Whoever thought that the lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia in 1915 is a proper subject for a musical? They might as well try to make a musical of Oklahoma's struggle for statehood or the experiences of a British teacher at the court of the King of Siam.
The truth, of course, is that there are no bad subjects, only bad writers. In the right hands, the musical can be shaped to any story. "Parade," in the steady and nimble hands of veteran director Harold Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy", "The Last Night of Ballyhoo"), demonstrates this triumphantly.
Admittedly, it does deal with a particularly bleak episode of history. "Oklahoma!" or "The King and I" don't build up to the grisly death of the main character.
But "Parade" looks death and injustice in the face, and chooses to affirm life and humanity.
In one sense, "Parade" occupies familiar ground. It deals with the case of Leo Frank, convicted of murdering a young girl in a pencil factory, reprieved by a brave and conscience-sticken governor, but seized and hanged by organized bigots.
This basic story has been told many times, most recently in the miniseries "The Murder of Mary Phagan" and in David Mamet's novel "The Old Religion." But Uhry's superbly skillful book makes it fresh, clear and surprisingly theatrical.
It works because Uhry and Prince exploit the great advantage of the musical form the way it can move naturally from the epic to the intimate, from the big social picture to the small, private details.
The world of the Old South, still locked into the Civil War and Dixie nostalgia, is brilliantly established by weaving the action around Atlanta's Confederate Memorial Day Parade. The society in which the story unfolds is established with a few bold brush strokes: blacks at the bottom, poor whites like the murdered Mary Phagan in the middle, wealthy elite at the top.
On this large canvas, "Parade" zooms in on the odd, fragile and ultimately very moving relationship of Lucille and Leo Frank, perfectly played by Carolee Carmello and Brent Carver. Crucially, they are not conceived as Jewish martyrs. Carmello and Carver create rich and fascinating portraits of people with complex motivations.
Carver's Leo is a cold fish, obsessive, neurotic and sarcastic, the kind of man who might conceivably have committed a terrible crime. Adding to the interest in their relationship is the fact that it is only after he is imprisoned that Carmello's Lucille is able to blossom.
The events that undo him prove to be the making of her. When Leo and Lucille's marriage becomes, in the end, a love story, it is much more moving for being so unlikely.
Jason Robert Brown's songs serve this story rather than the other way around, but there is no shame in that. There is no outstanding show-stopping number.
But the lyrics are consistently smart. Moreover, Brown weaves the musical traditions of the South blues, jazz, country and hymns into a vividly dramatic tapestry of sound.
Most of all, "Parade" is a reminder that so long as Prince's consummate gifts are available, the good old days of the intelligent, ambitious musical will not be over.
Watching this masterly fusion of seriousness and entertainment, those directors who pride themselves on creating cynical pap might be tempted to hang themselves for shame.
“Parade," a musical about a terrible injustice, rises beyond simplistic agitprop in the depiction of its central characters, Leo and Lucille Frank, who are beautifully played by Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello.
Carver's Leo is a tall, gaunt guy with a narrow, high-browed face and a grim slit of a mouth. He's a prim, precise, angular man who keeps life at a fastidious distance. Managing a pencil factory in Atlanta in 1913, he's not home in the South.
Carver perfectly gets Leo's double, even triple alienation from his environment. As a Jew, he is despised by the local Confederate culture. As a Yiddish-speaking Jew, he feels superior to the genteel, assimilated Atlanta Jews. And as a husband, he seems to erect certain fences between himself and his sweet local wife, who's Jewish but not Yiddish-speaking.
When one of Leo's employees, 13-year-old Mary Phagan, is found murdered on the factory premises, Leo is charged, convicted and sentenced to death. When the honest governor commutes the sentence, Leo is dragged out of jail and lynched.
This Kafkaesque narrative, based on real events, has a book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and was "co-conceived" by director Harold Prince.
Uhry has become the chronicler of Atlanta's Jewish community, in "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo"; indeed, there was a character similar to Leo (a cocky Northern Jew) in "Ballyhoo." This is Brown's first work and reveals a supple, if still derivative, versatility.
"Parade" works best - indeed, has real power - as an intimate study of a man, a woman and a marriage under nightmarish stress.
We first see Leo singing in counterpoint to the oompah of a Confederate Memorial Day parade: "This place is surreal; how can I call it home?" (But would he have used the word "surreal" in 1913?)
Rushed into jail, he keeps his somewhat prissy dignity, even with his wife, who, while explaining to a reporter that "you don't know this man," clearly harbors some wisp of doubt about him herself. Carmello beautifully captures Lucille's hesitation and her shame at this hesitation.
The ensuing trial features an extraordinary fantasy sequence in which Leo enacts the sexual-harassment lies of Mary's co-worker, during which Carver startlingly turns into a cavorting, prurient, lewd, Dionysiac demon.
The real Leo then finds words in a powerful song called "It's Hard to Speak My Heart" - a moment matched by Lucille's sudden decision to stand up with her husband in convinced solidarity. When the guilty verdict comes, the Atlanta citizens strut and cakewalk in glee as the Franks stand rigid in horror.
In the second act, the Franks try to reverse the verdict, which was indeed a product of blackmail, subornation and bigotry. "This is not over yet," they insist.
Brown's lyrics are marked by Sondheimian internal rhymes ("schemings ... redeemings"), his music by jagged, jumpy strings. Later, in front of a Constable sky (lovely sets by Riccardo Hernandez, but I wish he'd resisted the bare, huge, ugly tree that looms ominously throughout), the couple have a picnic and exchange long rhythmic lines like, "I will never understand what I did to deserve you."
As a portrait of a marriage, "Parade" has a power that recalls not Sondheim but Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Carver's wrenching creation of Leo - victim and more than victim - is the best male achievement in a musical since Michael Hayden in "Carousel."
More formulaic and shallow is the musical's shrill evocation of Atlanta in 1913. Rebel soldiers longing for "the old red hills of home" set the note of a place psychotically nostalgic and savoring hysterical parades. Despite a faux-sweet "Meet Me in St. Louis"-like trolley song between Mary and a beau, Atlanta is a hotbed of meanness. The lament sung by the murdered girl's mother ends with a vicious monosyllable: "Jew."
Director Prince lays it on with a bullying grandiosity reminiscent of the hollow "Ragtime." Two locals emerge with a bit of pungent flavor: a newshound, strongly played by Evan Pappas (although his big song, "Big News," is banal and his character stays undeveloped), and a good-ol'-boy defense lawyer, done with sweaty authenticity by J.B. Adams, but given no songs at all.
If the foreground (the couple) is fine and the background (Atlanta) is crude, the middle ground (who killed Mary) is muddled, vague and confusing. A black watchman (Ray Aranha) and a black sweeper (Rufus Bonds Jr., who gets to sing a rich, if doubtfully relevant, blues song) are somehow around and are subjected to racist intimidation by the district attorney, but the possibility of their guilt is left unexplored.
The tree is a sermon in itself. A big, sturdy oak with serpentine limbs, it's the first thing the audience sees in ''Parade,'' the solemn, high-reaching new musical directed by Harold Prince that opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
The oak's branches glow, in sinister abstraction, through a scrim before a single note is sung, and it will be a dominant presence throughout the evening, casting a metaphoric shadow that is both premonitory and admonitory. A man, a good man, will be hanged from that tree before ''Parade'' is over. It is the image of a brutally unfair fate awaiting its victim, and we are never, ever allowed to forget what it signifies.
Not that we would have anyway. One thing ''Parade'' cannot be accused of is fuzziness of focus. Inspired by the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in Marietta, Ga., in 1915 for the murder of a 13-year-old girl, this musical provides a painstakingly rendered chart of the wheels of injustice. And it never lets up in its insistence on the innocence, on several levels, of its protagonist and the moral blindness and corruption of his persecutors.
That the result is often more podium-thumping screed than compelling story is in itself a heartbreaker. ''Parade'' prompted raised eyebrows and arch jokes (have you heard the one about the dancing lynch mob?) long before it went into previews, and the involvement of Livent Inc., the financially ailing Canadian-based theatrical company, as one of its producers only added to the air of gallows humor.
Yet ''Parade'' also represented the possibility of answered prayers for anxious lovers of the American musical. The genre, after all, is represented this season in new productions on Broadway only by the flaccid ''Footloose'' and the revivals of ''Peter Pan'' and ''On the Town,'' and this is by no means an atypical season.
Here at last was a show of daring aspiration, shaped by a young composer of talent and invention, Jason Robert Brown, and a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, Alfred Uhry (''Driving Miss Daisy''). What's more, it was to be overseen by the director who had done more than any other to extend the boundaries of the Broadway musical and to confound expectations of what the form's proper subject matter is.
The rise of the Nazi party, a portrait of marital disharmony set in the gloom of a decrepit show palace, the rise of a politician and his ravenously ambitious wife in Argentina, a homicidal barber in Victorian London: Mr. Prince repeatedly turned ostensibly sour material into scintillating theater with his fabled productions of ''Cabaret'' (1966), ''Follies'' (1971), ''Evita'' (1978) and ''Sweeney Todd'' (1979).
As recently as 1993, he was still breathing hit-making musical life into unlikely themes with ''The Kiss of the Spider Woman,'' the Kander-Ebb show about South American political prisoners that joltingly juxtaposed cinematic fantasy sequences with scenes of barbaric torture. Given this context, is ''Parade'' really such a stretch, especially given the participation of its star, Brent Carver, who appeared to such resonant effect in ''Spider Woman''?
That Mr. Carver, through no fault of his own, is a far less compelling presence here says much about what has gone wrong with ''Parade.'' As the gay, escapist story spinner forced into political engagement in ''Spider Woman,'' this first-rate actor guided his audiences through the labyrinth of one man's very conflicted interior. The role of Leo Frank in ''Parade'' offers him no such opportunities.
The character, a Jewish scapegoat in a blood-lusting Southern society, is a martyr, pure and simple, a man whose worst crimes are emotional reserve and fastidiousness. Mr. Carver renders these traits, in both his singing and acting, with delicacy. But there's no getting beyond the impression that his Leo is as flat and iconic as a bleeding saint in a religious mural.
With the exception of Carolee Carmello, who gives a stirringly heartfelt performance as Leo's wife, Lucille, all of the actors in ''Parade'' appear claustrophobicly trapped in that mural. It is sometimes hard to distinguish them from the two-dimensional cutout figures used to fill out the crowd scenes in Riccardo Hernandez's visually arresting but oddly distancing set, in which only vistas of picturesque landscapes give off any warmth at all.
Correspondingly, Mr. Brown's songs, while artfully shading classic hymn and march forms with dark dissonance, also keep you at an intellectual remove. He has a tendency to use martial drumbeats and knell-like chords to underscore his melody lines, and the devices give the effect of someone continually whispering in your ear: ''Look at what these people are doing to a blameless man. Just look.''
Several people involved with the creation of ''Parade,'' which has been incubating for six years, have said that its real center is the love story of the Franks, partners in a sterile arranged marriage who finally fall in love during Leo's trial and imprisonment. Yet in the performance, the balance of the show is elsewhere.
The evening's first act is devoted almost entirely to the mechanics of framing Frank and the agitating of popular sentiment against a social outsider by a yellow press. As a jaded journalist, played by Evan Papas, sings, shortly after Leo's arrest, ''Take a superstitious city and a little Jew from Brooklyn with a college education and a mousy little wife.''
That's the recipe, all right. From the beginning, both Mr. Uhry's book and Mr. Brown's lyrics baldly set up Frank's status as an alien, with references to his disdain for Southern cooking and tendency, as a song lyric puts it, to say ''shalom'' instead of ''howdy.'' When Mary Phagan (the appealing Christy Carlson Romano), a teen-age worker in the National Pencil Factory where Frank is a superintendent, is found murdered in the factory's basement, the police immediately fix an accusatory gaze on the exotic Mr. Frank.
Thus begins a streamlined railroading process of the sort that has become common fodder for socially sensitive television movies of the week. The expediency of pinning the crime on Leo is established through a series of scenes in which blatantly corrupt politicians say things like: ''You got a lousy conviction record, Hughie. How long you think they're going to keep you in office if you let this one off the hook?''
The citizens of Atlanta grow ever louder in their cries for vengeance, goaded by a satanic newspaper publisher, Tom Watson (John Leslie Wolfe), who is given to statements like ''Jesus was not a Jew.'' An ambitious prosecuting attorney, Hugh Dorsey (Herndon Lackey), is seen cutting a deal with a black factory janitor with a prison record (Jim Conley, who brings some flair and fire to the proceedings) to testify against Frank.
When three young female factory employees show up in court to speak of Frank's lascivious behavior toward them, you have no doubt that they have been coached to lie, despite an all-too-brief fantasy interlude in which Frank becomes the leering, worldly figure of their testimony. (The vignette provides what is by far the best work of Mr. Carver and the choreographer Patricia Birch in the show.) As Lucille sings passionately to a reporter: ''He is a decent man! He is an honest man!''
As any number of Alfred Hitchcock movies confirm, ''wrong man'' plots, even rudimentary ones, can generate alarming levels of suspense. But to do so, they have either to admit you, Kafka-style, into the baffled, frightened mind of the persecuted or to sweep you up into the frenzy of the persecutors, making you feel vicariously implicated. That was the strategy of ''They Won't Forget,'' the 1937 Mervyn LeRoy film inspired by the same events.
Yet even as Mr. Prince and Ms. Birch use the ensemble to create tableaux of tidal waves of crowds, in ways that recall the mob scenes in ''Evita,'' you never escape an overriding feeling of disdain, a chilly indignation. Nor is Leo ever allowed to doubt himself, to wonder (as most of us surely would) if he had somehow gone mad. The shy Lucille is clearly tortured by the public scrutiny of herself and her husband, but she also never seems to wonder if her husband might indeed be guilty.
Ms. Carmello nonetheless creates a vital and affecting portrait of a sheltered woman thrust out into a harsh and dangerous world. Made up and dressed to look a bit like Eleanor Roosevelt (the period-appropriate costumes are by Judith Dolan), the actress's very accent and vocal inflections bespeak both a heritage of Southern Jewish gentility and a fluttery primness that never quite conceals a yearning for a more fully lived life.
The second act is mostly hers, as Lucille convinces Georgia's Governor, John M. Slaton (John Hickok), to reopen her husband's case. Though much of what follows has the feeling of a historical detective story, there is something infinitely touching about the valiant hope that Ms. Carmello projects. In her climactic love duet, during a conjugal visit to Leo in prison just before his abduction and murder by a mob symbolically commanded by a Confederate Civil War veteran, you suddenly feel you've been given emotional entry to a show that has determinedly kept you outside of it.
That moment arrives too late. The death of Leo Frank may be an unlikely subject for a musical, but that is not what sabotages ''Parade.'' Musicals can be grim and even grotesque as long as they let you feel their heartbeat, the pulse that animates the behavior onstage. You need only think of ''Sweeney Todd,'' which drew its audience into improbable identification with its crazed, murderous title character.
In this sense, the odds are comparatively in favor of ''Parade.'' It arrives with an innately sympathetic hero, undoubtedly worthy of our tears. But for those tears to flow, we have to get to know Leo Frank as a man, not a symbol. The civics lesson that is ''Parade'' forbids our ever approaching such knowledge.
The facts are there in black and white, as the saying goes, and "Parade," the musical that presents them, is painted in the same stark color scheme. A show whose singularly inapt title belies the dolor that is its keynote, "Parade" closes the fall season on a decidedly somber and somehow appropriate chord -- Broadway hasn't exactly been a festive place in recent months.
The new musical, a co-production between Lincoln Center Theater and the troubled Livent, marks the Broadway debut of an already accomplished young composer and lyricist, Jason Robert Brown, working with an old master, Harold Prince, who co-conceived and directed the show. It's rich in subtle and appealing melodies that draw on a variety of influences, from pop-rock to folk to rhythm and blues and gospel. The performances of stars Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello are valiant, vocally and dramatically, and the staging is marked by Princely intelligence and economy.
But even with strong reviews, commercial prospects for this relentlessly serious show will be limited. It's like "Ragtime" without all the nice characters and uplift, and even at its most musically lively, "Parade" is dramatically inert. A simply told tale of victim and villains, its moral positions are hammered home with dogged insistence, and its unhappy ending seems to be quietly present in every scene.
Indeed it is quietly present in every scene: Riccardo Hernandez's attractive but gloomy sets are dominated by the heft of a giant, leafless, portentous-looking tree that stays rooted in place throughout the show as smaller pieces are arrayed around it to suggest factory, courtroom, prison. If you're at all familiar with the true story the musical relates, you'll know just how that tree comes grimly into play.
The facts are these: In 1913, Leo Frank (Carver), a Jewish factory supervisor from Brooklyn, was working in an Atlanta pencil factory when one of his employees, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan, was found murdered on the premises. Suspicion fell easily on the outsider, and Frank was charged with the crime, quickly convicted on scant and suspect evidence and sentenced to die. When the Georgia governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in 1915, a mob kidnapped him from the prison where he was being held and lynched him.
The creators of "Parade" -- Brown, Prince and book writer Alfred Uhry -- open the musical some years before, as a young Confederate soldier sets off to fight in the Civil War for the glory of the South, singing a tender folk song extolling "The Old Red Hills of Home." As the song fades into another anthem, at which Southerners commemorate the war with a parade, the young soldier turns into an old one, now minus a leg and filled with resentment.
Can it be a coincidence of casting that the actor who plays the embittered, crippled Confederate soldier, the worthy Don Chastain, will later be recognizable as the judge who tries the Frank case? It's doubtful, such is the general heaviness of "Parade's" touch.
Both Uhry's book and Brown's lyrics point up with some amusing early jokes the anomaly of being Jewish in the South (a subject Uhry of course explored more fully, and more lightheartedly, in "The Last Night of Ballyhoo"), but the uneasy conclusion implicit in the jokes is that it's morally better to be Jewish than Southern. (In "How Can I Call This Home?," Leo sings that the people around him "belong in zoos.") In "Parade," Southerners are depicted as bigots with stunted morals, both en masse (cheering on the Confederate flag at the parade, singing of a "way of life that's pure") and, in particular, as prosecutor and politicians railroad Leo to prison.
That may be a defensible position -- history is what it is -- but it makes for less than nuanced drama. After a few short scenes that set up the milieu and Leo's loving but conflicted relationship with his wife Lucille (Carmello), Leo is taken into custody (we never learn much about why he's the natural suspect -- perhaps the beat cops had already read the musical's book). Almost immediately, the forces of evil begin to array themselves against him.
This is the rare musical that boasts more bad guys than reprises. There's Hugh Dorsey (Herndon Lackey), the ambitious prosecutor who's looking to manufacture evidence to fit his suspect ("He smells of it," Dorsey snarls); the drunk Yankee reporter Britt Craig (Evan Pappas), who plays fast and loose with the first sensational story he's come upon in some time; the fervently anti-Semitic Christian newspaper publisher Tom Watson (John Leslie Wolfe), who rouses the ignorant hordes to call for the quick capture of Mary's killer; and the weak-willed Gov. Slaton (John Hickok). Only slightly less destructive is Frank's good-old-boy lawyer Luther Rosser (J.B. Adams).
The first act finale is Leo's travesty of a trial (before a jury of cardboard figures, to hammer the point home), a series of musical numbers that divides a virtuosic variety of song styles among witnesses and participants. Though the appeal of Brown's music is undeniable, and it's all brilliantly orchestrated by Don Sebesky and lyrically conducted by Eric Stern, it's hard to take unalloyed pleasure in a score that so thoroughly depicts human mendacity, stupidity, opportunism and cruelty. On the surface, the musical heavily condemns the venality and bigotry that led to the tragedy, but it's hard not to feel that it's somehow also celebrating them, since most of the musical is devoted to exploring the processes by which Frank is railroaded to prison and ultimately murdered.
In speaking of the story's appeal, Prince and Uhry have emphasized the evolving relationship between Leo and Lucille, but that story is overwhelmed by the terrible drama that surrounds it (too much of the second act is spent revealing what was made abundantly clear in the first: that Leo got a bum rap). You can hear the creators straining to keep a strong focus on Leo and Lucille, but when Leo sings in the second act of his surprise and joy at how his wife stood by him, you can't see it as a major emotional victory -- since we've been pummeled with the ugly way in which Leo was unjustly convicted, it would be rather monstrous if Lucille hadn't.
Carver gives an impressive, carefully detailed performance as Leo Frank, a role that's probably factually impeccable but unsympathetic. Leo is depicted as a smart, slightly supercilious and fastidious man whose first reaction to being thrown in prison on a murder charge is to complain about the food. Carmello's vibrant vocalizing and warm presence flesh out the simple contours of her part, but some of the villains have as much stage time as she does, making it difficult to create a fully rounded portrait. Other performances, in mostly single-note parts, are all exemplary.
But the creators' attempts to play up the love story in the background of a horror show point up the conceptual difficulty that ultimately hamstrings the show's appeal. Why set to music a story whose hard and distasteful facts can accommodate little of the nuance and color and joy -- to say nothing of beauty -- that music could bring? The pleasures in Brown's melodies leave a bitter trace because they're often in the service of lyrics that expose humanity at its ugliest. (When a fire-and-brimstone anthem is sung by the evil Tom Watson to rouse the hordes against Frank, the audience duly applauds the musical vigor of tune and performance, but we're also cheering a lynch mob.)
Irony is not a musical device, but a literary one; when music soars, the heart wants to join it. As "Parade" ends with another choral hymn sung by Southerners at a parade, the music seduces us when our sensibilities should be repulsed. A man has just been hanged, after all. The paradox leaves you with a sour aftertaste. Indeed, while nothing about this production is less than accomplished, "Parade" might still be called the feel-bad musical of the year.