Posted on September 26, 2009 at 9:41 am
Kristin Friedrich’s article here.
Everyone Loves a Lynching Musical
‘Parade,’ Reborn After a Stint in London, Lands in Downtown
by Kristin Friedrich
Published: Friday, September 25, 2009 4:11 PM PDT
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – If a play should be so lucky, it starts Off-Broadway, gets good reviews, puffs up a bit, then bounds over to the Great White Way.
That wasn’t the case for Parade. The show debuted on Broadway in 1998, earned mixed reviews and closed after a couple of months. A few years later, it journeyed to a small theater in London, downsized and divested itself of almost half its cast, and became a hit.
It’s not a typical theater success story, but when a musical’s touchstones are a real-life rape and murder, a doomed love story and a lynching, bets for predictability of fate are off.
The new version of Parade opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday, Oct. 4 (previews began last week). Speaking of second comings, it stars former “Grey’s Anatomy” cast member T.R. Knight. The lead in the musical will be the actor’s first gig after an abrupt TV exodus, and a role very far away from the doe-eyed Dr. George O’Malley.
Knight plays Leo Frank, the superintendent of a Georgia pencil factory who in 1913 was convicted of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee. (The title Parade is only ironically chipper.)
Frank was a Jew from Brooklyn, a girl was dead, and the trial and appeal process, replete with dueling political agendas and lying witnesses, was a media sensation. In the post-bellum South, a distrust of all things Yankee devolved into unabashed anti-Semitism.
When the outgoing Georgia governor commuted Frank’s death sentence by hanging to life in prison, a masked mob kidnapped Frank from his state prison farm, drove him to the Atlanta suburb where Phagan grew up, and lynched him.
Not surprisingly, neither crowds nor critics were giddy about a lynching musical.
The lackluster New York Times review of the original Broadway show was a distress signal; the bankruptcy of Livent, the company that paid for the musical, was the death knell. Parade survived just its initial run of 85 performances.
But there was resonance in both the book, written by Alfred Uhry (winner of a Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy), and in the music and lyrics, penned by Jason Robert Brown.
When Brown wrote the music in the late 1990s, he was still green; Parade was his first Broadway project. He was hired by producer and director Harold Prince after Stephen Sondheim dropped out. Though he didn’t know about the Leo Frank case going into the project, he was a quick study, and the grim subject matter didn’t faze him.
“Writing is hard. Comedy is just as hard to write as drama,” Brown said last week. “Everyone has said, ‘How could you write a musical with a lynching?’ But I grew up on Sweeney Todd and West Side Story and Miss Saigon. There’s no reason a musical can’t have sadness.”
Despite the reviews, Uhry and Brown went on to win Tony Awards for the Broadway Parade. Meanwhile, Brown’s wunderkind composer status grew. (His resume now includes The Last Five Years, 13 and Songs for a New World.)
Brown’s star wasn’t the only one rising. The Broadway show’s assistant choreographer, Rob Ashford, was becoming one of theater’s most in-demand choreographer-director hyphenates. With a track record in London, Ashford brought the show to the Donmar Warehouse and led the charge toward a tighter, more economic production.
This time around, Ashford would choreograph and, for the first time, direct. He brought to the new version his imprint — movement that seems to spring naturally out of the action. Songs were added and the casting was reconfigured, with many actors playing several roles.
“It’s 85% the same, but that 15% that’s changed — Alfred and I got to complete different impulses,” Brown said. “So it wasn’t so much a victory lap as it was a chance to revisit certain things.”
One thing Brown said he lost in the course of writing the Broadway show was a sense of the real South. So he and Uhry strove to show London audiences how hard life was in the post-Civil War era.
“The Southerners were victims of a terrible time,” said Brown. “They lost their homes, they had lost a war. That’s uncommon to most Americans. I think that was something that had gotten elided, that I got to dig back into. So now there’s something elegiac about the show.”
With a second chance, the reviews were admiring, and people started talking about the lynching musical all over again.
Outsiders Come In
The English-born Lara Pulver is the only actor from the Donmar run who has come over for the Taper show. She plays Lucille, Leo Frank’s loyal wife — and there aren’t many Southern belles more long-suffering. In the play, Lucille and her husband really only connect with each other after he is locked up, and pre-lynching incarceration isn’t an optimal time for romance.
Pulver also wasn’t familiar with Leo Frank prior to the job. Like Brown, who said he borrowed layering and momentum techniques from early 19th century composer Charles Ives, Pulver had her own bag of tricks with which to channel the Old South.
“I watched old films: Streetcar, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird,” she said. “Any film with those strong Southern women. I make a scrapbook and collect pictures — pictures of clothes and people, pictures of the kinds of cotton fields Lucille would have looked out onto. Anything that remotely sparks my imagination.”
Unlike Brown, who doesn’t consider a gritty musical more difficult to write than lighter fare, Pulver said the Parade role is a tough one.
“I remember when I did it in London, I never slept so much in my life,” she said. “But I came to terms with it. When it’s a piece of history that you’re trying to portray, you can’t be anything but honest. The result is that it’s gut wrenching.”
Both Pulver and Brown are excited about their TV star colleague, whom they say mentions TV and “Grey’s,” well, never. Yet despite his past and his newness to the role, or maybe even because of it, he seems to be landing the part of Frank.
“I think T.R., in some ways, he feels like an outsider, which works very well for the piece because Leo Frank is such an outsider,” Brown said. “I think he stands outside the company and watches these tremendously gifted theater performers, although he could count himself among them.”
Parade runs through Nov. 15 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.