Think You Know Parade? Think Again.

Special Features   Think You Know Parade? Think Again. Composer Jason Robert Brown and writer Alfred Uhry reveal surprising personal connections to the material and why they maintain their subject's innocence—even when some in the South still believe Leo Frank was guilty.
Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry
Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry

“Because Hal Prince told us to.” He may have been half-joking, but that’s one of the reasons Jason Robert Brown wrote Parade.

With 21 Tony statues in tow (20 at that time), Prince knows what he’s talking about. Parade went on to win Tonys for both Brown’s score and Alfred Uhry’s book. The musical’s story follows the 1913 Leo Frank case in Georgia, in which Frank was accused of raping and murdering the young Mary Phagan, who had worked at the factory where he was superintendent. Though Frank was convicted of the crimes, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, but a lynch party seized him from jail—making his death, in 1915, the only known lynching of a Jew in America.

On March 7, Brown, Uhry and historian Steven Oney gathered at lower Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage for “A Night On Parade,” a panel discussion on the Frank case interspersed with performances of songs from the show to complement the museum’s current exhibit “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited.” Together with The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, the event at MJH launched an endeavor—aptly named “History Revisited”—to keep history and culture alive and relevant by pairing exploration of historical events and the performing arts and to “pass on the message to future generations.”

Carolee Carmello and cast in <i>Parade</i>
Carolee Carmello and cast in Parade Joan Marcus

A revisiting of the trial that inspired the show also provoked a revisiting of the history of the making of the musical. Having grown up in Georgia, Uhry revealed a personal connection to the story. “I had always known the Leo Frank case, because my grandmother’s brother-in-law owned the [National] Pencil Factory where it all happened,” said Uhry. Though Uhry was born 21 years after Frank was lynched, he recalls “[my family members] all leaving rooms when I talked about Leo Frank, in typical fashion the way I grew up. I said, ‘What is this...all this about Leo Frank?’ And they’d say, ‘Nevermind.’”

“The trauma was so pervasive [in the aftermath of the lynching] that the Jewish community repressed it,” said Oney. It was a story no one talked about, and years before Oney’s 2004 book And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. So at the urging of Prince, Brown and Uhry pieced the story together. Their goal was to tell a compelling story and build a cohesive musical based on a true story.

Yet Brown emphasized that everything they wrote was true. To Brown’s mind, their story was true because it captured the essence of Frank and his wife, Lucille, and the Governor and all of the characters through his musicalization. “Everyone else in the South all seemed like these big full-throated singy people,” says Brown. So he wrote big melodies for big personalities. “Leo, he was very hard to musicalize … even his collar was very tight up around [his neck]. I could never really figure out how he sang,” said Brown. “He was a fish out of water,” Oney said of Frank. Leo’s first song in the show was actually Brown’s last to write. And by word of the panelists, the musical was also true to the political, social and economical climate of Georgia in the 1910s.

Brown’s score also tapped into a truth about Frank and his wife, Brown saying that he and Uhry always believed that Parade was a love story about two people that fell in love after they got married. During his research, Oney found letters between the Franks—scattered across the country at different archives and exhibits—and said the writings echo the relationship audiences witnessed onstage—which had been written without ever having read those letters! In fact, even after Frank’s trial, imprisonment and lynching, Lucille signed her checks Mrs. Leo M. Frank. So it only makes sense that real-life husband and wife, Sebastian Arcelus and Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block, filled the shoes of the couple for the performances (also featuring Jesse Warren-Nager, Caitlin Houlihan, Caitlin Kinnunen and Allie Trimm) that reminded us of the splendor and subtleties in Brown’s work.

As the event continued to shed light on the historical context, the audience also learned the musical’s truth is not everyone’s truth. This past fall—the centennial of the death of Leo Frank—Uhry attended a student production of Parade at a university in Georgia, just a mile away from the location of Frank’s lynching. “Frankly, I was a little frightened because I knew a lot of the descendants of the people who lynched [Frank] were gonna be there,” said Uhry. Uhry met Mary Phagan Keene, the great niece of Mary Phagan. “She came up to me and said, ‘Some of this was very nice about my aunt, but I know Leo Frank killed her,’” said Uhry.

Still, Oney, Uhry and Brown all believe in Frank’s innocence. “I don’t think I could have done this if I didn’t think he was innocent,” said Brown. In revisiting the musical and the history that inspires it, we ensure that the story is continually told—that the fear and shame in the Jewish community does not prevail and that we continue to look deeper at our pasts to preserve our futures.

Reporting by Joseph Fierberg.

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.

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