The Green Bay Press Gazette
Warren Gerds

Eighty-five years ago today, Leo Frank was lynched.

Did he murder 13-year-old Mary Phagan in the National Pencil factory during the 1913 Confederate Memorial Day Parade in Marietta, Ga.?

Over the years, this was grist for 20 or so books, movies and plays — and the musical "Parade," which arrives Tuesday at the Weidner Center.

The show played on Broadway for a few months, winning 1999 Tony Awards for best original score (Jason Robert Brown) and story (Alfred Uhry, also a Pulitzer Prize-winner for "Driving Miss Daisy").

Two months ago, a national road version was fired up. It started in Uhry’s hometown of Atlanta, 20 miles from Marietta. Imagine the stir it caused. Extensive newspaper coverage in Atlanta recounted the notorious case. Readers would have included relatives of Phagan, Frank, the man who accused him and members of the mob who lynched Frank.

Phagan was white. Frank was her foreman — Brooklyn-born, married and Jewish. His accuser was a black janitor. The mob was white.

"Sex, race, religion, class, sectionalism — in one swoop, the case exposed raw nerves quivering below the surface of the New South," said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a few days before "Parade" opened.

In the middle of this is a major force in theater, Harold Prince. He’s won 20 Tonys, more than anyone else. Among his credits is "The Phantom of the Opera" — directing virtually every production that’s played around the world.
Prince directed "Parade" on Broadway, then returned to it after a year for the tour. He and the other creators trimmed 12 minutes and made other changes.

"Distancing gives you some clarity," Prince said. "More important than anything, there’s a number in the show in the second act which I suddenly looked at and said, ‘My God, it’s the second-act opener. Why in hell didn’t that occur to any of us?’ "

In the bigger picture, "Parade" is important to Prince so he can make statements. He’s done so before, producing such shows as "West Side Story" and "Fiddler on the Roof" and directing "Cabaret," "Company" and "Show Boat," among a long list of others.

" ‘Parade’ represents a time in the history of the country that we put behind us, thank God, a time when there was a genuine schism between the North and the South," Prince said.

Despite all the volatility, he expects audiences to be uplifted when leaving the show.

"You get a feeling of a reaffirmation of people’s human values," Prince said. "One of the things you see in the show is two nice people in a marriage who are not realizing themselves at all. Their relationship to each other is, at best, polite and uninspired — which a lot of marriages still are and certainly were then."

Leo Frank and Lucille Selig married through arrangement. They were in their fifth year when Phagan was found dead.
"Because of a crisis in their lives, they both are reinvented, and they discover who they really are and they fall very much in love," Prince said. "That’s the trajectory of the story."

So "Parade," amid the furor, jubilation and hate-charged emotions, is a love story to Prince.

"It’s a story in which you see two people grow and find who they really are, and in finding it, find that they’ve picked each other very well," he said. "But in the beginning of the show you wouldn’t think so."

Brown’s score blends pop-rock, R&B, blues and gospel, with songs including "The Old Red Hills of Home," "The Dream of Atlanta," "Somethin’ Ain’t Right," "Real Big News" and "Feel the Rain Fall."

Prince’s staging of the show around three Confederate Day parades has been called inspired. He’s a student of history, American and otherwise.

"I’m interested in history — if it sings," he said. "You need a subject that invites musicalization, and this story does. I’m still interested in musicals having stories. Musicals need not be serious, but I think the musical form ought to accept both serious and comic material."