossibly difficult ideas are the best ideas. The challenge is to unlock them. It's the easy, can't-miss ideas that are always a problem for me. I mean," says Prince, "everybody's got a Gone With the Wind in his or her own head. But Kiss of the Spider Woman? West Side Story? Leo Frank? That's when they scratch heads in surprise. And the other thing, it also involves a certain work ethic."
The libretto of Parade, then, is by warm, affable 61-year-old Alfred Uhry; the music and lyrics by 28-year-old Jason Robert Brown, a young man who was first brought to Prince's attention by the young woman who'd directed Brown's Songs for a New World at Off-Broadway's WPA Theatre--Prince's daughter Daisy.
There were aspects of the Leo Frank case that had always particularly interested Uhry--apart from the fact that his great-Uncle Sigmund Montag, his mother's uncle, once owned the National Pencil Factory that became the Scripto factory.
"First, the love story," he says. "Leo Frank had been married only a couple of years to an Atlanta girl named Lucille Selig [played by Carolee Carmello]. I think it was sort of an arranged marriage, but now they fell in love, she became his voice, led a big crusade to save him, got the Governor to review the case. She never left Atlanta, never remarried, never changed her name, lived out her life as what they called a vendeuse at a local dress store; and when I was a little boy, she was one of my grandmother's old-lady friends"--yes, the same grandmother the world would one day get to know so well when she's being driven around town in the back seat of that big old car.
"The other person who fascinates me," says Uhry, "is Gov. Slaton [actor John Hickok]. He was a young, good-looking fellow on his way to being Senator. His term as Governor was almost up; he could have passed the ball along to the next guy. But he gave this wonderful speech--'Two-thousand years ago, another governor washed his hands of a case like this . . . I don't want to be like that.'" Throughout the South, Slaton was excoriated. His political career was wrecked, finished.
In Uhry's memory, the moment he first broached the Leo Frank idea to Prince, the director jumped up from his chair exclaiming, "That's the musical I've been waiting for!" In Hal Prince's memory, "the minute I heard about Leo Frank, I thought it had to be Brent Carver. Brent's such a charismatic, interesting and complex person, on and offstage. I love enigmas--the kind of personality you can't get a handle on. The danger of it, which creates such excitement onstage. You've got to admire a guy who wins a Tony Award [as Molina] and instead of going to Hollywood, goes home to Canada to play Cyrano de Bergerac."
Two postscripts to the case of Leo Frank:
1. Jim Conley, the factory hand who convinced a Georgia jury that it was Frank who must have raped and killed Mary Phagan--and who continues to this day to be a strong suspect himself in that brutal crime--was shot in the midst of staging a burglary a dozen years later.
2. "The men who lynched Leo Frank," declared a 1915 editorial in the Macon, Georgia, Telegraph, "went ahead with clear consciences. It would never have happened had the rest of the nation left this state to mind its own business."