(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.

It’s Always Hamiltime for Some Hamildiversity

Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2015 smash Broadway hit Hamilton revolutionized not only the music genre associated with musical theatre, but it also heavily influenced the general public’s perception of the origins of America. By remaining historically accurate yet also emphasizing the personal drama of Hamilton’s life, Hamilton retains the classic heartstring tug of musical theatre that people connect with, while also improving viewer’s AP US History grades. Despite that, ever since premiering on Disney+, Hamilton has been the subject of countless controversies for its glorification of slave owners such as George Washington and blatant omission of the darker aspects of Hamilton’s political views. These criticisms, while valid, eclipse the real purpose of Hamilton. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton to illustrate how immigrants are integral to America’s origin story and emphasized its modern relevance by casting non-white actors and using rap music as the medium through which the story is told.

         Hamilton was dealt the challenging task of telling a historically accurate narrative, keeping the story entertaining, and staying within the usual length of Broadway musicals. People criticize American history for being taught through rose-colored glasses whether it be through popular media or academic classes, and Hamilton was no exception. The main issue viewers found with Hamilton is the glorification of slave owners, implied from blatantly disregarding that many Founding Fathers did own slaves. Although Miranda does briefly address slavery through character John Laurens’s abolitionist views, he fails to acknowledge the fact that both Washington and Jefferson owned many slaves, and even painted Washington in a positive light. However, many criticisms of Hamilton’s portrayals of historical figuresare through a 21st century lens. Miranda didn’t omit these controversial factors to idealize a society that thrived off of the cruelties of slavery. Instead, he covered what he could given the general time frame for Broadway musicals, which is about two and a half hours, and he treated slavery in the context of the era with the way it was unfortunately viewed: as normal.

         Lin Manuel Miranda chooses to start Hamilton by having Aaron Burr ask the audience “how does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore, … grow up to be a hero and a father?” Unlike other American-born Founding Fathers such as Jefferson and Washington, Hamilton was born a bastard out of wedlock and escaped his birthplace at the Caribbean by the skin of his teeth. These attributes are immediately acknowledged and pinned with assumptions, as the very first line is a historically stuffy white man pondering how a historically non-stuffy Caribbean-born man managed to find success in America. In fact, one of the main mantras of the first act is setting up a parallel between Hamilton and the budding nation of America as underdogs, referring to both as “young, scrappy, and hungry”, paving untraditional roads to success. At the first public presentation of Hamilton at the White House’s poetry jam in 2009, Miranda pitched Alexander Hamilton as a man who embodies hip-hop: a bastard immigrant who rose to power by becoming George Washington’s right-hand man, and “caught beef with every other Founding Father”. Before Hamilton was even conceived of as a staged musical, Miranda asserted that Hamilton’s story recognized the impact of outsiders on American culture.

         Much of Hamilton’s fame spawned from its use of hip-hop, a genre symbolizing how the influence of non-white people has become integral to American culture. As stated earlier, Miranda’s view that Hamilton embodied much of what the hip-hop genre represented with stories of underdog success. Hamilton told an immigrant story with a non-traditional genre that was unprecedented in both Broadway and the 18th century. By integrating hip-hop culture with the success of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda emphasized how what is considered “outsider” influences are relevant throughout history. Additionally, using a non-traditional genre for musical theatre further created a unique environment on stage that further differentiated Hamilton from other Broadway shows. Miranda also cites hip-hop as an efficient means of storytelling because rapping communicates information much faster than singing or dialogue. Using hip-hop as the medium through which Hamilton’s story is told cleverly integrates two eras, connecting immigrant influences from the American Revolution to modern day.

         Lin Manuel Miranda’s choice of casting non-white actors as the leads in Hamilton sought to reframe America’s success around the contribution of immigrants. By having African Americans, Latinxs, and Asians play the Founding Fathers and other main characters who contributed to the budding ideologies of America, Miranda argued that the nation was built on the back of immigrants. The founding of America has taken the Broadway stage twice in history: in 1969 Tony Award winning musical 1776, and, obviously, Hamilton. These two shows approached a similar narrative in wildly different ways. 1776 followed John Adams’s efforts to get the Declaration of Independence signed. It attempted to create a historically accurate environment with casting, costumes, and more mild music that was consistent with the culture at the time. Hamilton, on the other hand, while technically remaining historically accurate with content, took many liberties with casting choices and music style, much of which contributed to its blowout success. To narrate what some might view as a tedious biography of a former Secretary of Treasury, Miranda created an entire community on stage that flourished by being outside of the mainstream. While being non-white in musical theatre usually can be viewed as a major setback except in specific musicals set outside of America, Miranda cultivated a blockbuster musical that thrived off of integrating American stories with traditionally non-American influences.

         The main issue with race-blind casting is the subconscious prejudices and expectations that are prompted by non-white main characters. A Black lead must be struggling financially. An Asian lead must be suffering under academic and parental pressure. A Latinx lead must be struggling to just put food on the table. And as always, there’s always the tentative bet that the show just isn’t set in America, and nobody speaks English. Storytelling normally thrives off of these assumptions, since casting a BIPOC lead easily eliminates a good bit of exposition. People of color tend to have a clear path through stories, while white characters always need an airtight explanation for what put them in their specific position. These separate notions of “us” and “them” give audiences a means to define themselves through the “us”, and, frequently with BIPOC casting, an ego boost since they’re better off than the “them”. In Hamilton, Miranda completely throws these universal understandings out the window, casting non-white people as white historical figures and have them communicate in a decidedly non-white method. In fact, the only white lead actor plays the non-American and non-rapping villain King George III. With these casting choices, Miranda completely overturns the usual conceptions and redefines both the “us” and the “them”. The audience identifies with and supports the non-white actors onstage and ostracizes the white character. In Hamilton, rather than noticing and gearing up assumptions when a BIPOC character has a scene, a white character communicating in a traditional musical theatre song is viewed as “outsider”.

         It’s no surprise that Lin Manuel Miranda, an outsider to traditional Broadway, chose to premiere a song from his work in progress at the white house for America’s first black president. In Hamilton, Miranda tells the story of a bastard immigrant’s impact on the founding of the United States. His choice of casting non-white actors and using the hip-hop genre as the medium, Miranda tells not only Alexander Hamilton’s story, but America’s story. His choices resonate with audiences of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, crossing cultural biases to move audiences and change musical history with a historical musical.

Love in the Fall of Saigon

The 1989 musical Miss Saigon reframes the tragic love story of the 1904 opera Madame Butterfly around the Vietnam War and fall of Saigon. The writers Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg explore the meanings of family and motherhood through Chris’s relationship with main character Kim and Ellen, his American wife following the war. By setting up Ellen as a foil to Kim, Boublil and Schönberg reveal the prejudices of Americans against the Vietnamese. Kim, the lens through which the audience sees Vietnam, represents and generalizes the powerless, dependent, and sexual role young women took on during the war. Her love interest Chris retains all the power in the relationship and, even after he leaves, he and America represents Kim’s symbol of hope for a better life. Although this musical portrays Asian women as helplessly dependent, as an Asian-born American woman, the show still allows me to feel seen on stage. People are naturally drawn to stories with characters they can empathize with. As an adopted person with a Chinese birth mother and a white adoptive mother, the true love story told in Miss Saigon wasn’t between Kim and Chris; it was between Kim and Tam and the sacrifices she made to give her child a better life. In Miss Saigon, Chris’s two love interests, Kim and Ellen, reveal the differences in which the American and Vietnamese define the responsibilities of family.

Successful writing team Schönberg and Boublil based Miss Saigon on the opera Madame Butterfly, which itself was based on an 1898 short story of the same name. Although audiences aren’t responsible for knowing the history and inspirations behind a show that date back a century, if critics choose to contextualize and critique Miss Saigon through a 21st century lens of the Vietnam War and Asian culture, they should also know that Vietnam was simply chosen as the backdrop, rather than the unique setting where this specific narrative must take place. As an Asian woman, I found the overtly sexual portrayal of Asian women during a devastating war extremely disturbing; however, Boublil and Schönberg’s conscious simplification of Vietnamese culture sought to serve the purpose of the story they were telling and create an environment that fit the Madame Butterfly narrative. Boublil and Schönberg intentionally generalize their characters so audiences can more easily understand their scenarios from a white perspective. Specifically, Kim’s intersectional identity or lack thereof suggest that Boublil and Schönberg believe that a non-American character must be defined by a universal trait such as relationships so American audiences can empathize with them.

From the beginning to the end of the show, Kim is crippled by her lack of choice and only asserts herself when protecting Tam. Although her love for Chris seems to be her lifeline throughout the devastation surrounding her, her actual hope resides in the belief that Chris will give Tam a better life. Kim is introduced to the audience after losing her entire family, and finding comfort in the arms of Chris, falls in love with the idea of companionship and opportunity more than Chris himself. In “The Confrontation”, Chris also admits that “in the shambles of war [he] found what he was looking for. Saigon was crazed but she was real”. Chris and Kim both gave each other what they needed in that moment, making the authenticity of their love irrelevant and building an instant attachment. Kim and Chris are happily in love and Kim is wearing a wedding dress. The next image the audience sees of Kim is her dirty and disheveled following the street parade establishing the three-year time jump. Although Chris has clearly left her behind and she is alone, she sings “I Still Believe” expressing her faith in Chris. Since this song comes before the audience is made aware of Kim having a son, she appears lovestruck and naïve, especially after Chris’s wife is revealed when the song becomes a duet. “I Still Believe” establishes Chris as Kim’s lifeline when Kim sings “As long as I keep believing I’ll live”. However, once Tam is revealed when The Engineer finds her, the song takes on a new meaning: Chris not only represents her opportunity to experience love, but also to give a better life for her son.

            While “I Still Believe” reveals Kim’s blind faith, independent of Tam, “I’d Give My Life for You” explains why faith is her only option now that she is a fugitive. In “You Will Not Touch Him”, Kim kills the cousin she was supposed to wed when he threatens her son, screaming that Tam is what she “lives for” and her “only joy”. After killing Thuy, Kim permanently brands herself as not only a powerless victim, but a victim who can’t ask for help. Kim’s desperation to fulfill her duty to Tam pushes her to ask The Engineer, a man who previously sold her as a prostitute, for help. In “I’d Give My Life for You”, Kim contextualizes “I Still Believe”, illustrating how the faith she has in Chris isn’t out of naivete. Kim’s tragic love story isn’t between her and Chris; it’s between her and her son and Chris is a symbol of hope. She keeps herself going by believing that someday Chris will give her the life he promised, and she remains in love with the companionship he gave her. Kim’s relentless devotion and protection of Tam gives her a lifeline to not only Chris, but also the true love story of Miss Saigon.

            Ellen, Chris’s American wife, serves as a foil to Kim, fighting to keep Chris because she doesn’t want to lose her family, while Kim fights to help her son. In “Room 317”, Ellen reveals herself as Chris’s wife to Kim; the melody of “You Will Not Touch Him” plays in the background as Kim processes the information, showing how her thoughts and heartbreak immediately reroute to protecting Tam. When she begs Ellen to take Tam back to America, Ellen immediately becomes defensive claiming that he’s not her son, and they can’t take him away from his mother. Although Ellen still rejects Tam, the 2017 adaptation took clear steps to make her character more sympathetic. From the beginning of the scene, when Kim explains that she’s not the maid Ellen says “how can I help you” rather than “what do you want then”. Additionally, Ellen’s defensive solo “Her or Me” that essentially declares that she will do anything to keep Chris is replaced with “Maybe”, a more contemplative song to reflect her inner conflict about her and Chris’s responsibility to Tam. The director’s choice to change these songs and lines to make Ellen more sympathetic show her true love for Chris and how her heart will break if he leaves her. When Chris returns from searching for Kim, Ellen’s tells Chris “you may say what you want, but she’s still born you a son”, revealing her belief that Tam may legitimize Chris and Kim’s relationship more than her marriage. Her insecurities culminate until she delivers the ultimatum that Chris must choose Kim or her. Although Ellen does seem to be the deciding factor keeping Chris from accepting Kim and Tam as his family, the 2017 producers and Tamsin Carroll’s portrayal of Ellen force the audience to sympathize with her making her more of a legitimate foil to Kim rather than just a villain.

            Kim’s willingness to give up her son and Ellen’s wish to provide only monetary support to her define the main conflict in Miss Saigon. While the play is fraught with violence, heartbreak, and war, the play ends with Kim sacrificing herself to protect her son. The play concluding at with Kim’s death revealed that the ballad “I’d Give My Life for You” determined the ending before the second act even began. Chris’s failure to save Kim also serves as an allegory for the America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although he falls in love and vows to help her get to America with pure intentions, political strictures make it impossible to keep his promise, only to find out years later that Kim had faithfully waited the entire time. Like America in Vietnam, Chris’s intentions and execution were both morally controversial, with the ultimate question being if he should’ve gotten involved and made impossible promises in the first place. Kim and Vietnam are portrayed as powerless, while Chris, Ellen and America hold all the power and opportunity. Ellen is able to persuade Chris that preserving her vision of family is worth sacrificing Kim. Kim, on the other hand, is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her son.