(Leo) Frank-ly, Parade Doesn’t Give a Damn

“The Land Where Honor Lives and Breathes”? Yeah. I didn’t think of Civil War-torn Atlanta either. According to Alfred Uhry’s Parade, though, that sure is what Atlantans think of themselves. A musical dramatization of the 1913 trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, Parade tackles not only the anti-southern prejudices harbored by a Jew from New York, but also the mob mentality of racism and antisemitism that bled through the south at this time. This “honorable land” opens in the middle of the Confederate Memorial Day parade where war veterans reminisce about when Georgia was “free” and could enslave people. With an introduction like that, audiences wouldn’t expect the emotional drive of the story to be the loveless marriage between two Jewish people. However, given the ambiguity of the history itself and heaviness of the issues, the Leo and Lucille Frank falling in love after their marriage becomes the beating heart of the show.

I first saw Parade when I was 15 at Georgia Thescon and completely broke my too-cool-for-school vibe when I started openly weeping at the end of the show (“All the Wasted Time” started playing and I was just gone). When a high school theatre program (that’s better than my high school theatre program) performed a show for Thescon, they had to cut it down to an hour, which is tough for a show as meaty as Parade. The director had to simultaneously show respect to the history while also entertaining an audience of socially-challenged teenage thespians. The production I saw accomplished this by creating a solid framework about the setting and situation by including necessary information about the trial and inherent prejudices, but the show anchored itself in the love story between Lucille and Leo Frank. Later, after re-watching, listening to, and reading about Parade I learned a couple things: 1) the show had more than 5 songs, 2) Jeremy Jordan is really good at acting, and 3) there was a whole lot more going on than in the brownie-bite sized version I saw.

The main plot of Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, accused of raping and murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee of his at a pencil factory. Although the play clearly implies Frank’s innocence, Uhry makes no effort to characterize him as likeable. Up until he’s taken to prison, Leo’s entire stage presence revolves around him anxiously harboring a passionate disdain for the south singing how “these men belong in zoos.” The contempt between the southerners, who are celebrating losing the Civil War (according to Frank), and himself, a Jew, is clearly mutual and presented as justified to the audience in both directions. The glorification and romanticization of an agrarian economy built off of free labor doesn’t set up a lot of sympathy in the audience, and a whiny protagonist doesn’t help much either. The first act is mostly filled with action: Leo is accused and taken to prison, several songs are dedicated to how the media manipulated information for profit, and then: Enter Jim Conley.

Up until this point, Uhry and composer Jason Robert Brown had no hesitation showing that southerners romanticize their pre-Civil War slave-built society. They chose to not introduce the show with Leo Frank, Mary Phagan, or antisemitism which later were the main focuses of the show; instead, the immediate blaring declaration was “white southerners wish they still could enslave people.” The expectation would be, then, that any Black character would immediately be the “bad guy” to the general public and stand no chance purely due to their race. Uhry then reveals the ultimate societal irony in the show. During Leo Frank’s trial, Jim Conley, a janitor who worked in the factory, claims that Frank is absolutely guilty. His story rouses up a mob of southerners to condemn a Jew on the word of a Black man. Uhry’s depiction of the trial generalizes three groups: white southerners (aka the people making the decisions), Black people, and Jewish people. However, the result of the trial goes against the assumptions that the show has been building to where the prejudices of the south against Jews outweigh their antipathy towards Black Americans.

Parade ends the first act with a gut punch and a whole lot of ambiguity. The question of Leo Frank’s innocence almost gets eclipsed by the circus music playing as the jury chants “hang him,” as they are fully vindictive after Conley’s testimony. The audience is left with no clear direction on how to feel. Everything up until this point just serves to set up the cyclic inner dialogue of sympathy for Frank, remembering he might be guilty, being pretty sure he’s not, feeling sympathy again, and so on. In fact, the first act doesn’t even tell a story as much as it forces the audience into the most uncomfortable possible position to sit and think for 15 minutes while Jeremy Jordan downs a throat lozenge. The inability to empathize with Leo Frank, the shock that Conley turned the jury, the desperation yet uncertainty in Lucille’s faith: all of these things have zero clarity, but it forces the audience to be thoughtful. As an audience member, I think that with this sort of subject, that’s all that can be asked.

The second act of Parade finds its emotional hook in Lucille and Leo’s marriage that builds up to showstopper “All the Wasted Time.” As the director who faithfully helped me shine as Pig 3 in Shrek Jr. once said, a show always has to have a beating heart. In Parade, this heart is two people falling in love after marriage. Leo and Lucille’s marriage wasn’t fully explained, but it was heavily alluded to as more of a business agreement/mutual tolerance made between two people who saw opportunities and convenience in one another. At the beginning of the show, Lucille laments that Leo is an objectively good husband who pays the bills and must care for her since he works so hard. Even after he’s taken to prison, she insists he’s honest, hardworking but, as the reporter points out, never claims his innocence. After the trial, though, Lucille’s work to reopen Leo’s case and desperation for his freedom allow them to fall in love. The heartbreaking hope only further builds as the evidence against Frank gets continually debunked as the offensive lawyer is revealed to have coached several witnesses, motivated by his chance at becoming governor (which is another can of worms. Like I said, this one’s pretty dense). Then, in the final 20 minutes, 3 things happen: 1) Leo’s sentence gets changed from the death penalty to imprisonment for life, 2) Leo and Lucille declare their love for one another in the most beautiful song ever written that I learned how to play on piano last week instead of studying for math, and 3) a mob breaks into Leo’s jail cell and hangs him on an oak tree that symbolized southern pride.

I know I’m not supposed to give a lot of plot summary, but I think this one needs it. This musical will always be my favorite, even though it lacks both the razzle and the dazzle that draws most to musical theatre. It asks all the right questions and has only become more relevant in 2020. With a musical that relies so heavily on ambiguity, as it even ends with the audience not knowing if Leo’s innocence, crafting a single strong argument from this show is impossible unless the argument is “the south needs to do better”. Alfred Uhry’s book constantly throws contradictory information at the audience in an effort to remain historically accurate. Through encouraging discomfort, Parade forces the audience to question modern mob mentality and societal bias and speculate about whether Frank’s innocence even really matters.

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