‘Parade’ is a strange Broadway musical puzzle, lost in time
The Daily Beast
March 16, 2023
“Parade” lays out clearly the antisemitism at play in the charging of Leo Frank in the murder of Mary Phagan, but seems less certain of its lead characters and Old South setting.
What is Parade trying to show? What is it trying to say? These are the questions left on this critic’s mind after seeing this musical for a second time—first at New York City Center Encores last year, its production now transferred to Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (booking to August 6).
Judging by the response of audiences on both occasions, it may be a minority view; there was rousing applause at a recent afternoon matinee, as Tony-winning superstar Ben Platt as Leo Frank and Micaela Diamond as his wife Lucille—who sing both their strangely-written parts very well—endured and faced down the antisemitic bigotry and injustice that coalesced to convict the real-life Frank for the murder of factory girl Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle) in Marietta, Georgia, in 1913.
Frank was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to hang. This sentence was ultimately commuted to life imprisonment, though Frank was lynched to death by a gang who sprung him from jail in 1915. In 1986, Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, although not officially cleared of the murder. In 2019 the case was officially reopened, and is ongoing at the time of writing.
One hopes that one component of the audience’s applause is in support of the continued presence of the show on Broadway in the face of ugly, antisemitic protests outside the theater by a group of fascists. The reason and necessity for the show is right outside it, history and present day, art and reality, in starkly telling, meaningful collision.
More of a puzzle is the show itself, directed by Michael Arden. First produced in 1998, winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Original Score, it features a book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and was co-conceived by Harold Prince.
It begins and ends with the sight of a first-shirtless Confederate soldier (Charlie Webb) off to fight in the Civil War—who clearly had an Equinox membership in the 1860s—leading the company in the rousing pro-Old South song of “The Old Red Hills of Home,” which celebrates not just the ways of the Old South, but their maintenance into the future. His older self (Howard McGillin) is taking part in Marietta’s Confederate Memorial Day Parade in the musical’s present day, an event which meaningfully bookends the show.
The only difference is at the end of Parade the ghost of Leo Frank watches this song—sung with relish and the enthusiastic waving of the Confederate flag—with an expression that seems more geared to quiet questioning and circumspection rather than the outrage and scorn that you might expect for the ghost of a man treated in the way Frank was.
This critic has no idea why there is a hot stud of an anonymous Confederate soldier at the beginning and ending of this show, unless it is to somehow symbolize the virility and life of the Old South, even though the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War; and at the end to subtly jab at it. If so, the jab feels far too soft. Why underline this image as desirable—rather than make a more direct point about the ongoing presence of antisemitism and racism—in a show that is supposed to be about the prejudice and alleged injustice done to a Jewish factory superintendent?
Who Frank was and what he did and didn’t do is one of Parade’s biggest mysteries and problems on stage. As played by Platt—in a role he imbues with a steely calm and a singing voice of mellifluous force—he was a Jew from Brooklyn who understandably felt culturally all at sea running a pencil factory in Georgia, as his first song “How Can I Call This Home?” makes clear. Though Lucille was also Jewish, the differences between he the phlegmatic Northerner and she a genteel Southerner (with that identity trumping all), seem initially so great as to make one wonder why they are together at all. He seems rude and condescending to his wife.
Act one is focused on the piling on of injustice against Frank after Mary’s death. (For some creative reason, Mary is made to carry a white balloon—a symbolic prop heavy-handedly implying a LOSS OF INNOCENCE—as she wanders around the stage.) She asks for her wages, thanks Frank, and then the action freezes. The show repeats this tableau at the end too, when it also makes clear that Frank’s case was reopened in 2019.
The show is clarifying rightly that it doesn’t know if Leo Frank killed Mary Phagan, but this admission also leaves it materially beached and unsure—it plainly doesn’t know what kind of wronged hero to make Leo Frank. Platt is also strangely still and passive in the role; his Frank seems more outraged at the greasy food he is served in jail than serving time, or losing his life, for a crime he didn’t commit. However, the Tony-winning actor is also lightly, very funny in a role where one might expect laughs to be few precisely because his Frank seems so low-key over this whole situation.
Fortunately for the show, there is an obvious baddie, Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan, only missing a mustache to twirl), a prosecutor who had ultimately successful gubernatorial ambitions, and who sees racist political mileage in going after Frank. Of Newt Lee (Eddie Cooper), an initially arrested suspect, Dorsey says that hanging another Black person “ain’t enough this time. We gotta do better.”
Dorsey coerces untrue statements out of the Frank family’s Black maid, Minnie (Danielle Lee Greaves), Jim Conley, the factory’s Black sweeper (Alex Joseph Grayson), and three girls who claimed that Frank behaved inappropriately with them (Sophia Manicone, Ashlyn Maddox, Emily Rose DeMartino). Much of act two is spent with Lucille and Governor Slaton (Sean Allan Krill) detangling these falsehoods, and then Leo figuring out he really must love Lucille because she’s been so resolute in her determination to get him out of jail— a relationship trajectory, and late burst of rediscovered love, that feels bizarre.
The musical doesn’t know if Leo Frank is guilty, and by holding so close to identifiable bits of injustice he endured it soon exhausts its own emotional and storytelling fuel. It seems also resolutely opposed to playing Leo and Lucille as bigger characters, or investigating their relationship, or their thoughts about the case. Everything obvious you would want a lead character in Parade to express or consider goes unexpressed and unconsidered.
It’s very odd that instead of a song, or slice of script, where Platt as Leo details what he wants, or some fervent proclamation of innocence (true, he does say something, very quietly), the most energy Platt expends on stage is playing Frank as the imagined abuser of the three factory girls.
In the almost hilariously ill-conceived number “Come Up to My Office,” bathed in devilish red light, he goes all-out Billy Flynn detailing the lascivious abuse he was alleged (wrongly) to have done. In this imagined sequence (dreamt up by his antagonists), the up-to-now meek and snippy Frank is transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing comedy devil. Playing journalist Britt Craig, Jay Armstrong Johnson has a similarly high-kicking number about celebrating getting a scoop, which as well as playing to one-note stereotypes of journalists, falls flat for sounding bizarrely emphatic for a character who recedes just as fast into the background.
All the key action is played out on a raised wooden plinth. This makes it easy to see the characters, but it curtails the stage space, with large swathes of it taken up by the other characters observing what is happening for no reason at all. Projections show the real-life humans the main characters are based on, but depending on where you are sitting your view may be blocked by people standing in their way. (For a show that has such a dim view of journalists, it sure uses a lot of projected headlines from stories about the Frank case to illustrate the progression of the case.)
The response to Platt and Diamond’s big duet numbers, “This Is Not Over Yet” and “All the Wasted Time,” showed that the audience was satisfied to see the Franks come together, but so much is missing in the gaps in between. Was Leo really so benign as his life was being shredded? What was the Frank marriage really like? The musical loads all the emotionally manipulative dice in Frank’s favor in act one with all of the loathsome Dorsey’s scheming laid bare, but in court we hear nothing of Frank’s defense. While his ability to speak was curtailed, his lawyers’ wasn’t. Yet in Parade, you would think that nothing was said on Frank’s behalf in court—instead, a bizarre tableau of slo-mo gestures and mouthed words conveys some kind of indistinct courtroom tumult.
What was Lucille thinking during all this? In Parade, she is not accorded any kind of character examination; she just seems determined to help her husband. Did she ever question him, how did she experience the prejudice of the time? What informs her decision—stated at the end of Parade—to stay in Georgia? After everything we have witnessed, that seems quite the decision to take, yet Parade glides past her reasoning.
With Leo’s bizarrely disengaged passivity, Lucille’s stoic zeal, and Dorsey’s villainy alternately blooming in and out of view, the musical struggles to find energy and focus. Governor Slaton helps a suddenly Jessica Fletcher-ed Lucille, and Stacie Bono as his wife Sally is a welcome, drily comic foil for her husband, reminding him that she married him to do the right thing for the right reasons.
The musical benefits greatly from hers and other individual lifting presences—when the factory girls begin their mesmerizing, repetitive dirge implicating Frank, Slaton holds up his hand not just to question their lies, but also mercifully for all of us to hush them, and gets a round of applause for doing so.
Grayson’s Conley has a chain-gang related Blues song, “Feel the Rain Fall,” which is beautifully sung. “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” sung by two briefly seen Black servant characters, Riley (Douglas Lyons) and Angela (Courtnee Carter), makes clear that all the expensive legal help Leo is receiving, all the talk of a miscarriage of justice, is never experienced by wrongly accused Black people. The ugliness of antisemitism is crystallized powerfully in Mrs. Phagan’s (Kelli Barrett) spiteful curdling of the word “Jew,” directed at Leo, as the jolting end of a mournful aria for her daughter. Platt also delivers a stunning and performance-defining recitation of the Jewish “Sh’ma” prayer before he dies. Finally, his voice is strong, and the power of the moment is heartbreaking.
However, the musical seems oddly misty-eyed when it comes to the wellspring of prejudice we know today as white supremacy. Cabaret balances all of its lyrical bounce with emphasizing the onward, awful march of Nazism. Parade feels less sure of drawing its dark parallels. Instead of finding a way of making a piercing connection between what Leo Frank endured and the currents of prejudice and bigotry today, we see the return of our young Confederate hunk and the return of those “old red hills” at the end.
This is clearly intended as the dark underline, and to be subtly damning-meets-ironic. However, the more resonant melody at the end of Parade is a harking back to a past, and Leo and Lucille Frank, as characters on stage rather than real life, are not strong enough counter-presences to its nostalgic swooning. Whatever final critique is being attempted by Leo’s plaintive stare is lost in the folds of a lush melody that, rather than denouncing a dark past, elevates and embraces it.