By: Paulanne Simmons
March 25, 2023: On July 11, 1733, forty-two Jewish men and women disembarked in Savannah, Georgia, soon after James Edward Oglethorpe had arrived with Georgia’s original settlers. Oglethorpe welcomed the newcomers, especially since the group included physician Samuel Nunes and many colonists were sick with yellow fever. To make matters worse, William Cox, the colonists’ only physician, had died a few months previous. It was Nunes’s advice and care that, according to Oglethorpe, saved the colony.
Fast forward to 1913. Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old-employee of the National Pencil Company, is found dead on the floor in the company’s basement. Several people are arrested as possible culprits. But only one of them, Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the company, is tried, convicted and lynched. The witnesses are coached or coerced into lying. The prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, is trying to make a name for himself. The mob wants blood, Jewish blood. Georgians seem to have forgotten gratitude.
More than five decades later Parade, a musical about the event, with book by Alfred Uhry and score by Jason Robert Brown, premieres on Broadway, directed by Harold Prince. It is reviewed favorably and wins several awards but closes after a few weeks. Parade is not a perfect musical, but one cannot help thinking audiences may just not have been ready for a show about anti-Semitism.
Today we live in different times. Parade is once again on a Broadway stage. This time it is directed by Michael Arden, with Ben Platt as Leo Frank and Micaela Diamond as his wife, Lucille. Dane Laffrey has created the minimal but stunning set.
Laffrey’s set has no walls and exposes all the structures and lighting backstage and in the wings. Center stage is a raised platform where much of the action takes place, while the townsfolk look on. This is entirely appropriate, because what happens to Leo Frank is nothing more than a show put on for a bigoted and hysterical population. However, Laffrey’s staging also makes the people in the audience voyeurs in their own right, as we watch these citizens of Atlanta engage in their ritual of human sacrifice.
Parade is a story about love, as well as injustice. The two don’t always sit well together, but Diamond and Platt make it work. Diamond grows from a perplexed somewhat self-involved wife into a woman of stature and courage. Platt is nervous and timid, but also likable. And in the end, Leo is every bit worthy of his wife’s devotion.
Musically, Brown is at his best in Parade. He has created an expansive score that blends beautiful ballads with swinging jazz, chain gang songs and blues. Diamond, with “You Don’t Know This Man” and Platt, with “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart” show how Brown’s ballads can be taken to their emotional depths.
The supporting cast creates many outstanding moments. Alex Joseph Grayson as Jim Conley, the man who most likely committed the crime, delivers with “That’s What He Said” and “Feel the Rain Fall.” The company’s “The Old Red Hills of Home” is gorgeous.
If there is any problem with Parade it’s that in some ways it covers too much and in others too little. Uhry wants us to thoroughly understand Southern mentality fifty years after the Civil War. But he seems shy when it comes to describing or defining anti-Semitism. Random remarks and accusations are made about Leo’s Jewishness, but the only song dedicated to racism is sung at the top of the second act by an African American servant who remarks that no one would care if a black girl had been killed.
The Jewish Community in Atlanta at this time was the largest in the Southern United States, and Leo Frank was active in his community, having been elected president of the Atlanta chapter of the B’nai B’rith in 1912. Parade gives us little idea of this. In fact, it’s remarkable that a musical about anti-Semitism tells us so little about Jews or anti-Semitism.
Before Parade begins, the voice of Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia tells the audience to silence cell phones and enjoy the show. He also ends by saying “God Bless America.” This is all very nice. After all, the show does take place in Georgia. It’s also heartening that Georgia is now represented in the United States Senate by an African American, Warnock, and a Jew, Jon Ossoff. But it’s somewhat odd that it’s the Black Senator who makes the speech before a show about anti-Semitism, and not the Jewish senator.
Nevertheless, after you turn off your phone and settle into your seat, you’re in for an experience that’s deeply moving and thought-provoking.
Parade runs through August 6 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45 Street. Photography: Joan Marcus