The Los Angeles Times
Barabara Isenberg

When playwright Alfred Uhry first approached director Harold Prince with the idea of turning the notorious Leo Frank tragedy into a musical, Prince was immediately interested.

"It was right up my alley," says the Tony-winning director of such musicals as "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Sweeney Todd" and "Show Boat."

"I feel so much more comfortable when I’m working on material which makes other people scratch their heads and ask, ‘You’re going to make a musical out of that?’ "

Not a bad question in the case of "Parade," which opens Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater here. The title refers to Atlanta’s Confederate Memorial Day Parade of 1913 that provides the backdrop to Uhry’s tale of the real-life murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan and the arrest, trial and mob lynching of Frank, the Jewish factory supervisor falsely accused of that murder.

Advertised as "a true story, a love story, a musical," "Parade" is the latest and perhaps most unlikely rumination on Frank’s lynching, an event that, among other things, essentially launched the Anti-Defamation League to fight anti-Semitism and other injustices. The first Livent show to reach Broadway since the controversial, financially plagued Toronto company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month, "Parade" takes on a national tragedy that has intrigued novelists and playwrights, historians and screenwriters for decades.

It similarly intrigued Uhry, a Southerner and a Jew, who says, "I was fascinated with the Leo Frank case and read everything I could find about it. I guess I always saw the dramatic possibilities."

For Uhry, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and Oscar for "Driving Miss Daisy" and a 1997 Tony for "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," the Frank case also resonated personally. His great-uncle owned the pencil factory where Phagan and Frank worked, and his grandmother–the model for Miss Daisy–was a contemporary of Frank and his wife. Uhry himself had met Lucille Frank when he was a boy and she came by his house to play bridge with his grandmother.

Prince originally talked with Stephen Sondheim about doing the score, but says that Sondheim was just coming off "Passion" and was drawn at the time to lighter fare. Prince’s daughter Daisy, also a director, suggested Jason Robert Brown, a 28-year-old composer-lyricist who wrote the 1995 off-Broadway revue "Songs for a New World" and is making his Broadway debut with "Parade."

Uhry, 62, recalls that when they first met, Brown was just 24 and, he says, "I was a little nervous about the age difference because he was younger than my kids. But I found it very easy, really. I had collaborated a lot, having been a lyricist for some time, and I found him incredibly smart."

Uhry suggested books for Brown to read and "we talked a lot about how I felt about being a Southerner, which I believe is a big part of the story. There were some people still alive when I was a small child, who had fought in the Civil War and come home to find the land was decimated, and you couldn’t even keep your farm, and you would be forced to lose it to taxes and have to go to work in the city. Then, adding insult to injury, you were forced to put your children to work too. There was a lot of bitterness, and that feeling had to come out somewhere. This crime encapsulated all that feeling."

He also talked about Frank, a man Uhry describes as "an alien to Georgia. He was from New York, and he had Coke-bottle glasses and a big, hooked nose. And he was a very persnickety kind of man who lost his cool very easily if the fans weren’t working right, or the shipment didn’t come–he went from zero to 10 pretty quickly."

Brown, who has declined interviews until after the show opens, apparently paid close attention. Some of his lyrics, Brown has said, are actually words from Uhry’s conversation. The title of the first song, and its haunting refrain, reportedly came from an inscription on Phagan’s grave about "the old red hills" of Georgia.

In "The Picture Show," a song about going to the movies, sweet Mary Phagan, just shy of her 14th birthday, is all dressed up, planning a quick stop at the factory to get her pay–$1.20 for 12 hours work–for working on the line fastening erasers to pencil caps. She is a happy-go-lucky girl, flirting with her boyfriend, and in sharp contrast to the dour Leo Frank dramatized by Uhry and inhabited by actor Brent Carver.

Carver, who won a 1993 Tony for his portrayal of the flamboyant window-dresser in Livent’s "Kiss of the Spider Woman," is here prim, prissy, internal. His only uninhibited moment–and even then he’s a prim man attempting to be uninhibited–is during a fantasy enactment of false accusations during the show’s trial scene. This Frank is an outsider even from his Southern Jewish wife, a woman he sings would "prefer I say ‘howdy’ and not ‘shalom.’ "

When Frank is accused of murder, his reaction is one of disbelief, shock and arrogance–hardly a posture endearing to authorities. He demands better food in jail and refuses to change his behavior for either jurors or, later, the mob that abducts him from jail after his sentence is commuted.

Act like a good old boy, urges Frank’s good old boy Southern lawyer. Confess, urges the mob about to lynch him. Frank does neither.

Frank’s lynching traumatized Jewish Americans at the time, says Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Most of the Jews who had come to the U.S. had come from Eastern Europe fleeing pogroms and persecution, which they felt they left behind in America. The murder of Leo Frank shook them up to the point that hundreds of miles away from Atlanta they felt the need to organize themselves in an organization that would, as they then put it, fight the defamation of the Jewish people. It was the impetus for the formation of the ADL."

Foxman points out that, unlike French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of treason in another notorious case of anti-Semitism, Frank had no Emile Zola who rallied to his defense. Rather, he was used as fodder for a sensation-seeking press, right-wing newspaper publishers and an ambitious prosecuting attorney.

But Frank did eventually have one unexpected champion–Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton, who essentially gave up his political career to commute Frank’s sentence after Frank’s appeal for a new trial was denied. Responding to national outrage and correspondence as well as to his own investigation, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment in June 1915 (a decision that, ironically, led to Frank’s transfer to the less-secure country jail from which he was abducted that August).

"He was the most popular governor in Georgia’s history to that point–a possible senator, maybe president," says John Hickok, who plays Gov. Slaton in "Parade." "In the face of death threats and knowing he would be sabotaging a very promising political career, he commuted the death sentence. Nowadays, how many politicians would forfeit something of great importance to them to do the right thing?"

The inherent drama in all this has been accentuated by the fact that Phagan’s killer was never identified and the incident continues to fascinate storytellers. There have been many books, historical and fictional, about the case over the years, including David Mamet’s 1997 novel "The Old Religion."

Besides a documentary made at the time, the case inspired Mervyn LeRoy’s 1937 fictionalized film "They Won’t Forget," starring Claude Rains (and essentially introducing Lana Turner). George Stevens Jr. produced and co-wrote a 1988 television film, "The Murder of Mary Phagan," from a story by Larry McMurtry and with a cast that included Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher. "Cakewalk," a play drawn from the
case by Michael Genelin and Joseph Charney, was part of the 1983-84 New Theatre for Now season at the Mark Taper Forum.

Now comes "Parade." Following Livent’s staged reading in early 1996 in Philadelphia and workshop performances for an invited audience in Toronto in October 1997, Uhry contacted Lincoln Center artistic director Andre Bishop last spring. Bishop, who had worked with Uhry when Bishop was running New York’s Playwrights Horizons, says that "part of our mission here, as at Playwrights, is to develop and ultimately produce new American musicals. ‘Parade’ fit right into a series of them we’re doing."

Lincoln Center and Livent split the show’s cost of "around $5 million" for this initial 10-week engagement at the 1,066-seat Vivian Beaumont, Bishop says, adding that Livent had paid most of its share before its Bankruptcy Court filing. "They owe us a little bit–for a reserve fund–but they assured us they will make good on it. Obviously, if what happened {recently} had happened a few months ago, ‘Parade’ would have been in trouble. We could never have done it ourselves, much as we would have liked to."

Bishop says that he wasn’t worried about the dark nature of the work. "I think all subject matter is appropriate for musical theater if the authors are inspired," Bishop says. "If you look back at the great musicals of this century, many of them are serious and many are quite dark: ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Cabaret,’ most of the Sondheim shows, to name a few."

While composer-lyricist Brown has quipped that "there’s not a lot of tap-dancing" in "Parade," there are dance moments including slow-motion sequences, the cakewalk and street dances. For example, Frank’s conviction is followed by what amounts to an eruption of dance in the courtroom.

The moment is historically accurate, explains "Parade" choreographer Patricia Birch, who says that "the crowds danced their way home." Opting for what she calls "organized chaos," she gave her actors odd bits of cakewalk and other dances, leading to a snake line around Leo and Lucille Frank to provoke "a strong image of wildness with these two people whose lives are falling apart in the center."

Playwright Uhry has referred to the love story of Leo and Lucille Frank as the show’s "saving grace," and it was even more than that for director Prince. "Clearly, every show has a key that unlocks it," says Prince, "and I would say the one in this case is the parallel love story of these two people. There would be an opera, but there wouldn’t be a musical if we didn’t have this amazing trajectory of these two lives."

Lucille Selig Frank emerges in "Parade," as apparently in life, as a woman of considerable substance. Carolee Carmello, who plays her, comments that because Lucille was quite private, the story of their relationship is "probably the most fictionalized" part of the show.

But like the street dances and even a scene in which a newspaper reporter brings Frank’s wedding ring to his widow, much is drawn from history. While Frank was in jail, his wife wrote many letters in his defense, and Carmello keeps in her dressing room a binder of Lucille’s letters to and from Leo. He wrote to her nearly every day, says Carmello, "and they’re very sweet letters. This is a really dark moment in history, and I think what helps makes it palatable is that alongside the tragedy is this wonderfully hopeful emotional story."

Prince concurs. "It’s a difficult project, and you have to get the tone right and what elements of the story you want to tell. I’m inclined to think we found the right balance, but it took a long time to find those parallel stories and tell them properly."

Uhry, in turn, says that he considers himself lucky that Prince and Brown became as passionate about the project as he was. "Working on this show for all this time, for five years, has somehow made me feel at peace about something that has haunted me all my life."