Stage Preview:   'Parade,' a musical drama based on a Southern lynching

From the Post-Gazette

                 Thursday, August 10, 2000

                 By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

                 Famous murder cases have many lives. On June 11, a front-page
                 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed shocking news
                 in the unfinished business of one of America's most lurid crimes --
                 the 1915 lynching in rural Cobb County of Leo Frank, a
                 31-year-old Jew from Brooklyn.

                 Frank had been found guilty by
                 anti-Semitic public opinion and a
                 Georgia jury of the 1913 murder in
                 Atlanta of 13-year-old Mary Phagan.
                 Contradictory evidence and the
                 unfairness of his trial won him a
                 last-minute commutation to life
                 imprisonment without parole, but on
                 Aug. 17, 1915, a mob took his life into
                 their own murderous hands.

                 No one was ever charged with his
                 murder, and the Frank case quickly
                 became one that Georgia wanted
                 nothing of, an ugly reminder of racism,
                 brutality and injustice at embarrassing
                 odds with Atlanta's image as capital of
                 the New South. Over the years,
                 whispered anecdotes and suspicions
                 suggested who they were, that
                 anonymous mob whose self-righteous bigotry shocked the world.
                 But in June, it was on the front page of Atlanta's newspaper at last
                 -- an account of not one but several lists naming the planners and
                 participants, among them the forebears of many still-prominent
                 Atlanta families.

                 No one was more interested in these discoveries than an intrepid
                 band, mostly of Yankees, then visiting Atlanta in what might seem
                 a dubious enterprise: bringing the Frank case to dramatic life for a
                 local audience in the unlikely form of a musical. Called "Parade,"
                 it was starting its post-Broadway tour in, of all places, Atlanta,
                 where it all began.

                 Tuesday, this extraordinary theater piece arrives at the Benedum
                 as the final offering of the CLO season. That might be thought
                 almost as gutsy as starting it in Atlanta. There, the Frank case is a
                 vivid, painful memory; but are Pittsburgh audiences ready to
                 welcome such a serious, surprisingly delicate musical drama that
                 they know little about, and in carefree summertime?

                 "It was wildly exciting," recalled director Hal Prince of that news
                 breaking in the Journal-Constitution just two days before the
                 Atlanta opening. (That's famed director Hal Prince, as in winner of
                 more Tony Awards than anyone ever Hal Prince.) He was
                 speaking by phone a few weeks later. "Guilt does amazing
                 things," he said about the seepage of time.

                 Prince's "Parade" credit is "co-conceiver and director." His chief
                 creative partners are Jason Robert Brown, composer and lyricist,
                 and Alfred Uhry, book-writer and Atlanta native. They can hardly
                 have been more appropriate for this project. Prince, 72, has made
                 a great career out of musicals on dark, improbable subjects --
                 "Sweeney Todd," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Pacific
                 Overtures," to name just three. Brown, 30, is one of a clutch of
                 young composers (e.g. John LaChiusa, Adam Guettel) who are
                 supposed to be the coming saviors of the American musical.

                 But the project really started with Prince's interaction with Uhry,
                 63, who grew up in the charged aftermath of the Frank case. His
                 great uncle owned the pencil factory where Frank worked and
                 Phagan was murdered; his grandmother was a friend of Frank's
                 wife, Lucille, who lived until 1957 and whom Uhry met. He has
                 also mined the pains of growing up Jewish in Atlanta before, in his
                 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Driving Miss Daisy" and in "The Last Night
                 of Ballyhoo."

                 The show's title is a metaphor, based on the annual parade on
                 Confederate Memorial Day. But not everybody loves a parade --
                 how would Atlanta react? As it turned out, audiences cheered:
                 "Parade" drew 6,000 in its first two nights -- "that's a week's worth
                 at Lincoln Center," said Prince, remembering the show's troubles
                 in New York.

                 As well he might. The creative team wasn't nervous just about
                 digging up a lurid past by bringing the Frank case back to where it
                 all began. They were also attempting a theatrical exhumation,
                 reviving a musical that just a year and a half ago failed on
                 Broadway. Musicals that get panned by The New York Times
                 critic and fold after a couple of months don't normally go on tour.
                 Nor do the original creators reconvene to do the honors.

                 Certainly Prince doesn't. But "Parade" is "getting the second shot"
                 that it deserves, he believes. The resurrection actually began four
                 months after it closed, when it won Tony Awards for both Brown's
                 score and Uhry's book. At that time, Uhry announced "Parade"
                 would rise again in a limited tour, and what may then have
                 seemed a wishful boast has come to pass.

                 Helping to impel the tour is the conviction that "Parade" was sunk
                 in New York by extraneous forces. Livent, the show's Canadian
                 producer, went spectacularly bust, with fraud charges filed against
                 its chief, Garth Drabinsky. There was no money for the promotion
                 that's necessary after a show opens.

                 Interviewed recently from Minneapolis, where "Parade" is playing
                 before arriving in Pittsburgh, composer-lyricist Brown, put it this

                 "Livent is [just] a very convenient culprit. The Times review was a
                 killer, though other reviews were much better. But the audience at
                 Lincoln Center wasn't particularly behind it. Nor was Lincoln
                 Center prepared to market a commercial show: They left that up to
                 Livent." A subscription audience like Lincoln Center's isn't the
                 voluntary, interested audience that "Parade" needed to find -- and
                 might have found if it had been promoted vigorously and had
                 lasted longer than those few winter months.

                 The show closed Feb. 28, 1999. When the cast album came out
                 April 13, "people began to rethink and say, 'they should have
                 given this a chance,' " said Brown. "That's when it became about

                 Prince feels no such ambivalence: "You can put the whole thing
                 on Livent," he said. "[The closing] was a calamitous downer." Still,
                 he wouldn't work on a tour of any of his Broadway shows, "if I was
                 just reproducing it. That's not as energizing." The attraction here
                 was to give the show another chance and also make some

                 "It's an unbelievable privilege to get to do it again," said Brown.
                 "The production is not scaled down in any sense."

                 "The cast is a bit younger," Prince said. "And we cut 12 minutes.
                 Things stare you in the face a year later." In particular, they redid
                 the start of Act 2. They had never liked the opening number they
                 had, and, considering a song by four black servants about 15
                 minutes into the act, they said, "my god, we have a new
                 second-act opener."

                 From Atlanta, "Parade" went to Memphis, Dallas and Minneapolis.
                 Brown spoke with the Post-Gazette from the latter because he's
                 traveling with his show -- conducting the orchestra.

                 It isn't usual to see a composer in the pit of a musical. Brown didn't
                 conduct it in New York -- but conducting, orchestrating and
                 arranging are among the jobs that have paid the young
                 composer's bills.

                 "Not many composers have the inclination," he said. "It's
                 exhausting, a very technical job. But the original conductor wasn't
                 available, and it's a wonderful experience to get behind the
                 podium. I learn more about the show every night. And it gives the
                 whole thing a sense of closure."

                 How is it for the orchestra to have the composer to deal with? "I
                 think it keeps them from jerking around."

                 Brown says the score grows for him nightly. "It's just notes or
                 words, but they can have an infinite number of meanings and
                 connotations. A note can be extended, can be louder, quieter. You
                 can say a word in another way. It's all experimenting and feeling....
                 It never feels like the same old stuff to me, because it's mine. I
                 believe in it. I can't be dispassionate about this."

                 But no, he has no urge to go back and rewrite. The real joy is "to
                 close the book on a new work: That's who I was when I was 28."

                 So what's it like to be a big Tony-winning success?

                 He genially points out how silly the question is, "since I have
                 nothing in my bank account. But the Tony does look nice on my
                 mantel." As to saving the musical, "that's ridiculous -- producers
                 are the only ones who can save musical theater. I just want to
                 write," which he expects to get back to as soon as the "Parade"
                 tour comes to an end in December.

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