The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
On the eve of the Tony Awards a year ago, playwright Alfred Uhry got a call from Hal Prince, who had directed his daring musical drama, "Parade."
The line was charged with emotion. Even though the Lincoln Center Theater show was by many measures a success — nine Tony nominations, including nods for both men — its run of a mere two months left them hungry.
And angry. Punishing critiques by The New York Times (most other reviews were glowing) and the collapse of co-producer Livent, leaving scant money for advertising, had hastened the show’s demise. Uhry and Prince were still reeling from the one-two punch.
"I’m probably not going to win [a Tony] tomorrow night, and the show is probably not going to win," Prince told Uhry, "but you are. So I want you to announce that we’re going to open again in Atlanta a year from now."
It was exactly what Uhry wanted to hear — or was it? A year and a half earlier, he’d tried to persuade Prince and his producers not to premiere "Parade" in his hometown, so explosive was its real-life Atlanta story. As it turned out, there was no local theater available in the summer of 1998 (a little outfit called Disney had dibs on the Alliance stage) and to Uhry’s mind that was just as well. He didn’t want the musical’s quality overshadowed by controversy. For "Parade" tells of events leading to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-raised Jew who was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old Marietta girl. Frank has been all but exonerated by history as a victim of false testimony and anti-Semitic hysteria, but doubts linger as to who did kill Mary Phagan in the pencil factory during the Confederate Memorial Day Parade. Hence, the musical’s title, and Uhry’s nervousness about showing his pro-Frank tale to audiences that may contain descendants of his story’s villains: Tom Watson, publisher of The Jeffersonian journal, and prosecutor Hugh Dorsey. Uhry doesn’t claim objectivity. His great-uncle was Sigmund Montag, who employed Frank as foreman of his Atlanta factory and raised money for his defense.
‘This is not over yet’
Yet by the time Uhry stepped up last June to accept his Tony for best book of a musical, he found himself thrilled to announce that "Parade" would march again, in Dixie. And he knew that lots of people from the Times — "who went after us any way they could," he says — would be watching from the audience or on TV.
"This is not over yet," Uhry declared from the podium, choosing the words that Leo and Lucille Frank sing when they’re fighting to clear his name. Sounding not like a sore winner exactly, but certainly a defiant one, Uhry added, "Look for us to be back next year." Meaning that after a summer-fall tour including Dallas, Seattle, Denver and Pittsburgh, Prince and Uhry hope to mount a second assault on New York to give "Parade" a longer run.
Uhry’s announcement was wild news to Christopher B. Manos, producer of Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars. He’d begun negotiations to bring "Parade" to the Fox Theatre but had no idea that his offer had been accepted.
"It was an amazing night: I was jumping up and down, cheering in front of the TV," says Manos. One of a vanishing breed of nonprofit, summer-stock producers who has spent 40 years specializing in comfortable musical revivals — the sorts of shows where, say, Robert Goulet sings in a cummerbund — Manos is putting himself on the line for a very risky musical.
And, perhaps, a gleaming cap on his own stage legacy.
" ‘Parade’ is an enjoyable show, and the songs [by Jason Robert Brown, who also won a Tony that night in ’99] knocked me out," says Manos, who because of the dark subject matter feels he’ll be lucky to recoup his $1.5 million investment, small by Broadway standards but hefty by Atlanta’s. "I’ve had a few calls from timorous people asking, ‘Why are you dragging this up again?’" Manos continues. "But the show lays out the great scandal of the South, a piece of history that many newcomers to Atlanta know nothing about. It’s an important show."
72 going on 30
Thus the background to the Fox engagement, which runs Tuesday through next Sunday.
It will be a blend of fresh elements (notably, new actors David Pittu and Andrea Burns as Leo and Lucille) and holdovers from the Lincoln Center production, including the fine original Judith Dolan costumes. The Pittsburgh Playhouse has reconstructed and shipped to Atlanta the original Riccardo Hernandez set designs, including the titanic lynching tree that looms over the stage all evening like fate itself. (The real-life tree, which was near today’s Big Chicken, became a gathering spot for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.) The lynching scene in the musical is eerily believable but not overly graphic.
There will only be slight tinkerings with the musical, says composer-lyricist Brown, "because it was exactly the show we wanted to do — it was not a failure as far as we were concerned."
Actress Burns says the company is inspired by fact that Prince is in Atlanta to mount the tour himself, something that New York directors usually leave to stage managers the way golf pros leave their clubs to caddies.
"What can I say? I’m 72 going on 30 with this show," says the stage legend. "Last time I was in Atlanta [in the 1980s] I literally got clobbered — ran into a wall of the Fox Theatre in the dark and cut my head. This time, things will go better."
Twenty tickets have been reserved by descendants of Gov. John Slaton, presented as a courageous leader who commuted Frank’s death sentence (inflaming vigilantes to pluck Frank from prison to the lynching). If descendants of Jim Conley — the black janitor who is widely believed to be Phagan’s real murderer — attend the show, they’ll see a character whose apparent guilt and far-fetched testimony against Frank is almost outweighed by his victim status. Treated like a dog, he cleverly manipulates whites as payback.
If descendants and defenders of Tom Watson (portrayed as a bigoted demagogue) and prosecutor Dorsey (as a sly political opportunist) speak up publicly against the production, Uhry is no longer afraid of the heat.
"If those people get riled up, it’s their problem, not mine," says Uhry. "History says we’re 99.999 percent sure that Frank didn’t do it, and I’m not going to convince the rest. But I can engage anybody in this throbbingly human story. I’m a Jew but I’m also a Southerner, and I understand in my bones how those proud, decent people could be swayed by a few evil men."
Brown, 29, also has a personal stake in "Parade." His marriage was disintegrating as he wrote "All the Wasted Time," the achingly beautiful climactic song in which Lucille and the imprisoned Leo realize that their struggle to clear his name has made them truly fall in love — too late. (The lyrics are based on the couple’s letters.)
"There’s some of me — the nice Jewish Yankee boy — in Leo," says Brown, "and there’s some of my grandfather, too. But a part of me is also in all those people in Marietta who were devastated by the war, forced to send their sons and daughters to work in factories."
Hence his brainstorm of showing an eager young Rebel soldier going off to war — and then instantly transformed into a grizzled, bitter, one-legged veteran in the fateful parade 50 years later as the chorus sings the rousing anthem, "The Old Red Hills of Home." Brown took the words from the Marietta gravestone of Phagan, never realizing that they were written by the now-infamous Watson.
Prince, too, knows the "Parade" ground. Like Uhry, he’s descended from German Jews who were among the earliest settlers of the South; one ancestor was president of the Texas Cotton Exchange. Controversy
would be music to the director’s ears — and nothing new.
"I’ve made a lifetime in the theater of doing subjects both serious and controversial, and I have no intention of backing away now," says Prince. "When I did ‘Evita’ I heard about it from all the Argentines in New York. Half were thrilled and half were mad, but no one was bored."
In fact, a case could be made that "Parade" is not such an unusual choice of subject matter for Prince but may be his most uncompromising work. His 1966 "Cabaret" looked at Nazism but through the framework of raucous song-and-dance; "Sweeney Todd’s" wronged hero made his tormentors into meat pies but in the form of a gothic fable, not a study of cannibalism. "Parade," though it has its share of pageantry and stirring melody, is focused on injustice.
‘I will not hide’
And on a man and woman. Brought together in a rather chilly, arranged marriage, Leo and Lucille discover they’re in love in extremis. Not surprisingly, the "Parade" marketing campaign keeps stressing, "A True Story…A Love Story" with little mention of bigotry or lynchings. But Burns, who is only a few years older than Lucille (23) was at the time of Leo’s trial, thinks that love is indeed the meaning of "Parade."
"The story breaks your heart," she says. "Having Alfred around rehearsals makes everything so real. Lucille was a friend of his grandmother’s when he was a boy, and he made us laugh when he said she seemed to him like ‘just another little old lady.’ "
Burns was struck by Uhry’s memory that to the end of her life, Lucille still signed her checks, "Mrs. Leo Frank."
"It was her way of saying, ‘I will not hide,’ " Burns says. "’I will not let the world forget.’ "