In St. Paul, `Parade' and `Ballyhoo' for Alfred Uhry
DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA
Imagine. This is Alfred Uhry Week in St. Paul, and he didn't even know it.
The Pulitzer-, Tony- and Academy Award-winning writer's two most
recent efforts will open in the next few days downtown, nearly within
sight of each other. On Saturday, Park Square Theatre stages the
regional premiere of the comedy ``Last Night of Ballyhoo.'' And
Tuesday, a touring company arrives at the Ordway Center for the
Performing Arts with a production of his musical, ``Parade.''
``Really?'' Uhry said from his home in Connecticut as carpenters
thumped and banged away on a new addition. ``That's terrific. I love
that you told me that.''
Uhry regards the plays as ``sort-of twins.'' He worked on the
in tandem, and shortly before ``Ballyhoo'' premiered in Atlanta,
``Parade'' had its first reading in Philadelphia. ``Ballyhoo'' survived a
less-than-glowing review in the New York Times but went on to
become a hit and won the Tony Award for best play in 1997.
``Parade'' received similar treatment by the Times in the 1999
season, and though it faltered after just a couple of months on
Broadway, it, too, netted Uhry a Tony for his script.
Thematically, the plays share some commonalities. Both are set
Atlanta, within a couple of decades of each other. Both feature a
taciturn middle-aged man as one of the central characters. And both
address, at least tangentially, the difficulties of being a Southern Jew
in the first half of the 20th century.
Uhry (pronounced (YER-ee), an Atlanta native, grew up not only
practicing Judaism but barely being aware of it. His family, like many
Jewish families in the South during those days, was trying hard to
``We had Easter egg hunts and Christmas trees and everything,''
Uhry said of his childhood. ``We didn't want to convert. We just
wanted to be like the Christian families.''
Uhry, 63, came to fame in 1988, when he won the Pulitzer Prize
first play, ``Driving Miss Daisy.'' He also wrote the movie version of
the story of a white Southern lady and her black chauffeur, and that
screenplay earned him an Oscar.
``Daisy'' is based on Uhry's memories of his own grandmother,
when he was mulling another play, his thoughts turned again to his
own family. They're fully represented in the nontraditional Freitag klan
in ``Last Night of Ballyhoo.''
``I really did have a bachelor uncle who lived in a house on
Habersham Road (an affluent Atlanta address) with his two sisters,''
Uhry explained. ``My mother really did go to Wellesley; my father
really did marry the boss's daughter; they really did have a fight on
New Year's Eve, and they really did make up on a train.''
Those characters and events form the spine of ``Ballyhoo,'' which
takes place in 1939 as ``Gone With the Wind'' is opening in Atlanta
and Hitler is poised to invade Poland. Uhry wrote the play on
commission from the 1996 Cultural Olympiad, an aesthetic counterpart
to that year's summer Olympics in Georgia.
Sunny and Joe, the young lovers who stand in for Uhry's parents,
come from different sides of the religious spectrum. The play begins
with Sunny's German Jewish family decorating a Christmas tree,
preparing for a glitzy social affair called Ballyhoo. It reaches its climax
when Joe, whose more devout family is descended from
less-prestigious Slovak stock, finds out that he's the ``other kind of
Jew,'' not generally welcome at the Freitag's country club.
``I'm neither Southern nor Jewish,'' said Howard Dallin, who's
the Park Square cast, ``but that doesn't seem to matter. This is a
play about family. I know family, and I love the Freitag family.''
Dallin, who is about Uhry's age, said the imagery of the 1930s
'40s also struck a chord for him, as did the play's soft ending.
Although all winds up well, the play doesn't come to a firm resolution.
``He seems to imply that life goes on, that there are a lot of
unanswered questions and that that's OK.''
From its numerous productions around the country, Uhry said he
learned that the one of the play's central ideas -- the ways in which
people stratify themselves socially -- is a universal one.
``Black audiences have told me this their story, just with different
names,'' he said. ``Same thing with Northern Italians and Southern
Italians, highland Scots and lowland Scots, Northern Irish and
Southern Irish. Why do people do that? It's human nature, I guess.
Everyone wants to be better than somebody else.''
Before striking gold with ``Miss Daisy,'' Uhry was a struggling
After graduating from Brown University in 1958, he moved to New York
where he got a $50-a-week job with legendary Broadway composer
Frank Loesser (of ``Guys and Dolls'' fame).
He later went to work for the Goodspeed Opera House, a Connecticut
theater with a reputation for sending musicals to Broadway. While
there, he earned a Tony nomination for his book of ``The Robber
Bridegroom'' (which lost out to ``A Chorus Line'') but also flopped with
musicals like ``East of Eden'' and ``Little Johnny Jones,'' which both
played just one night on Broadway.
Another musical, ``Swing'' -- no relation to the current Broadway
of the same name -- never even made it to New York.
One morning, while he was at work on a musical about the life
Capone, he decided to quit musical theater.
``I remember I was shaving,'' he said. ``You don't really look
yourself when you're shaving -- at least you don't look yourself in the
eye. But all of a sudden, I looked at this soaped-up person in the
mirror and said, `I don't want to do this anymore.' ''
Given the success of ``Miss Daisy'' and ``Ballyhoo,'' it seemed
prescient decision. But when he received a phone call from director
Harold Prince, the dean of American musical theater, Uhry thought he
ought to listen.
``Hal wanted to do a musical about Sammy Davis Jr., with Quincy
Jones doing the music,'' Uhry said. ``I really didn't want to do it, but I
started talking to him about `Ballyhoo.' He asked me why Atlanta
Jews were so desperately assimilating, and I told him it was probably
because of Leo Frank.''
Frank was a northern Jew who moved to Atlanta in 1908 to run
pencil-manufacturing factory. In 1913, he was accused of raping and
murdering Mary Phagan, a 12-year-old girl in his employ. He was tried,
convicted and sentenced to hang. Two years later, after doubts
began to surface about his guilt, his sentence was commuted to life in
prison. A furious mob broke into the Georgia State Penitentiary,
spirited Frank away and lynched him.
``When Hal heard that story,'' Uhry remembered, ``he said, `That's
our musical!' ''
Prince and Uhry hooked up with Jason Robert Brown to write the
music and lyrics. Brown was a young music director and orchestrator
who had written a revue called ``Songs for a New World'' (staged
locally at the Bryant-Lake Bowl last winter), directed by Prince's
Brown, considered one of the bright lights in American musical
theater, was 24 when he started working on ``Parade'' and also won
a Tony for his efforts. Stephen Sondheim was Prince's first choice for
the show, but Brown said that working with two of New York theater's
elder statesmen was ``both humbling and empowering.''
The world of the play was Uhry's, Brown said, ``and Alfred took
lead on it. His impressions were very specific and very complete. But
it was a good relationship. He would write monologues for me so that I
knew what the characters were thinking, but then sometimes I'd write
a song and he'd rewrite a scene to make it fit in.''
``Parade'' opened on Dec. 17, 1998, and closed the following
Uhry said he wasn't really surprised by the abbreviated run --
musicals without star names don't have a very good track record on
Broadway. He's sanguine, though, that the tour will bring the show
more attention and that it will eventually find a home in regional
theaters and other smaller venues.
``I've always believed that `Parade' will be one of those shows
people are going to look back at and say, `That was a great show.
What happened to it in New York?'
``But you know,'' he finished. ``We tinkered with it a little
bit for the
tour. And I think the show you're getting is a little bit better.''
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