One of the hottest tickets in New York City right now is Parade, starring Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond. The musical is currently receiving a limited run at New York City Center, running only until November 6. It seems like an unlikely topic for a best-seller. Parade, a revival of the Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry musical, is inspired by the tragic real-life story of Leo Frank. Frank was a Jewish man living in Georgia in 1913, who was wrongfully convicted of murder. The story, and the musical, is a searing indictment of anti-Semitism, group-think, and miscarriage of justice.
Parade first premiered on Broadway in 1998 and won two Tony Awards. Below, director Michael Arden (who has directed the Broadway revivals of Spring Awakening and Once on This Island), discusses how a trip to Best Buys in high school sparked his love for Parade and why the musical is still frighteningly relevant today.
What drew you to Parade initially?
I first fell in love with Parade as a high schooler in Midland, Texas. From the moment I first heard the opening number on the cast album, I was a fan. Like so many musical theatre lovers who grew up outside New York in the time before the Internet, Best Buy was my Shubert Alley. I was fascinated with the story of Parade. The murder of Mary Phagan and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank certainly wasn’t something I had been taught in History class in West Texas. As I tried to piece the story together from the compact disc liner notes, I remember being amazed that a musical could tackle such subject matter and dramatically humanize it. I found Jason’s score both terrifying and heartbreaking, and Alfred’s characters honest, complex, and surprising. It quickly became one of my favorite musicals — a score I was obsessed with, and a story that both frightened and fascinated me.
Soon after, I moved to New York to attend the Juilliard School and spent as much time as legally possible inside the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, where I was able to watch the archival recording of the Lincoln Center production of Parade. My mind was blown. Hal Prince’s beautiful staging and the brilliant company led by Carolee Carmello and the late great Brent Carver added even more fuel to the fire of my interest in the show.
Parade opened a world of possibility in my mind in which musicals were able to tackle dark and real stories that could pull at the strings of our hidden prejudices, traumas, and still-reverberating shame. I feel that in approaching Parade now at City Center, I don’t need to reinvent the piece. My task is to starkly and clearly present a dramatically exciting and honest exploration of this sensational story to audiences so that might become active participants in the proceedings. What I love about this Parade, and why I think I most wanted to direct it, is that it’s not as concerned with attributing guilt or innocence as it is examining how America’s cyclical traumatic history has so often distorted and weaponized the ideals of justice to which we pledge allegiance.
You’ve played many roles in the entertainment industry. How did you become a director?
I was living in Los Angeles acting on a television series called Anger Management. We shot 100 episodes of the show, and during that time I was really missing theater and I knew that a lot of my peers were as well. So, I wrote an adaptation of Schnitzler’s play La Ronde for my friends in LA who missed theater. I raised money on Kickstarter and put together a site-specific, immersive, promenade production. We only invited ten people to be in the audience each night, that’s how small it was, but those people proved to be incredibly supportive.
Soon after, Deaf West reached out to me and asked if I would ever want to direct something for them, and my husband, Andy Mientus, suggested that I direct Spring Awakening. It was a show I had long loved, and wanted to see through a different lens. I proposed the idea and again raised money on Kickstarter. We even used my own furniture and clothes in the production—some of which I still haven’t gotten back—and the rest is history!
I had also assisted and shadowed quite a bit while I was pursuing acting. I assisted Warren Carlyle on A Tale of Two Cities on Broadway, I shadowed the producing team on Newsies, and interned as a lighting designer. I have always wanted to look at theatre from as many angles as possible. The more I know about someone else’s work, the more I understand my own. Learning to communicate across artistic cubicles is key. I think my favorite part of being a director is being able to create environments where performers, designers, and technicians can achieve their best work while feeling uninhibited to stretch beyond what they’ve done prior. Every so often I am lucky enough to take on an acting job so that I remember what it’s like to be on the other side of the proscenium. It’s extremely hard and often emotionally stressful. I have such respect for actors and never want to lose sight of that perspective in my work as a director.
Did the fact that Parade is inspired by historical events make you approach it differently at all?
As a director, I want to know as much about the history surrounding a play as possible. I want to know about the time period, what the people wore, what the locations looked like, what the living conditions were, and what the political and social landscape was at the time. So, I start by doing as much research as I can and then try to put myself in the shoes of all the characters and imagine what they’re going through without judgement. It’s the same thing an actor does when they’re approaching a role — only in a way, it’s my job to play all the roles, and the audience, all at once. It’s my job to imagine not only how to most clearly represent the reality of a time and place, but to do it in a way that serves the story.
Ultimately, I’m not here to educate the audience; I’m here to take them on an emotional ride and let them make their own decisions. But I can only do that if I build the world honestly and keep all elements of the production in service of the story as much as possible, so the audience feels that safety net and takes the leap. With Parade, I really want to remind the audience that the story they’re becoming invested in—and the characters that they are witnessing go through incredible difficulties, hardships, and loss (though dramatized)—were real people. They were like us.
They lived; they breathed; they have descendants who are still alive and feel the pain of the past; and their actions, in small ways, have shaped our country’s story. I really want to try to present the human truth in our history, the stark reminder that real-life events can cause a chain reaction that has led to where we are today, as well as an emotional story that the audience might lose themselves in. We will never be able to know every detail of what happened in this story, the full truth from each character’s perspective, and therefore I have to acknowledge this is both a piece of fiction and nonfiction. For me, what matters is the interrogation, not the verdict.
What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing your production of Parade?
I hope audiences come away reflecting not only upon the tragic events that occurred more than 100 years ago in Georgia, but on how both our present personal and collective actions are so often reactions to the echoes of the collective trauma of America’s past. It’s indeed an endless parade. I hope people take away the idea that there are deeply complex social issues at play under the sensational headlines and verdicts, and that real lives have been lost and continue to be lost because of them.
In a way, this story is the reverberation of an unfinished Civil War. I want to show that we are still very much grappling with an incredibly com-plicated past that is capable of manifesting itself in both wonderful and horrific ways. Without really knowing and trying to understand our history, we are doomed to repeat it again and again. We see horrific things presented here: the murder of an innocent child occurs in this play. But surrounding all that sadness, grief, and horror, we do see people trying to do good; we see people creating empathy both within and outside of themselves; we see people helping each other; and ultimately in this play, we see love. That’s the hope in this piece: that love can exist, and empathy can exist, even in the darkest of times. Those moments of love against all odds—that’s how we climb out of despair. In Parade, love is manifested in different ways: the love of justice, the love of country, the love of our fellow citizens. I firmly believe that love is the inverse of fear. And luckily for us, in Parade, we get an opportunity to grapple and grow with both.