2000-06-25
The Dallas Morning News
Lawson Taitte

It’s almost unheard of for a musical that flopped in New York to be resurrected more than a year later for a national tour. But in the case of Parade, the miracle is happening: Doubting Thomases who question whether a show that didn’t succeed in the Big Apple can possibly be any good can judge for themselves when the Dallas Summer Musicals brings Parade to town Tuesday.

Harold Prince, one of Broadway’s most honored directors (Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera), staged both the Broadway and traveling versions of the powerful, controversial piece. He’s intrigued by this unusual opportunity and optimistic about his show.

"It’s odd. If you live long enough in the theater, you have every kind of experience," Mr. Prince says. "I’m very eager to have people see this show. I have little doubt in my mind that Parade will find its audience."

Parade was a hard sell in New York for any number of reasons. Audiences in search of escapist entertainment weren’t charmed by the idea of a musical about a lynching – the show is based on a famous real-life Atlanta case in which a Jewish man was accused of murdering a young factory worker. No big names headlined the cast to sweeten the package, either.

On the other hand, Parade did build up a nucleus of hard-core fans.

"It’s a show that a lot of people in New York were passionate about," composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown says.
Sometimes that kind of enthusiasm for a new show that falls outside the usual lines, whether in the theater or on television, will spread, given enough time. One thing killed any chance Parade had to do that in New York: The original producer, Livent, went bust just as it was about to open, so there was no money to advertise or to keep the show alive while the public discovered it.

Parade had long closed by the time the 1999 Tony Awards rolled around. But it did manage to walk off with top prizes to Mr. Brown for best score and playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) for best book of a musical.
Those awards whetted interest in the show around the country. RCA Victor also released an original cast album that attracted lots of attention.

"People who didn’t get a chance to see the show were suddenly eager," Mr. Brown says. "Also, there’s not a whole lot of quality new musical theater out there to tour."

The idea of Parade began when Livent and Mr. Prince wanted to follow up successful productions of Show Boat and Ragtime with another musical with an epic sweep. Mr. Uhry, who grew up in the Atlanta Jewish community, suggested the notorious 1913 case that still stirs up heated opinions in Georgia.

Originally, Stephen Sondheim was scheduled to write the songs. But after the harrowing Passion, the elder statesman of American musical composers decided he didn’t want to tackle such heavy subject matter again so soon.

Mr. Prince’s daughter Daisy, a producer-director, had discovered Mr. Brown playing piano in a bar and staged his first show, Songs for a New World. She recommended that her father give him a listen, and so a composer still in his mid/20s was signed on for this project, which took more than $7 million to bring to Broadway and $2 million to restore for the road.

Mr. Prince and the producers took a chance, and Parade made Mr. Brown the youngest Tony-winning composer.  Still not 30, he is positively defiant in defending the quality of his show.

"It’s a piece that asks a lot of an audience," he says. " It takes a lot of risks. It pushes a lot of buttons. But when you come away you are exhilarated."

Mr. Prince, though, emphasizes that while Parade is serious musical theater with some almost operatic ambitions, it is still supposed to be fun to watch.

"I’m not interested in lectures or history classes. I like the story," Mr. Prince says. "The two leading characters, Leo and Lucille, are caught in what is almost an arranged marriage. They have never really learned to know each other. Along comes a crisis, and ultimately they fall in love with the people they really are."

Mr. Brown’s score rises to the big dramatic climaxes with great power. But it has plenty of light and entertaining moments as well. The Act I finale, which is Leo’s trial for the murder he didn’t commit, is treated almost like a vaudeville act with ragtime songs for the lawyers and other participants.

For the road version, Mr. Prince has worked with a mostly fresh group of actors, even though the original stars won Tony nominations and New York Drama Critics Circle awards. Andrea Burns, who plays Lucille Frank, says there has been "a lot of pressure."

"Even though the show closed early in New York, it had a wonderful cast," she says. "We want to be as good as the first bunch. But the important thing is that the show is being done, which is what we all care about. It’s so rewarding to see the crowd leap to its feet every night when we are finished."

Mr. Prince says he has encouraged Ms. Burns and David Pittu, who plays Leo, to find their own way into the piece.
"You can’t ask talented people to carry over other talented people’s performances. There would be nothing in it for me if we did that, either," he says.

He has tightened the show by about eight minutes, though. He says the cuts have imparted "a buoyancy, a youthful energy that is infectious."

The director is taking the long view about this show, based on his many experience in the theater. He recalls that it took 11 years for Sweeney Todd, one of the most ground-breaking and most lauded musicals ever, to turn a profit – through ancillary rights like the CDs, the video version and subsequent productions.

"We had a devil of a time getting people into the theater for that," Mr. Prince says. "As the years go on, its stock has risen."

Dallas Summer Musicals president Michael A. Jenkins says he is disappointed that only nine cities finally elected to present the new touring version.

"A lot more than that expressed interest but finally chickened out," Mr. Jenkins says. "We’ll probably lose money on it. But it’s a good show and I thought it was important to do it."

Mr. Prince is more upbeat. He figures the same thing that happened to Sweeney Todd will happen to Parade.

"If younger people went to the theater more, it would have done fine from the beginning," he says. "What gets onstage these days is often dictated by the tastes of the baby boomers, which often tends to the escapist. But they are not the basis of the future of this art form.

"My money is on the real theater lovers and also on the young people," he says. " My dream is that this show will eventually land again in New York. But that is in the lap of the gods."

PERFORMANCE INFORMATION
Parade, presented by the Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park Music Hall, Tuesday through July 9. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and July 6. Tickets $9 to $55. Call Ticketmaster at 214-631-2787 or metro 972-647-5700.


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