History Repeats Itself in the Broadway Revival of “Parade”

How well do modern theatregoers seeing “Parade,” at the Bernard B. Jacobs, know the story of Leo Frank? It’s been more than a century since Frank, the Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory, was accused of the sexual assault and murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, railroaded into a guilty verdict, tantalized with the possibility of an appeal, then kidnapped from prison and lynched in Marietta, Georgia. At the time, the overt display of Southern antisemitism—crowds outside the courthouse where he was tried screamed “Hang the Jew!”—shocked the country. Some rose up against it: Frank’s ordeal spurred the formation of the Anti-Defamation League, for example. But it also helped fuel the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Some of the men who burned a cross on Stone Mountain in 1915 were the so-called Knights of Mary Phagan, who had been in Marietta only a few months earlier, under an oak tree.

Leo Frank, though, is no longer a universally familiar name. The director Michael Arden’s Broadway revival of the 1998 musical, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Alfred Uhry, could have used that ignorance to create suspense; some audience members may expect something celebratory—it’s called “Parade”! But this production, which stars Ben Platt and had a short run last fall at New York City Center, deliberately denies itself the power of surprise. Before the show, footage of modern-day Marietta, in which we see the roadside historical marker of the lynching, fills the stage’s back wall. Arden (nominated for a Tony for his Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening” and for his revival of “Once on This Island”) and the projection designer, Sven Ortel, zoom in close to the sign’s text, which outlines the sequence of events. The projection then highlights one line: “Without addressing guilt or innocence, and in recognition of the state’s failure to either protect Frank or bring his killers to justice, he was granted a posthumous pardon in 1986.”

Foregrounding that sentence is one of the discomfiting choices in a sometimes contradictory, often impressive show. In a 2021 talk to an online class, Uhry spoke of having a frisson of doubt about Frank’s innocence, which is widely accepted. “We almost know he didn’t do it,” he said. Uhry, whose grandmother played cards with Frank’s widow, says he’s ninety-nine per cent sure that the real killer was the factory’s sweeper, Jim Conley (Alex Joseph Grayson); Arden’s production seems to wonder if that’s the right proportion. For one thing, there’s that phrase “without addressing guilt or innocence.” For another, when Mary (Erin Rose Doyle), a worker at the factory, goes to Frank’s office to collect her pay, she holds the string of a white balloon—a symbol of purity. As she speaks to Leo, she lets the balloon go, and it vanishes into the theatre’s fly space. It’s one of Arden’s ickiest touches, and it’s not in the original script.

But, then, every part of this “Parade” pulls against itself. The plot is part invented slow-burn love story—Frank, a Northerner, clearly hates Atlanta, and at first his marriage to Lucille (Micaela Diamond) seems sterile and confused—and part true-crime investigation, complete with gotcha moments for lying witnesses. In a clever patchwork, we revisit some moments as they shift from memory to evidence: little Mary’s meeting with Leo, and various testimonies. I admire that “Parade” doesn’t use a song-as-soliloquy to let us fully understand Frank; after the crime is discovered, we never glimpse into his mind when he’s alone. (What happens must horrify us whether we like him or not.) Instead, Uhry keeps diverting our attention to the community: the Black Atlantans (Courtnee Carter and Douglas Lyons) who note that outraged Northerners care only because Mary and Leo are white (they open the second act with the blistering song “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’ ”); the boy who once teased Mary on a streetcar (Jake Pedersen, his voice bugle-bright); the sympathetic governor (Sean Allan Krill) who commutes Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment; the wicked prosecutor (Paul Alexander Nolan) who suborns perjury.

Brown’s spectacular score is also a crazy quilt, a tour of Americana forms, from barrelhouse rags to Charles Ives-influenced symphonic grandeur. It creates its most chilling effects through musical collision. For instance, the erotic, bluesy song that Conley performs with a chain gang is actually a quasi-confession, simultaneously gorgeous and appalling, particularly as sung by the astonishing Grayson. And the musical kicks off with near-cacophony. First, there’s a flashback to a young Confederate soldier (Charlie Webb) singing about his love for Georgia—“I go to fight for these old hills behind me / these old red hills of home.” Then it’s fifty years later, and he’s an old veteran, swept up in a group of white revellers who sing their own rousing Southern anthem at a Confederate Memorial Day parade. As they shout, Frank, trying to push through the crowd, sings a plaintive ballad of not-belonging. The more patriotic and hectic the Georgians get, the more disturbing it is. But that doesn’t stop the audience from roaring its approval. Harold Prince, the show’s original director and its co-conceiver, did something similar in 1966 with “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in “Cabaret,” using a song to step the short distance from nationalism to fascism. “Parade” gets us to applaud people waving Confederate flags. Who’s the mob? Who’s easily led?

Platt, the first and dearest Evan Hansen, has a talent for self-redaction, and here, as the shy Frank, he hunches his shoulders, trying to disappear. Leo finds a belated passion with his wife, and Platt and Diamond, whose voices are exquisitely clear and beautifully complementary, sing the hell out of their Act II duets. There’s some queasiness, though, in seeing their conjugal awakening while our minds are occupied by Mary’s violation. Arden’s attention has been caught by these unsavory juxtapositions, too: he uses a picnic-blanket prop to visually connect the Franks, who spread it out for a tryst on a prison-cell floor, to the early-appearing Confederate soldier and his sweetheart, who tumble on that same blanket like lovers on the grass. Georgia earth and the sexual yielding of Southern white women are thus linked in the play’s imagination—as are the battles (and atrocities) perpetrated in their names.

Yet, for all this thought-provoking complexity, some crucial part of this “Parade” passed me by. It’s not that it isn’t relevant: in February, neo-Nazis protested one of the preview performances, suggesting that anti-Frank propaganda continues to be part of the white-supremacist playbook. But the production’s moral landscape still shifts underfoot. What do we owe Mary, beyond that white balloon, and should the very real tragedy experienced by her and the Franks be eclipsed by an invented love story? These questions preoccupied me, but, oddly, they didn’t move me. Perhaps my emotions got lost in those scenes with Lucille, which are marred by Diamond’s uneasy grasp on a Southern accent. Or perhaps they bumped into Dane Laffrey’s crowded set, a whole antique store’s worth of furniture, with an elevated platform in the center, where most of the action takes place. This arrangement makes the trial scenes difficult to parse, and it physically obstructs what should be the most frightening sequence: Frank’s abduction by that other parade, the rushing crowd of blood-crazed Knights.

There was, though, one wrenching moment that smashed through my sense of remove. As Leo Frank is standing at the brink, a noose around his neck, he sings the Sh’ma, the prayer meant to be the last words uttered by the dying. Brown sets it to the same melody as “The Old Red Hills of Home,” a musical sequence that seems designed for Platt’s magnificently restrained voice—he touches each note as delicately as a robin’s egg. It’s difficult to work out what this strange, serious show means by making the Hebrew prayer sound like the song that sent that Confederate boy off to war. Is Leo experiencing kinship? Defiance? Some shows heal; others are meant to keep a wound open. The scene uncovers an unspeakable mystery beneath the historical facts, conjuring something new out of intertwining, even competing, evocations of faith. There are beliefs that we know are diametrically and morally opposed. Yet in America, with her blood-red hills, the sacred and the dangerously nostalgic can be sung to the same tune. ♦

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