2000-07-27
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Dominic P. Papatola

Imagine. This is Alfred Uhry Week in St. Paul, and he didn’t even know it.

The Pulitzer-, Tony- and Academy Award-winning writer’s two most recent efforts will open in the next few days downtown, nearly within sight of each other. On Saturday, Park Square Theatre stages the regional premiere of the comedy "Last Night of Ballyhoo." And Tuesday, a touring company arrives at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts with a production of his musical, "Parade."

"Really?" Uhry said from his home in Connecticut as carpenters thumped and banged away on a new addition. "That’s terrific. I love that you told me that."

Uhry regards the plays as "sort-of twins." He worked on the scripts in tandem, and shortly before "Ballyhoo" premiered in Atlanta, "Parade" had its first reading in Philadelphia. "Ballyhoo" survived a less-than-glowing review in the New York Times but went on to become a hit and won the Tony Award for best play in 1997. "Parade" received similar treatment by the Times in the 1999 season, and though it faltered after just a couple of months on Broadway, it, too, netted Uhry a Tony for his script.

Thematically, the plays share some commonalities. Both are set in Atlanta, within a couple of decades of each other. Both feature a taciturn middle-aged man as one of the central characters. And both address, at least tangentially, the difficulties of being a Southern Jew in the first half of the 20th century.

Uhry (pronounced (YER-ee), an Atlanta native, grew up not only not practicing Judaism but barely being aware of it. His family, like many Jewish families in the South during those days, was trying hard to assimilate.

"We had Easter egg hunts and Christmas trees and everything," Uhry said of his childhood. "We didn’t want to convert. We just wanted to be like the Christian families."

Family ties

Uhry, 63, came to fame in 1988, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his first play, "Driving Miss Daisy." He also wrote the movie version of the story of a white Southern lady and her black chauffeur, and that screenplay earned him an Oscar.

"Daisy" is based on Uhry’s memories of his own grandmother, so when he was mulling another play, his thoughts turned again to his own family. They’re fully represented in the nontraditional Freitag klan in "Last Night of Ballyhoo."

"I really did have a bachelor uncle who lived in a house on Habersham Road (an affluent Atlanta address) with his two sisters," Uhry explained. "My mother really did go to Wellesley; my father really did marry the boss’s daughter; they really did have a fight on New Year’s Eve, and they really did make up on a train."

Those characters and events form the spine of "Ballyhoo," which takes place in 1939 as "Gone With the Wind" is opening in Atlanta and Hitler is poised to invade Poland. Uhry wrote the play on commission from the 1996 Cultural Olympiad, an aesthetic counterpart to that year’s summer Olympics in Georgia.

Sunny and Joe, the young lovers who stand in for Uhry’s parents, come from different sides of the religious spectrum. The play begins with Sunny’s German Jewish family decorating a Christmas tree, preparing for a glitzy social affair called Ballyhoo. It reaches its climax when Joe, whose more devout family is descended from less-prestigious Slovak stock, finds out that he’s the "other kind of Jew," not generally welcome at the Freitag’s country club.

"I’m neither Southern nor Jewish," said Howard Dallin, who’s directing the Park Square cast, "but that doesn’t seem to matter. This is a play about family. I know family, and I love the Freitag family."

Dallin, who is about Uhry’s age, said the imagery of the 1930s and ’40s also struck a chord for him, as did the play’s soft ending. Although all winds up well, the play doesn’t come to a firm resolution. "He seems to imply that life goes on, that there are a lot of unanswered questions and that that’s OK."

From its numerous productions around the country, Uhry said he has learned that the one of the play’s central ideas — the ways in which people stratify themselves socially — is a universal one.

"Black audiences have told me this their story, just with different names," he said. "Same thing with Northern Italians and Southern Italians, highland Scots and lowland Scots, Northern Irish and Southern Irish. Why do people do that? It’s human nature, I guess. Everyone wants to be better than somebody else."

Musical roots

Before striking gold with "Miss Daisy," Uhry was a struggling lyricist. After graduating from Brown University in 1958, he moved to New York where he got a $50-a-week job with legendary Broadway composer Frank Loesser (of "Guys and Dolls" fame).

He later went to work for the Goodspeed Opera House, a Connecticut theater with a reputation for sending musicals to Broadway. While there, he earned a Tony nomination for his book of "The Robber Bridegroom" (which lost out to "A Chorus Line") but also flopped with musicals like "East of Eden" and "Little Johnny Jones," which both played just one night on Broadway.

Another musical, "Swing" — no relation to the current Broadway hit of the same name — never even made it to New York.

One morning, while he was at work on a musical about the life of Al Capone, he decided to quit musical theater.
"I remember I was shaving," he said. "You don’t really look at yourself when you’re shaving — at least you don’t look yourself in the eye. But all of a sudden, I looked at this soaped-up person in the mirror and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore."’

Given the success of "Miss Daisy" and "Ballyhoo," it seemed a prescient decision. But when he received a phone call from director Harold Prince, the dean of American musical theater, Uhry thought he ought to listen.

"Hal wanted to do a musical about Sammy Davis Jr., with Quincy Jones doing the music," Uhry said. "I really didn’t want to do it, but I started talking to him about ‘Ballyhoo.’ He asked me why Atlanta Jews were so desperately assimilating, and I told him it was probably because of Leo Frank."

Frank was a northern Jew who moved to Atlanta in 1908 to run a pencil-manufacturing factory. In 1913, he was accused of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, a 12-year-old girl in his employ. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Two years later, after doubts began to surface about his guilt, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. A furious mob broke into the Georgia State Penitentiary, spirited Frank away and lynched him.

"When Hal heard that story," Uhry remembered, "he said, ‘That’s our musical!"’

Prince and Uhry hooked up with Jason Robert Brown to write the music and lyrics. Brown was a young music director and orchestrator who had written a revue called "Songs for a New World" (staged locally at the Bryant-Lake Bowl last winter), directed by Prince’s daughter.

Brown, considered one of the bright lights in American musical theater, was 24 when he started working on "Parade" and also won a Tony for his efforts. Stephen Sondheim was Prince’s first choice for the show, but Brown said that working with two of New York theater’s elder statesmen was "both humbling and empowering."

The world of the play was Uhry’s, Brown said, "and Alfred took the lead on it. His impressions were very specific and very complete. But it was a good relationship. He would write monologues for me so that I knew what the characters were thinking, but then sometimes I’d write a song and he’d rewrite a scene to make it fit in."

"Parade" opened on Dec. 17, 1998, and closed the following February.

U
hry said he wasn’t really surprised by the abbreviated run — dark musicals without star names don’t have a very good track record on Broadway. He’s sanguine, though, that the tour will bring the show more attention and that it will eventually find a home in regional theaters and other smaller venues.

"I’ve always believed that ‘Parade’ will be one of those shows that people are going to look back at and say, ‘That was a great show. What happened to it in New York?’

"But you know," he finished. "We tinkered with it a little bit for the tour. And I think the show you’re getting is a little bit better."


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