When Douglas Levine saw “Parade” for the first time in 1999, he knew zilch about Leo Frank.
“Quite honestly I didn’t know any details surrounding the Leo Frank incident until I read my program notes,” Levine, a local composer and music director said, recalling when the hit Broadway musical played at the Benedum Center.
“I subsequently did some reading on my own,” he continued. “It’s been something that’s slow to come into the light, especially in the south. There are a lot people down south who believe that Leo Frank was guilty.”
You can decide for yourself when the latest production of “Parade” opens Thursday, Feb. 26, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland — the performing arts center for Point Park University. It is scheduled to run through March 1 and again from March 12 through 22.
Leo Frank was a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta in 1913 when he was accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. The trial became a media spectacle and aroused anti-Semitic tensions in Atlanta and Georgia. A jury convicted Frank, but when his sentence was commuted due to possible problems with the trial, he was transferred to a prison in Milledgeville, Ga. There, a lynching party kidnapped Frank from his cell and took him to Phagan’s hometown of Marietta, Ga., where they hanged him from a tree.
To date, it is the only known public lynching of a Jew in America, said Leonard Dinnerstein, a professor emeritus of American history at the University of Arizona, who wrote a book about the trial. He added, though, that other Jews mysteriously disappeared in the South including Jewish freedom riders during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.
The Frank case is said to have led, at least in part, to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League.
Think a musical about a murder trial and lynching is bizarre? Levine, who is the music director for the Point Park production, begs to differ.
“As a composer who’s written both comic theater scores and serious ones, I don’t discriminate,” he said. “If it’s a good story, it’s worthy of
But he added, “I think the mainstream public has become accustomed to equating music theater with froth and spectacle,” even though music theater, most notably opera, has always tackled serious, even tragic themes, with music.
Still, the issues dealt with in the production — the gravity of them — is hard to escape, said the director, Michael Rupert.
“You just approach it by telling the story, as you do anything,” Rupert said. “As for the students here, it’s pretty heavy stuff; even for adults when you’re working on it. I just try to work with students and get them to tell the stories as clearly as possible. It’s been interesting for them to explore the idea of anti-Semitism that was so pervasive in the South at the time.”
“Parade” was first produced on Broadway in 1998. Based on a book by Alfred Uhry and with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, the show went on to win two Tony Awards for best book and best score and six Drama Desk Awards.
But Dinnerstein, who saw the show years ago, was less than impressed with it, saying it made certain factual errors, including lyrics that has Frank using the word, “shalom” and some Yiddish words.
“Frank was a German Jew,” Dinnerstein said. “You can be sure no one said ‘shalom’ in Frank’s family or among his friends. This was not their
Neither was the real life Frank, a particularly likable defendant to the jury and spectators. That was not only because of anti-Semitism, but because Frank was a factory owner, a Northerner and because he was said to have looked in on workers in their changing room. He also refused to talk to the reporters for most of the trial.
“Leo is a difficult role,” Rupert said. “He was lynched, but he is not written as a likable person; you don’t care for him very much. It will be interesting to see how the audience
While the actual testimony from the case clearly shows Frank could not have committed the crime, Dinnerstein said, the state’s star witness was so “mesmerizing” that many observers just weren’t sure.
One reporter covering the trial was a young Harold Ross, who later founded The New Yorker.
“He (Ross) said he sat in that case and couldn’t absolutely say Frank was innocent,” Dinnerstein said. “He thought he was innocent, but he wasn’t sure.”
Neither is it certain what kind of impact the trial had on the ADL’s birth. Dinnerstein said B’nai B’rith was already in the process of organizing the league, though the Frank case could have accelerated the process.
In fact, three weeks after the verdict, when B’nai B’rith announced the ADL’s formation, “they said in their opening statement, ‘Even in courts of law Jews are discriminated against.’” Dinnerstein recalled. “They were obviously referring to the Frank case.”
Levine said the audience would be moved by the musical. “It’s a very powerful story and has a powerful place in history,” he said, of the South in particular.
But Rupert described the production differently.
“I find it fascinating, but not terribly moving,” he said. “It certainly is a powerful indictment of the mores and attitudes of the Southern Baptist Christian people of the time, and their attitudes not only of Jews but of blacks.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)