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This article serves to explain why the creators chose the Leo Frank case as a subject for their new musical.


A Significant New Work

The creators of Parade, Alfred Uhry, Harold Prince and Jason Robert Brown, are truly visionaries. Not just anyone would see potential in the show's subject matter — the true story of the trial and lynching of Leo Frank. However, Parade's real-life story was like a magnet to its creators, guiding and inspiring them from conception to completion. In fact, when Uhry first brought up the subject of the Leo Frank case, Prince leapt out of his chair and said, "Now that is the musical I've been waiting for." The story, fully rooted in history, explores issues of great significance in the American experience: murder in a small town, anti-Semitism, racism, class prejudice, political skullduggery, hysteria fueled by the press, legal corruption and, for the South, bitterness about the Civil War, industrialization and child labor. In addition, Parade recounts the heartbreaking story of a love discovered too late, that of Leo and Lucille Frank. The complexity of the case and its political, legal and human aftermath has fascinated people for more than 85 years.

"[Parade] is a big, passionate story, like an opera story — that's why it lends itself to music," explains Alfred Uhry, the book writer. As for the seriousness of the subject matter, director Harold Prince once stated, "I've made a lifetime in the theater of doing subjects both serious and controversial, and I have no intention of backing away now. When I did Evita, I heard about it from all the Argentines in New York. Half were thrilled and half were mad, but no one was bored."

Like Evita, Sweeney Todd and Cabaret before it, Parade pushes the envelope and expands the possibilities of the musical theater genre. Prince believes the show, based on epic-scale events and powerful emotions, answers the call for musicals of substance. "It's a hell of a story," he says, "though it ain't easy. But over a lifetime, I've noticed that what's easy turns out to seem easy — to audiences too. We went through a period where [shows] were spectacular and mechanical, but I really believe there is a desire, on [the audience's] part for something that engages them more. And makes them think."

What Parade does so well is make specific, real-life events speak to the common human experience. As Prince points out, "...it's not our job to stay confined to this one Jewish man or this one Southern setting, or even to decide who committed the murder. Our job is to take the audience a giant step beyond reality and reveal something about the bigotries that are still with us. And to show this uplifting story of a couple — Leo and Lucille, his wife — who might never have realized their enormous potential without this crisis."

In order to achieve this, the creators worked hard to present the full story. Explained Uhry, "...I didn't want to write a show that was all about this wonderful, righteous Jewish person and a vicious redneck because, as you know about me, I'm very Southern too. And the Southern part of it broke my heart equally as much as the other part." He continued, "I told Jason [Robert Brown, composer and lyricist,] what it was like living in the South and how it felt growing up and how people who were alive at the time of Leo Frank had believed in the Civil War as much as we all believe in the American Revolution. And those who lived came home to find the devastated countryside and a ruined economy and they had to sell their farms and move to the city. Daughters had to work — imagine if your ten-year-old had to work in a factory? It was a horrible thing. And I told him all that. So he wrote ['The Old Red Hills of Home'] and I remember sitting in his apartment and starting to cry. And I thought, 'Well, this is embarrassing, Alfred.'"

This context — of the South's bitterness and fear of the loss of their heritage — is essential to the story; it is perfectly illustrated by Prince's inspired staging. The show begins with a young Confederate soldier leaving for the war. When that same soldier, aged and ruined by the war, sings at the Confederate Memorial Day parade of how they all "gave their lives for the old hills of Georgia," we understand why these proud and ruined people hated Yankees, the despoilers of the land. It doesn't, of course, excuse what happened, but it does explain how the citizens of Cobb County — hard-working, ethical people — could so easily be manipulated by a few evil men out for political gain. At the end of the show, Leo faces his attackers and sings the Jewish prayer for the dead ("Sh'ma"), set to the same tune sung by the soldier; Brown uses this brilliant irony to underline the tragedy of the situation: instead of seeing our common bonds, we let our differences tear us apart.

Brown used historic documents — such as the letters Leo and Lucille wrote to each other while Leo was in prison — for inspiration in his writing. The title of the song "The Old Red Hills of Home," incidentally, came from the inscription on Mary Phagan's grave. Unbeknownst to Brown when he lifted these words for the song, they were actually penned by Tom Watson, the infamous anti-Semitic publisher of the Jeffersonian weekly paper that viciously latched on to Frank as Phagan's murderer. Uhry's memories of growing up in the South were of special value to Brown. "I remember going over to Alfred's apartment with my notebook and he would talk and I would take notes on what he said. And I used a certain amount of his actual words," he reflects. Surprisingly, the main figure of the story, Leo Frank, posed the greatest difficulty. "I had a lot of trouble making Leo sing in the show, but finally I was able to see him in my grandfather, my mother's father. He was a very ethical, moral man, very upright and not, it seemed to me, really open-minded — and his religion was very important to him. He was very proud of being a Jew."

The show they created, Parade, is a powerful piece of work, leaving its mark on those who created it as well as those who view it. "Two weeks before the opening [of the Lincoln Center production], Alfred and I went to Leo Frank's grave in Brooklyn." remembered Brown. "Neither of us had been to see it the whole time we were writing together, and as we put two rocks on his simple gravestone [a Jewish custom], I looked down and thought, "I hope we didn't let you down, Leo," and as I thought it, Alfred said exactly the same thing." Andrea Burns, who plays Lucille Frank in the touring production, was also deeply affected by the material. "The story breaks your heart. Having Alfred Uhry around rehearsals makes everything so real. Lucille was a friend of his grandmother's when he was a boy, and he made us laugh when he said she seemed to him like 'just another little old lady.'" She signed her checks "Mrs. Leo Frank" until the end of her life. "It was her way of saying, 'I will not hide,'" says Burns. "'I will not let the world forget.'" As for Uhry, Parade will always hold a special place in his heart. "Parade is a deeply felt piece of work, and I'm just glad more people will get a chance to see it." He adds, "I believe this is the piece that will endure after I'm gone."