The Cleveland Plain-Dealer
Leo Frank died 85 years ago, a Jew lynched by a mob that included a doctor, a lawyer and a preacher, in Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. But his story continues to captivate readers and audiences.
"Parade," a daring musical about the Frank case, died on Broadway in February 1999, just two months after opening, the victim of savage reviews in the New York Times and the financial collapse of producer Livent. Yet the musical, too, lives on.
Beginning Wednesday, Clevelanders will have a rare, two-week opportunity to see "Parade."
New York "failures" usually don’t tour. They usually just disappear. But thanks largely to the passion of its creators, director Harold Prince, composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown and playwright Alfred Uhry, "Parade" is on a brief, 20-week tour of a handful of cities.
It isn’t just any tour, either. The set was rebuilt from the original design, some of the Broadway actors have returned to the show, and Brown himself is to be found every night in the pit, conducting his own score, an almost unheard-of activity for a Broadway songwriter.
"It’s an odd animal, ‘Parade,’" Uhry said in a telephone interview. "Just like the Leo Frank case, it just keeps coming back."
The Frank case dates to April 26, 1913. On that Confederate Memorial Day, a 13-year-old girl from Marietta named Mary Phagan, dressed in lavender lace and carrying a pink parasol, rode the trolley 18 miles to Atlanta.
She was on her way to a parade along Peachtree St., then and now Atlanta’s main street, but first she had to pick up $1.20 in back wages at the National Pencil Co. factory, where she made 12 cents an hour putting erasers on pencils.
Mary never made it to the parade. Her bludgeoned body was found the following day in the factory basement.
Police accused the man who admitted seeing her last, the supervisor of the pencil factory, Leo Frank. His nervous disposition made him suspicious. And in a city that still clearly remembered its destruction a half-century earlier during the Civil War, his Jewish faith, his origins in Brooklyn and his degree from Cornell University made him an easily hated villain.
The local press bought the story and ran with it. One Atlanta newspaper actually said: "Our little girl – ours by the eternal God! – has been pursued to a hideous death by this filthy perverted Jew from New York."
Frank was tried in a circuslike atmosphere, convicted and condemned to the gallows. He escaped hanging because Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton commuted the sentence on the eve of the execution after learning that some of the witnesses had been coached by the prosecution.
The case and its aftermath made a sensation in the South. Jews in Altanta fled the state in the face of mobs and boycotts. It was just as sensational in the North, where New Yorkers streamed into a movie theater to see a documentary about Frank, a persecuted victim of anti-Semitic hysteria.
Then, on the evening of Aug. 16, 1915, a mob traveled in eight cars from Marietta to Milledgeville, Ga., to a prison where Frank was moved after his commutation. The members of the mob, some of Marietta’s leading citizens, abducted Frank and drove him back to their hometown. As dawn broke the next morning, they killed him.
Historians and criminologists are not sure who killed Mary Phagan. But in recent years, lists of names believed to be the men who lynched Frank have circulated on the World Wide Web and in publications.
The story of the musical "Parade" has almost as many twists and surprises as its source material.
With Brown’s rich, Charles Ives-inspired score and Uhry’s powerful story, the musical’s initial run at Lincoln Center earned generally favorable reviews from everyone except the powerful Times when it opened in December 1998. But the collapse of Toronto-based Livent severely curtailed the advertising budget and "Parade" died a premature death.
"If you work and live in theater long enough, nearly everything happens to you at least once," legendary director Prince said via telephone. "But nothing like this had ever happened to me."
Despite the closing, "Parade" earned nine Tony Award nominations and won two, for Alfred Uhry’s story and Brown’s score. On the night before the ’99 Tony Awards ceremony, Prince called Uhry. The director recalled that he made a couple of predictions.
"I said, I’m probably not going to win tomorrow, but you are,’" Prince said. "So I want you to announce that we are going to reopen in Atlanta in a year."
Uhry made the announcement at the ceremony by saying, "This is not over yet," the title of a song sung by Leo and his wife, Lucille. But, Uhry admits now, "I thought I was lying."
The show did live on, but how would "Parade" be received in the South? Of the three members of the creative team, only Uhry – the author of "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" – is a Southerner. But, like the other two, he is a Jew. And the show depicted a history that many in the South would rather forget.
"The show is about a nebbishy Jewish guy by three nebbishy Jewish guys," Brown said in a telephone interview. "In the South, it’s about the South and these incredibly painful memories. I thought maybe I should hire a bodyguard."
Prince recalled: "I was very apprehensive, really. When we started rehearsals, the older Jewish population in Atlanta said, Why retell this story? Why dredge all this up again?’ But we went ahead."
When the revival opened in June in Atlanta’s Fox Theatre – located on the same street the Confederate Memorial Day parade marched down on that April day in 1913 – the audience did indeed respond.
"There were 3,000 people in the audience, and when the lights went down, I expected there might be mayhem," Prince said. "But at the end of the show, they leapt to their feet and screamed and applauded. I suppose it ranks as equal to any emotional experience I have ever had."
The tour has been critically praised, and the three members of the creative team harbor some hope that the show will get another crack at Broadway – if not now, then perhaps in five or 10 years.
"I want to believe that now the show has entered the musical-theater canon," Uhry said. "This story is so inherently American and has so many curlicues and twists to it. It doesn’t reflect the sweetest part of our culture, but it contains something true that all of us, Jews, non-Jews, Northerners, Southerners, can relate to."