At 8:08 PM, the lights dimmed in Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, and Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown took the stage to conduct a lush 28-piece orchestra that would bring to life his Parade for the first time professionally in New York City since its 1999 closing. A digitized American flag hung above a choir of 250 and a star-studded cast of 22. It seemed only fitting for Presidents' Day.
Charlie Franklin, a recent graduate of the city's Pace University (who obtained his degree three days after closing his Broadway debut in Brown's Bridges of Madison County), took the stage solo as the Young Soldier transporting audiences to 1913 Atlanta, GA. The newcomer — riding high since graduation, having been cast in The Book of Mormon following Bridges — is, easily, one of the best undiscovered voices in musical theatre.
After floating amid Broadway's cabaret scene, and serving as Derek Klena's understudy in Bridges, he was finally given a moment to shine with "The Old Red Hills of Home," setting the tone for an evening that unites the importance of history and musical theatre.
"I always feel very honored to be able to tell this story," composer-lyricist Brown told Playbill.com prior to the big night. "That I'm going to stand up there, and I'm going to [conduct] the downbeat for 'The Old Red Hills of Home,' and we are going to take this ride, and we are going to find out something about America — about what this country is underneath, and what it is to be part of the fabric of it and to feel separate from the fabric of it — that feels very important to me." The story concerns Leo Frank and his wife Lucille, and it is based on historical events in 1900s Atlanta. Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager, was accused and convicted of raping and murdering his 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. Although he pleaded innocence, society quickly turned against him, and people were quick to follow the parade that led Frank to his death.
"I knew a couple songs just from 'knowing' it," admitted Jordan, "but I didn't really know Parade, so it's been a cool, fresh experience for me."
However, Jordan is no stranger to working with Brown. The duo just opened the film adaptation of The Last Five Years (also starring Anna Kendrick, whose favorite musical happens to be Parade) three days prior.
"He writes incredibly personal material and lyrics that are understandable and colloquial and also sort of conversational," said Jordan, whose stoic, solid and steadfast Leo Frank was embraced by the Lincoln Center audience. "His stuff, although sort of intricate melodically, is oddly very easy to musicalize and to act. It's really a pleasure. You never really second guess anything. Sometimes, there's a lyric here or there [that you don't understand] when you're singing a musical theatre song, but there's never anything like that with Jason."
As for Benanti, "This is my first experience with Parade and the music. I'm embarrassed to say," she confided. "I [thought], 'Should I lie and tell people that I've been listening to this album my whole life?' But I really, unfortunately, hadn't. Now, obviously, I'm a humungous fan. But when I was offered the job, I didn't want to listen to it because then I thought, 'Oh, I'm just going to be doing an impression of someone than approaching the music from my own vantage points.' … We only have a week to do all this, so it's a little bit terrifying."
Although time was tight for the cast and creatives to mount Parade in concert, it seemed as though the material had been gestating in their hearts and minds for much longer. Black binders with the Parade script seemed only a security blanket for many. Jordan barely had his open — it was instead carried in his right arm and often hit with feeling each times the stakes had been raised.
Just before Leo Frank's trial sequence began, Benanti's captivating performance of "You Don't Know This Man" made audiences forget they were even at a concert.
Also among the showstoppers were Joshua Henry's first and second-act performances of "That's What He Said" and "Feel the Rain Fall" — musical numbers in which the audience erupted into applause that was not quick to die down. After all, Henry (dressed in a crimson red shirt, fitting for the role of the suspicious ex-convict Jim Conley) had first connected to the material in college.
"I get to play a character that I haven't played before," he told Playbill.com. "I usually play nice guys — nice family men, with the exception of Haywood Patterson [in The Scottsboro Boys]. But this guy, given the time period that he is in, he's really — I don't want to give away too much — but he has these two songs, and he does so much with them during this trial, so it's really an honor to get to be playing Jim Conley. It's a character that I listened to a lot in college. I was obsessed with Parade since I was like 18 years old, and I remember one time Jason Robert Brown came down to our school, University of Miami, to play some of the stuff for us, and I was like, 'What?!' So being able to do it with him now is really an honor."
Henry comes full circle yet again. He played Violet's Flick in college, a performance that he reprised last season, earning his second Tony nomination. He joked, "It's like every score I was obsessed with in school, I'm like, 'Here we go! Let's do it professionally!'"
The evening also featured standout performances from the pristine-voiced Ramin Karimloo as Tom Watson, an emotional Katie Rose Clarke as Mrs. Phagan, a strong John Ellison Conlee as Hugh Dorsey and the charming Emerson Steele as Mary Phagan. Audiences were on the edge of their seats for the final duet between Benanti and Jordan, "All the Wasted Time," and erupted in applause as they shared a final kiss before Frank met his fate. "The deal with Parade was it was a very serious show and, to the extent that musical theatre can be, it was an important show," said Brown. "It was a story that we all felt needed to be told, and this is how we tell stories. It's how [director] Hal [Prince] and Alfred [Uhry] and I tell stories — by writing musicals. I think we were all very honored to be able to tell the story in the first place, and to be able to now tell it again in this venue with this orchestra and this choir and this cast — this unbelievable group of singers…
"I don't spend a whole lot of time thinking, 'Gee, it should have run a lot longer on Broadway.' I mean, it was a musical about a terrible, terrible event. It is a very sad piece of work, so I don't know that it needed to be The Book of Mormon — that's not what it was, but we got to tell it, and we're still getting to tell it, and that means everything in the world to me.
"Unfortunately, Monday will be a blur. I will get to the end of Monday and be like, 'Can we do it again, so that I can actually, you know, remember it?' What happens is at the end of the show, there's a moment where the entire chorus sings a cappella, and there will be 250 people on stage singing this one chunk of music a cappella, and then the whole orchestra comes in like a boat underneath them and lifts them all up. I think that will probably be one of the high points of my entire existence — hopefully! If it's not, then I guess I'll call you afterwards and say, 'Never mind that.'"
Brown never called.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)