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This Q & A appeared Nov. 1, 1998

To Uhry: Why is this a musical?

Special to AJC
A poster advertising "Parade."
By Dan Hulbert
Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

"Parade", which begins previews Nov. 12 at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, contains perhaps the most explosive story line of any American musical. And though it may seem the stuff of Gothic fiction it's a real, bloodstained chunk of Atlanta history.

Alfred Uhry's musical book concerns the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old worker in a downtown pencil factory, and the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, her Jewish foreman, who had been convicted of her murder in a sensationalized trial tainted with unreliable witnesses, lurid sexual rumors and anti-Semitism.

Though Frank received a posthumous pardon by the state of Georgia in 1986, the case continues to smoke and rumble, volcano-style. The dead girl became a martyr figure, and Frank a villain, for the Knights of Mary Phagan, which later became the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. As late as 1983 Klansmen placed a wreath on her grave in a Marietta cemetery.

Uhry, 60, grew up amid the Atlanta German-Jewish community that was most shaken by the episode - his great uncle, Sigmund Montag, owned the pencil factory and raised money for Frank's defense. As Uhry said in an interview a year ago, during workshops of the musical, he noticed as a boy that fear and secrecy still surrounded the case in his circle, which only made him more determined to write about it someday.

He shared that idea five years ago with director Harold Prince, who leapt out of his chair and cried, "That's our musical!" The challenge of controversial subject matter was equally enticing to this dean of Broadway musicals ("The Phantom of the Opera," "Show Boat"), who at 70 is the all-time champ of Tony Awards (20).

"Every time I've done a musical that everyone thought was a great idea I've fallen on my face," Prince declares.

He says "Parade" is grounded in the historical record, "but it's not our job to stay confined to this one Jewish man or this one Southern setting, or even to decide who committed the murder. Our job is to take the audience a giant step beyond reality and reveal something about the bigotries that are still with us. And to show this uplifting story of a couple - Leo and Lucile, his wife - who might never have realized their enormous potential without this crisis."

Uhry, who won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize and 1989 Academy Award for "Driving Miss Daisy," and a 1997 Tony Award for "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," recently talked at greater length about the making of the musical, which officially opens Dec. 17.

Q. Does the musical follow the events to the lynching of Frank?

A. I take the story all the way. Some of it was hard to write.

Q. In what way?

A. The hatred - its roots were so deep. Look, here was this rather cold little man, a fussy Yankee Jewish factory manager. For some Southerners he was everything they hated packaged in the perfect unattractive body. I grew up among people who knew people who remembered the Civil War, that enormous sense of loss. There were a lot of veterans (and the widow of Stonewall Jackson) in the Confederate Memorial Day Parade that day that Mary Phagan was murdered in 1913.

Q. Hence the title of the musical, drenched in irony?

A. Right. Originally we were calling it "I Love a Parade," but that would have been a bit misleading.

Q. So this is not a tale of obvious heroes and villains?

A. Except for Tom Watson, the anti-Semitic publisher (of The Jeffersonian weekly paper), and Hugh Dorsey, the prosecutor, who were both pursuing their own political ends, everyone is a victim in this story. If the South had not lost that war, the Frank case would not have turned out so tragically. (Those who surrounded the courtroom, calling for Frank's head) were proud men who often couldn't get decent prices for their crops and had to send their children to work in factories. It's too easy for some Yankee liberals to say, "Oh those dirty rednecks. . . ." No, I understand why they hated Yankees: They were the despoilers, the rapers of the land. So, Hal's idea was to start the evening with a Confederate soldier going off to war . . . .

Q. Jim Conley, the black janitor at the factory, testified that Frank ordered him to dispose of Mary's body, and yet in most accounts of the case he emerges as a clumsy liar and the probable murderer. How does "Parade" view this?

A. I thought about it a lot and didn't want to shy away from the fact that I think Conley did it. He hated white people and who wouldn't? It's no excuse for murder, but the hate is understandable. Morgan (Freeman, the Mississippi-born co-star of "Driving Miss Daisy") always said to me the whole thing, the subservient behavior, was just a "dance for the white folks." Conley pretended to be illiterate and told those prosecutors exactly what they wanted to hear. I wanted to explore what it must have been like to be that smart and yet not even treated as well as a dog.

Q. This is a story streaked with anti-Semitism, racism, political skulduggery, hysteria fueled by the press, and yet you've also referred to it as a love story.

A. Reading the letters between Leo and his wife, Lucile, I realized I had a special story here of people who fell in love after they were married. It started out as an arranged, uptight marriage. Frank was 27 and very good at numbers and pencil caps, but he was not an open man. He became one. When adversity hit, their marriage blossomed. She went from being a proper little shy Atlanta wife, 22 years old, to being an Eleanor Roosevelt figure who fought for her husband, pestered the governor of Georgia to review his case and get him a new trial. Finally, in letters from the prison, he calls her, "My darling". . . .

Q. And you met Lucile many years later, when you were a boy?

A. She was a friend of my grandmother's (Lena Fox, model for Miss Daisy Werthan). She just seemed like another little old lady at that time. She never remarried and always signed her checks "Mrs. Leo Frank." She never shied from who she loved.

Q. Talk about your collaborative process with the other artists.

A. I'm like the architect, setting out the story structure. Jason (Robert Brown, composer-lyricist) will ask me to write a monologue about what a character is feeling at a given moment, and then he'll use that to come up with wonderful lyrics for a song at that point. When I suggested that Lucile speak to Gov. (John) Slaton at one of his wife's tea dances, Hal's idea was that she finds a way to dance with him and persuades him to review Leo's case during the dance. At another point there are factory girls on the witness stand, and Frank is transformed into this savage, salacious person they describe.

Q. What about the skeptics who say this is an unlikely musical subject?

A. Dark subjects are nothing new. The winner of the 1997 Tony was about mass death at sea ("Titanic"). Look at Hal's record: "Cabaret," "Sweeney Todd," "Evita." Do you think anyone predicted, "Hey, yeah, that'll work: a musical about Eva Peron!?" This is a big, passionate story, like an opera story, that's why it lends itself to music. None of us are doing this to clean up financially . . . well, you never know. . . . No, seriously, you do it for your first audience: yourself. It doesn't interest me to do something I've already done.

Q. You've lived in New York all of your professional life, and yet your three best-known stage works grew out of realities in the small Jewish community of a bygone Atlanta. Do you feel torn between two worlds, with a perspective on both?

A. I think there's something to that. All my life I've been interested in people who feel like aliens in their own lives. Growing up in Atlanta I was aware every day that I was a Jew in a Christian culture. I don't think that my little nephews, who are 6 and 8, growing up in Marietta, feel that way today. But when I was in the Atlanta Boy Choir in 1948 I was given the solo, "Lord, I Want to be a Christian." The kid next to me said, "Why do you get to do that? You're a Jew."

Q. What do you hope people will bring away from this musical?

A. If people are touched, I've done my job. This is risky. Sometimes I think, "OK, this time they're going to catch me, I have no talent, they're going to nail me for the fraud I am." But the risk is why it interests me. I think being "entertained" means being involved in a story, and this is one hell of a story. It's about all these people whose lives were inalterably changed on that day in that factory during the Confederate Memorial Day Parade. Who could make that up?

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