PARADE - A most relevant revival
"We'll sing Dixie again” proclaims the Southern mob celebrating Confederate Memorial Day in 1913 in the opening number of the musical PARADE, set just 50 years after the Civil War. Now, more than a century from that, the same political sentiment endures in the United States, fueled by Trump’s MAGA movement and its right wing conspiracy offshoots; witness the recent upsurge in racist and anti-Semitic terrorism. Powerfully, alarmingly, the Broadway revival of “Parade”, a transfer from the Encore series, is even more trenchant than it was when the musical premiered in 1998. (The first night of previews of this revival saw anti-Semitic protests in front of the theater.)
Originally produced and directed by the legendary Hal Prince, the musical dramatizes the real-life trial of the Ivy-educated, New York born-and-bred, Jewish- American factory superintendent Leo Frank for the Atlanta murder of a 13-year-old female employee. The politically ambitious District Attorney Hugh Dorsey extracts false testimony from factory witnesses to secure a guilty verdict and a death sentence for Frank. When the conviction attracts national attention, Georgia Governor John Slaton commutes Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment, but in 1915 Frank is abducted from prison and lynched by an angry mob. (Ultimately, Slaton lost his governorship and Dorsey got elected to it. The consensus among researchers is that the factory janitor, Jim Conley, who was Dorsey’s major “witness”, was the murderer.)
Anti-semitism, especially when the Jewish-American is more educated and seen as an elitist by other Whites? Leaders who knowingly ignore facts? Prosecutors who extract false testimony from people of color? Politicians who exploit racist and anti-Semitic sentiments to advance their careers? Office-holders finding disfavor for doing the right thing? Sound familiar? Sadly, it is these days in the USA.
Playwright Alfred Uhry, best known for the 1988 Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy”, grew up in Atlanta knowing about the real story. His adaptation, which won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, incorporates the major facts but smartly focuses on the emotional relationship between Leo and his wife Lucille, both roles impressively played and sung by Ben Platt (Tony Award for title role in “Dear Evan Hansen”) and Micaela Diamond (most recently seen on Broadway as the youngest Cher in “Cher”). The marriage between Leo and Lucille, Jewish and Southern-raised, is distant and strained. Leo doesn’t particularly like Southern life and doesn’t readily disguise what he sees as his superior intellect and status: Leo’s “How Can I Call This Home” is a master class in character exposition. Platt doesn’t shy away from this aspect of Leo’s personality, which not only creates a multi-dimensional character but also allows for the relationship between Leo and Lucille to change throughout his ordeal.
Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown (“Bridges of Madison County’), only 24 years old when he composed “Parade” that won the Tony Award for Best Score, has produced a most compelling and enduring score, incorporating strains of blues and bluegrass, as well as American hymns and spirituals. Among the highpoints of over two dozen musical sequences are Lucille’s “You Don’t Know This Man”, a beautiful melody which not only acknowledges how different Leo is but also proclaims his innocence. Featured player Alex Joseph Grayson as the Black factory janitor, Conley gives rich vocal interpretation to the soulful “That’s What He Said” which is the basis for his false testimony against Leo. Later Grayson brings the house down with his angry, blues-driven “Feel the Rain Fall”. Composer Brown’s richest melody comes in the heart-rendering duet “This Is Not Over Yet” in which Lucille preserves her and Leo’s hope for the commutation of his sentence. .
The original production in 1998 at Lincoln Center was a fully-staged, grandly theatrical production. This revival, like many minimally restaged for the Encore series, results in a more aptly scaled “Parade” that accentuates both the human tragedy and the reality of the Frank trial and lynching. Director Michael Arden (“Spring Awakening'', “Once on This Island”) is working with a large cast of 33 players, who take their places, some seated, on either side of a raised wooden platform center stage on which principal action takes place. Thus, the cast, like the audience, are witness to real events.
In the subtlest of ways, Arden keeps Black players in the background, where they were kept in the Jim Crow years following the Civil War; their roles are to be only heard when they serve White man’s interest (as Conley does for prosecuting attorney Dorsey) or to speak freely when Whites aren’t around (as in “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” between Black house servants that opens Act 1).
And just to be sure that the musical isn’t interpreted as metaphor, Arden projects on the backdrop documentary photographs with captions of the real people and events in this American tragedy. Rarely does a musical elicit sadness and rage combined as poignantly as this “Parade” revival. For the finale, the ensemble confronts the audience with the scorching “Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?” What part would you play in this story? What part do you play in this story? Some still chant, “we’ll sing Dixie again.”