They love a Parade
By Jack Zink
Posted February 9 2003
Parade is a story that begins with a tombstone epitaph and ends with a lynching,
connected by the rants of a white supremacist newspaper publisher.
An odd choice for a Broadway musical? Writer Alfred Uhry thought so too,
when uber-director Harold Prince leaped at the idea a decade ago.
But Prince is the man who brought West Side Story, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd
and Kiss of the Spider Woman -- all tragedies -- to the stage. And Uhry,
a Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner for the unconventional play Driving
Miss Daisy, wanted somehow to tell the Leo Frank story, the true tale of
a 1915 anti-Semitic railroading in Atlanta. Prince, who holds 20 Tony Awards,
more than any other individual, provided both the opportunity and the vehicle.
Six years later, in 1998, Prince delivered Parade to Broadway, where it won
Tony Awards for best book of a musical for Uhry and best original score for
his collaborator, Jason Robert Brown. But by the time the awards were presented,
the show was long gone.
It was hailed by most critics and theater devotees. The Christian Science
Monitor called it "brilliant and terrifying" and said "the American stage
will never be the same ... one of the most thrilling evenings of a theater-lover's
lifetime." The Chicago Tribune added "the latest, bravest and boldest effort
yet to lift the American musical to a new level, and perhaps a new era, of
artistry." But there were a few prominent exceptions, among them The New
York Times, still considered Broadway's "money" review (with a good one,
the show makes money; anything else and the show loses money).
A short national tour followed, and Parade has appeared in a sprinkling of
regional theaters including a large-scale production that just opened at
the Broward Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs. Though regard for its artistic
accomplishment grew along the way, Parade has proven an unlucky commercial
gamble for most of its history. The Stage Door's production team hopes to
buck those odds with an impassioned South Florida premiere on its main stage.
"A lot of directors around the country want to do Parade but they're scared
of it," says the theater's artistic chief, Dan Kelley. "And when we announced
it, our audiences asked why we wanted to bring that here."
The Stage Door is better known for traditional musical comedy. Crazy For
You, its biggest production to date, just closed, and How to Succeed in Business
Without Really Trying will follow Parade in April. Meanwhile, The Mystery
of Edwin Drood is playing at the Stage Door's sister theater in Wilton Manors.
But Kelley does push the envelope when he thinks he can, and at times like
this, when he thinks he must.
Producers Dave Torres and Dee Wilson Bunn, though wary, went along with Kelley's
riskiest choice to date. Their concern was substantiated almost immediately:
When Torres called to arrange for the license, a representative from the
Music Theatre International agency controlling the rights asked if Torres
knew what he was doing and whether he thought his audience could handle it.
Stage Door subscribers are primarily elderly and Jewish. Parade depicts another
tragic incident among centuries of persecution. Though it's no Fiddler on
the Roof, Torres thinks subscribers will appreciate its message -- and hopes
that new audiences will want to find it.
Parade is based on events that drove one governor from politics, swept another
into office, ignited the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, spawned the Jewish
Anti-Defamation League and fueled U.S. Supreme Court decisions for 40 years.
As crimes of the century go -- and there were so many claimants in the 20th
-- Leo Frank's 1913 murder trial and its aftermath have remarkable staying
power. The case bursts anew into headlines every decade or so, reopening
national curiosity as well as old wounds in the city where it occurred.
When the stage musical neared its completion in 1998, Uhry himself denied
a request by Atlanta's renowned Alliance Theatre to host its premiere. The
author was afraid an Atlanta uproar over the subject rather than the show
might adversely affect its Broadway hopes. (Parade eventually reached Atlanta
as part of the post-Broadway tour.)
"There are still people around Atlanta who are descended from players in
the story," Uhry said at the time. "The skin is still too raw on these wounds."
Uhry is one of those descendants. His grandfather owned the factory that
Frank managed when he was accused of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, a
13 year old girl who worked there. Uhry's family helped finance and research
Frank's defense, and Uhry remembers Frank's widow as "a kind of spooky older
lady" who was a friend of his grandmother -- Daisy Wertham, the title character
of his celebrated Driving Miss Daisy.
"This is a story full of tragedies," Uhry said during the show's 1997 workshop
in Toronto. "The first tragedy was the sufferings of Georgians after the
Civil War. Their land was raped and looted, families were forced off farms
and had to send their kids to work in factories.
"And here was this strange-looking Jewish Yankee who became a symbol of everything
encroaching on the Old Southern dream of living free. They couldn't just
string up another black man -- that wouldn't be enough. Someone else had
to pay for Mary's death."
The show opens with a tableau of a Civil War soldier singing a pretty, folklike
dirge called The Old Red Hills of Home. The title is from the epitaph on
the murdered girl's tomb -- written by Tom Watson, publisher of The Jeffersonian,
a rabidly anti-Semitic news sheet of the period.
Watson's editorials are credited with whipping up a mob frenzy around Frank's
trial, and for prodding the lynching that climaxes Uhry's story. Watson is
the principal villain of the piece.
The lynching came in response to Gov. John Slaton's decision in 1915 to commute
Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment -- the prelude to what Slaton
believed would eventually be full exoneration. Prevailing thought ever since
the trial's end is that the killer was Jim Conley, a black factory worker
who was Frank's principal accuser.
A love story, too
Kelley didn't see the Broadway production. He picked up the cast album because
an acquaintance was on it, and got hooked by Brown's music. Interested but
not yet committed, Kelley learned the case's historical details during months
of intense research, driven as much by curiosity as homework.
Still, Kelley was surprised when he finally got a copy of the script.
"I thought `Oh, my God. This risks being offensive to Southerners, to Jewish
people, black people, everybody. What can we do?' Then I read a quote about
Leo's wife Lucille, how she never remarried and always signed her checks
Mrs. Leo Frank. When asked why, she said `I'm not going to hide, and I'm
not going to forget.'"
Kelley says that helped him discover the love story within the historical
tragedy, as Uhry intended.
"Our job is to take the audience a giant step beyond reality and reveal something
about the bigotries that are still with us," Uhry has said. "And to show
this uplifting story of a couple, Leo and Lucille, who might never have realized
their enormous potential without this crisis."
`A travesty of society'
Kelley pulls out books from his research and spreads them across the table
in a diner across the parking lot from the theater. The first full technical
rehearsal on the set with costumes will begin in less than an hour, and the
director begins describing what he hopes to see.
He has designed a realistic scenic approach, very different from the allegory
depicted in photos of the New York production.
"I want the set to look real, and for the centerpieces to be the Constitution
Building and Peachtree Street. I want the town to be omnipresent because
to me this is a travesty of society," Kelley says.
"I don't know if the audience will get this, but the Franks' home is on one
side and his office at the factory is on the other. I want Lucille and her
husband Frank separated by the town."
By the time Vicki White and Robert Koutras begin their first duet in rehearsal,
the subliminal image has become a ghostly reality in the song.
In casting the show, Kelley also decided to use child actors wherever the
script called for them rather than the common practice of hiring more seasoned
performers to "play young."
"There's nothing like seeing Eddie Garcia, a 16 year old boy who can sing,
standing there at Mary's funeral scene spitting venom. It's bone-chilling,"
The director gets exactly what he wants from Garcia halfway through the first
act, which builds smoothly and powerfully to its climax despite the usual
glitches of a tech run-through. Not long after, Garcia's younger sister Iola
chants a haunting courtroom accusation of sexual harassment, said to have
been coached from several child witnesses by the prosecutor during the actual
"Hopefully we're not going to offend anyone but we are going to challenge
the audience, totally," Kelley says. "It's uplifting and beautifully written
but will make the audience uncomfortable. That's why those theater masks
you always see are smiling and frowning -- theater is both comedy and tragedy."
IF YOU GO
Where: Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs
When: Through March 30. Shows 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday,
Thursday, Saturday & Sunday; 7 p.m. Sunday
Info: Call 954-344-7765
Jack Zink can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4706.
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel