Every now and then a tragedy or crime will occur which, due to some strange combination of timing and degree of shock, will embed itself into the public's consciousness. The sinking of the Titanic, the trials of Lizzy Borden and OJ Simpson, killers like Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, the deaths of Princess Diana and JonBenet Ramsey; somehow these events have lived on while similar or far worse tragedies have faded from our memories. One more name that lingers in our collective memory, especially in the South, is Mary Phagan, whose murder in 1913 provides the unlikely core of the musical Parade, currently playing at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre.
The general facts of the crime are simple: on April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan went to the pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, where she was an employee to collect $1.20 in back wages. Her boss, and the last person who admitted to seeing her alive, was 29 year old Leo Frank, a quiet, nervous, Jewish man from Brooklyn. The following day Mary's battered body was discovered in the bowels of the factory. The events that followed are anything but simple. Leo Frank was accused and tried for the crime, even though there was scant evidence to support his involvement. Due to a combination of timing, political game playing, societal biases and rabid press, the murder spawned a circus of a trial which embroiled and enraptured the entire nation, leading to the revitalization of such disparate organizations as the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and the Ku Klux Klan.
If the murder hadn't occurred on Confederate Memorial Day; a day when the wounds and bitterness of the only portion of the United States to have lost a war were fresh in the public's mind ... If the victim hadn't been a child factory worker, thus making her a symbol of the corporate oppression which was turning Atlanta from an agrarian society into an industrial sweatshop ... If Leo Frank hadn't been Jewish, a Yankee, and an industrialist ... If two political figures, Tom Watson, the publisher of The Jeffersonian, and prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, hadn't realized the case made a perfect springboard with which to catapult them into the highest level of politics ... If the press hadn't leapt into the fray, whipping the area into a cauldron of hate and fear with the yellowest of journalism ... If any of these ingredients had not been present in the mix, perhaps the outcome would have been different, thus depriving Hal Prince, Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown of an unlikely source for a musical.
On the surface, the trial and eventual lynching of Leo Frank hardly seems like the raw material from which musicals are spun; however, given the creative team involved, one should not be too surprised. Hal Prince, after all, is the man who helped bring about musicals dealing with cannibalistic serial killers (Sweeney Todd), gay, cross-dressing political reactionaries (Kiss of the Spider Woman), misshapen sewer dwelling composers (Phantom of the Opera) and South American dictators (Evita). Hal Prince was drawn to the Leo Frank story through a conversation with playwright Alfred Uhry about his show, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Prince remarked that the Jews of Atlanta always seemed to be a nervous bunch in Uhry's plays, which led Uhry, whose great-uncle owned the factory in which Mary Phagan was murdered, to launch into a discussion of the Leo Frank case and the resulting anti-Semitic feeling it spawned. The story intrigued Prince, and after Stephen Sondheim backed out as composer, Jason Robert Brown was tapped to write what is essentially his first book musical.
Parade opened on Broadway at Lincoln Center in December of 1998 and closed in February of 1999; a disappointingly short run. While Parade played its complete run at Lincoln Center, a hoped for transfer failed to occur, caused in part by scathing press in the New York Times and the financial woes of one of its producers, Livent. Luckily, Christopher Manos of Atlanta's Theater of the Stars stepped in to produce a regional tour which recreates the original production, thus giving audiences across America a chance to view it, and I for one, am grateful that he did.
Individually, Hal Prince's direction, Alfred Uhry's book and Jason Robert Brown's music (the latter two winning Tonys for their efforts) range from very good to downright incredible. Their efforts, however, take a while to gel into an affecting and effective show, largely due to the fact that story is so broad and sweeping in its events and implications that it would take a mini-series to do it justice. Since the story is not that well known, no shorthand can be taken, and thus the first half of the first act is devoted to fast paced exposition which makes the characters come across as two dimensional stereotypes rather then people to care about. As a result, the murder and its aftershocks fail to produce the necessary horrified reactions.
However, this all changes once the trial is about to commence. The pace finally slows down and once the audience is given a chance to relax and process the events, the characters become people, rather than types or causes. This transformation starts the moment Leo's wife, Lucille sings "You Don't Know this Man," a haunting balladic anthem of hurt and desperation sung to one of the fanners of the flames sweeping Atlanta, the journalist Britt Craig. Andrea Burns gives an incredible performance as Lucile Frank, a timid Southern belle who evolves into an Eleanor Roosevelt-esque steel magnolia throughout the course of the play. As Leo Frank, David Pittu does a great job of portraying a neurotic, prickly fish out of water and manages the difficult feat of making us care about him. Combined, David and Andrea are stunning in one of the most beautiful duets recently written for the stage, "All the Wasted Time." As Governor Stanton, Rick Hilsabeck gives a highly nuanced performance as a man who throws away his career (risking his life in the process) for what he believes is right and just. Keith Byron Kirk was the big audience pleaser of the evening as Jim Conley, the janitor who spins a web of deceit to save his own neck.
The real star of the show is Jason Robert Brown's score. Brown has fashioned an incredibly lyrical score which is highly infectious to listen to and runs the stylistic gamut of slimy jazz (the hilariously chilling "Come Up to My Office,") to angry gospel/soul (Jim Conley's chain-gang set "Feel the Rain Fall") and the aforementioned ballads. When one considers that Parade represents his freshman effort in writing a full-fledged book musical, it is even more amazing an accomplishment and I can hardly wait to hear he will come up with next.
Ultimately, Parade is definitely worth seeing. While not a perfect musical (but then again, other than Sweeney Todd, what is?) it is a thought provoking and largely enjoyable one. The subject matter still has a strong hold on us, as evidenced by the furor raised a few months ago when a possible list of Leo's lynchers was published on the Internet and unfortunately the mindset and prejudices which helped bring about the tragedy still exist today.
Parade runs at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theater through October 15th before finishing its tour in Cleveland. For more information on how to buy tickets for its Seattle stay, visit www.5thavenuetheatre.org.