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
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
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
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
"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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