2000-09-24
The Seattle Times
Misha Berson

If a musical stumbles on Broadway, does it automatically sink into a dark hole of theatrical obscurity?

Not always. Sometimes there is an encore, as in the current case of "Parade," the multiple Tony Award-winning show by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown.

A provocative work based on a famed Georgia murder and lynching case, "Parade" debuted at Lincoln Center Theatre in 1998 to big expectations and mixed reviews.

Some notices were glowing: Newsday called the show "one of the most gratifying serious book musicals in a long time," and USA Today praised it as "part court drama, part whodunit, part Greek tragedy and part pageant."

But there were a few pans too, the most damning one from a powerful arbiter: The New York Times. "Parade" absorbed another major blow when Livent, the company producing it, went bankrupt.

Bedeviled by financial losses, "Parade" closed in the red in New York after a three-month run.

But thanks to Christopher Manos, producer of Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars and a frequent backer of national touring shows, "Parade" recently won a new lease on life on the road.

This week "Parade" comes to Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, on a tour that has already visited Atlanta, Minneapolis and other cities. Its well-received current incarnation is something of a personal victory for composer Brown and librettist Uhry (both Tony Award winners for "Parade"), as well as the show’s esteemed director, Harold Prince.

"It was very odd standing up to get a Tony Award last year for a musical hardly anyone had seen," noted Brown by phone from Denver, where `Parade’ was playing last week. "The whole experience felt so incomplete, so interrupted."

Even Prince, who at 72 takes hits and flops in stride, was demoralized by the tuner’s quick demise.

"Had this tour not happened, I would have been uncharacteristically bitter about the whole thing," Prince said via phone from New York, where he’s working on the early phase of a new Stephen Sondheim show.

"Parade" was resuscitated when Manos came to the rescue, lining up a national tour and raising roughly $1 million to underwrite it.

Prince stepped in to re-cast and re-direct the production for its debut in Atlanta this past June. And Brown got so jazzed, he signed on with the tour as its conductor.

"This has been wonderful for me because a lot of people are seeing what I feel is the best possible version of `Parade,’ " Brown explains. "I like it much better than what we did in New York. It’s great – I get to see every performance, and when it’s over I’ll really be able to say goodbye to it."

Conversely for Prince, the tour and a recent, hard-won publishing deal for "Parade" signify the show’s future viability.

"I know now it will surface again, and be performed over time," he stresses. "As far as I’m concerned, that’s vindication."

A difficult sell

Still, even a continent away from the intense pressures of Broadway, "Parade" is not an easy sell to a mass audience.

It was Prince who first seized on the story of Leo Frank as promising (and meaningful) musical fodder.

A Jewish Northerner who managed an Atlanta pencil factory, Frank was accused of the 1913 murder of teenager Mary Phagen, a crime that occurred, ironically, during Georgia’s annual Confederate Memorial Day Parade.

There were major doubts about Frank’s guilt, and charges that false testimony helped convict him. But Frank quickly became a convenient scapegoat in a South still reeling from Civil War losses, and rife with anti-Semitism.

At trial, Frank received the death penalty, which was later commuted to life imprisonment by Georgia’s governor. But on Aug. 17, 1915, the prisoner was yanked from his cell and hanged from an oak tree by a group of men.

The well-publicized incident spurred the formation of the Anti-Defamation League (which fights anti-Jewish bigotry), and a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Even now, the Leo Frank case stirs up strong emotions in Georgia. Recently, a credible list was published on the Internet naming probable participants in Frank’s lynching. The list includes numerous prominent, churchgoing Atlanta-area citizens of the time – an ex-Georgia governor, a former country sheriff – whose descendants still live in the region.

Alfred Uhry, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" also dealt with the experience of Jews in the South, grew up in Atlanta. His great-uncle owned the pencil factory Frank managed. And his grandmother was friends with Lucille Frank, Leo’s loyal, dignified widow.

Even so, Prince had to convince Uhry that this dark chapter in Georgia history would make a viable musical. And their first choice of composer, Stephen Sondheim, passed on the project.

"Steve had just done `Passion’ on Broadway, and he wanted to change gears and do something less serious," explained Prince, known for his innovative stagings of such Sondheim hits as "Company" and "Sweeney Todd."

Undaunted, Prince turned to a relative newcomer in his mid/20s: pop-oriented theater composer and Broadway novice Jason Robert Brown.

"The very first song Jason wrote for `Parade’ was the opening number, `The Red Hills of Georgia,’ " Prince remembers. "After that, he just kept surprising us with his versatility and his talent."

Story has human dimension

The collaborators knew "Parade" could not work, Prince said, "if it wasn’t a love story as well as a story about a trial and a lynching. At the beginning, you see Lucille and Leo Frank, two people who aren’t in love and have a kind of arranged marriage, and later you see how this trauma makes them reinvent themselves and their marriage.

"By the end, Leo finds his humor and his humanity. And Lucille becomes a kind of Eleanor Roosevelt, crusading for her husband’s life. The tragedy is that the governor commutes Leo’s sentence, but the vigilantes kill him anyway."

The love story is central. Brown’s score is a diverse, accessible collage of marches, hymns, rags and ballads. And Uhry’s book is not devoid of humor. Yet the grim facts behind "Parade" will likely scare some theatergoers away.

But Prince has spent his entire career producing and staging shows about similarly touchy and somber themes, and he isn’t about to back down now.

"You’re always fighting this with a serious show. People don’t remember that `West Side Story,’ which I produced, opened to mixed reviews and critics saying gang violence was an inappropriate subject for a musical."

What worries Prince today, despite the current reprieve for "Parade," is how
much harder it’s become to find a national platform for serious musical-drama.

"Broadway is so much more about entrepreneurship than it once was. It’s about the bookers, the theater owners, not artists. There’s that knee-jerk question: Is this commercial? Nobody would have the courage to do `Sweeney Todd’ or `West Side Story’ today if they didn’t already exist."

Whether "Parade" has real staying power in regional theater remains to be seen.

For Prince, it’s already a personal success. For Brown, now 29, it is the promising start of a career in a very tough business.

"Being a serious theater composer right now is a very competitive and scary place to be," noted Brown, whose new two-person musical, "The Last Five Years," opens in Chicago soon. "But all I really want to do is to write music that connects with people. And I’ve always felt like `Parade’ is one of those shows that really connects."

Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company


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