Rites of Man

The desire of American musical comedy to shed its laughter and become "music theater" has always puzzled me. There was never anything to prevent the genre from taking on whatever topic, tone, or technique it chose. Parade, the latest musical offering of director Harold Prince (who also "co- conceived" it), deals with a lynching that took place in Georgia in 1914. But the absence of Prince's dark pretensions didn't stop Irving Berlin and Moss Hart from confronting the subject in 1933's As Thousands Cheer, when Ethel Waters, under the newspaper headline "Unknown Negro Lynched in South," sang about her man not coming home. The old-style musical, with its elasticity of form and insouciance of spirit, offered if anything more awareness of the grim reality outside, and more ways of engaging with it than today's self-proclaimed music drama. The new-style musical wants to annex the grandeur and complexity of opera, but it still wants to please as many people as possible. The result, too often, is a kind of opera for simpletons, dramatically crude, musically vapid, and larded with cheap crowd-pleasing strokes.

Not that such condescensions are visible in Parade, which conducts itself throughout with a solemn, gray-hued gravity that could allay anybody's fears of the subject being treated coarsely. The hard part is trying to figure out what subject the musical's makers think they're treating. Leo Frank, the lynch victim in this particular case, was a Jew from Brooklyn, a pencil-factory manager accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl employee whose corpse was found in the factory basement. Convicted, largely on falsified or exaggerated testimony, Frank had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by the state's governor, John Slaton— an act that destroyed Slaton's political career. His brave gesture didn't save Frank, who survived another inmate's attempt to slit his throat only to be dragged from his cell by a mob and strung up on a nearby tree. Parade spares its audience the details of what the mob did to his lynched corpse, as well as the photo of the grisly result that was sold as a postcard for years afterward in small-town general stores in the Deep South.

There are many possible reasons to retell this repugnant story— to ponder the ways prejudice and politics interact, or the collision of rural-agrarian attitudes with urban life and its dangers, or the anomalous position of Jews in a South already rife with black-white tensions. The local media painted the meek and unassuming Frank as a monster; world media reversed the image and made him a martyr-hero, on the order of Mendel Beilis in Russia. But Beilis was tried on the completely fictive charge of ritual murder; in Frank's case there was a very real and very dead 14-year-old girl. The minuscule possibility exists that he did it, though the state would not have needed to fake so much evidence if it had had even a shred of real proof. The most damaging witness against Frank was also the other most likely suspect, the factory's sweeper, a black man whose punishment, if he had been charged with the crime, would have been even swifter in its violence than Frank's.

Leo Frank (Brent Carver) and hostile witnesses in Parade: Can there be comic relief at a lynching?
Joan Marcus
Leo Frank (Brent Carver) and hostile witnesses in Parade: Can there be comic relief at a lynching?

Details

Parade
By Alfred Uhry
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Lincoln Center
239-6200

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Prince and his colleagues try to convey all these aspects of the story and more, but they also try to please everybody and offend no one. The result has an eerie, denatured quality in some ways more disturbing than the case itself. The opening is a Confederate soldier's song about "the old red hills" of Georgia, but the landscape we see on Ricardo Hernandez's set, before it's blocked by a wall of factory windows, is a bare, flat horizon, with tiny farmhouses in the distance. Judith Dolan's costumes run across a black-white-gray spectrum, relieved by sparing shades of pastel.

The noncommittal tone extends to what's selected for our viewing. What sort of home did the murdered girl come from? We don't really hear about it. Did the local Jewish community rally around Leo Frank? (His wife's family owned the factory.) We never see them. Who supported Tom Watson, the populist rabble-rouser, in his fulminations against Jews? We can't even guess. (The miscarriage of justice was so blatant that even arch anti-Semite Henry Ford signed an appeal for clemency.) Everything is touched on, in little scene-bites, but nothing's revealed.

Where the show does spell something out, it usually makes a misstep. One number shows the black community experiencing modified rapture at the thought that someone non-African will get strung up for a change, but black Georgians in 1914 were unlikely to find anyone's lynching cause for cheer. Slaton is seen dropping in on the suborned witnesses— factory girls and chain gang prisoners— to take new statements, which hardly conveys the reality of a state inquiry under Georgia's medieval justice system.

Prince and his colleagues, schooled in contemporary urban cynicism, give next to no sense of the pervasive apathy and rot in that region where time stood still, history had been revoked, and law— like education, nutrition, and common decency— was seen as the intrusive voodoo of savages from up north. Though presented as wanly sedate even while lynching— you've never seen such a courteous, individualized little mob— the spirit of the Old South is Parade's principal character and Leo Frank's nemesis. The show opens and closes on April 26, "Confederate Memorial Day." The one-legged veteran of the opening will become the leader of the lynch mob; his marching song will be taken up by the widowed Lucille Frank, linking her with the South that murdered her husband, as if he, too, had somehow served the Confederate cause.

This is to say the least an eccentric view of the case, even compared to arcana like David Mamet's recent novel, The Old Religion, which treats Leo Frank as a sullen existentialist, a Jewish Meursault. The musical's Leo, played by the almost aggressively goyish Brent Carver, is hardly more than a modular spare part. He does his big number not as himself, but as the girl-luring boss of the witnesses' rehearsed testimony: a comic turn called "Come Up to My Office" in which he prances like a cartoon dandy. This image doesn't come from the factory girls, who only said that he stared at them oddly. (He had the mild exophthalmia common in East European Jews.) Nor did anyone else try to portray this hapless, prim workaholic as a seductive boulevardier— until Hal Prince.

Jason Robert Brown's skillful and often likable songs fit awkwardly into the grim story. Brown's clearly drawn to old-fashioned showstoppers and period tunes: Carver's turn, a showily cynical number for Evan Pappas as a local newshound, an elegant fox-trot smoothly sung by John Hickock's Slaton as he romances supporters' wives, and a piece of fake testimony flamboyantly handled by Rufus Bonds Jr. as the sweeper. The score rarely rises to dramatic heights, and its attempts to do so are its weakest moments, like the final love duet, in which the Franks appear to be screaming at each other. Thick with fact, Uhry's book is sparse on the kind of emotional information that could broaden out into song; the story and its people don't invite singing, even of a somber kind.

They invite acting, however, and as usual the actors are the occasion's heroes, making every vague conceit in the work seem strong and vivid. Along with those I've already mentioned, Kirk McDonald as the girl's would-be boyfriend, Jessica Molaskey as her stone-faced mother, Herndon Lackey as the driven prosecutor, and Ray Aranha as the corpse's stammering discoverer are all first-rate, while Carolee Carmello's Lucille is like a blazing torch that reduces everything else to dim shadows. With such acting, such care for the look of everything onstage, why should Parade seem so distant and insubstantial? Answer: Because it's abjured both the pleasure and the passion that used to rule the art of the musical, choosing instead to tell a story not for its own sake, but for that of some abstruse meaning behind it. In 1914 a Jew was lynched in Georgia: we've all been watching the president of the U.S. undergo a legal lynching by upholders of the rotten tradition that killed him. Bigotry, hypocrisy, and a distrust of otherness have never left the Bible Belt, only spread west and north from it. If this truth is too simple and too bleak for a musical, there was probably no musical in the case to begin with.

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