When the Donmar Warehouse production of “Parade” opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Oct. 4, starring T.R. Knight, it will mark the musical’s triumphant return to this country since a disastrous original version failed on Broadway more than a decade ago.
High hopes accompanied the opening of the original “Parade” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in December 1998. The show tells the story of the 1913 lynching of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in Georgia, an event that became a media sensation in its time on the level of, say, Michael Jackson’s untimely death or the O.J. Simpson trials. It certainly held promise, with its book by the award-winning Alfred Uhry, of “Driving Miss Daisy” fame — whose great-uncle had owned the pencil factory where Frank worked. Music and lyrics were by the wunderkind Jason Robert Brown, who was then in his 20s, and has gone on to become one of his generation’s most celebrated composers (“13,” “The Last Five Years”). Blending strains of jazz, blues, marches and hymns, the musical told the story of how, in an act of blatant anti-Semitism, Frank was wrongfully accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan; how his sensationalized trial fanned anti-Semitic flames and how he was eventually kidnapped from prison by a posse of masked men and then hanged.
But the Broadway production lasted just 84 performances, in part because the dark material wasn’t de rigueur for the genre: “People didn’t want to take their kids to see the ‘lynching musical,’” Brown told The Journal several years ago. “And if you are going to pay to see the ‘lynching musical,’ then the reviews had better be sensational, and they weren’t — and not always justifiably so.” The negative New York Times review, in particular, virtually closed the show in 1999, Brown said: “‘Parade’ opened and closed in the blink of an eye.”
Despite this, both Brown and Uhry went on to win Tony Awards for their work, and the musical’s memory didn’t die the quick death of many flops. Rob Ashford, the production’s assistant choreographer and dance captain, nurtured the idea of bringing a new version of the musical across the pond. Ashford believed the British would recognize the entertainment value in such somber material; after all, another dark musical revolving around a Southern Jewish family — Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” — had already fared well in Britain.
And so Ashford took the project to the Donmar Warehouse in London, where he decided to try his hand at directing as well as choreographing. Uhry and Brown came in to make significant revisions: the cast was cut from 35 to 15, with actors playing multiple roles, for example, and Brown added three new songs to the show.
This new “Parade” was well received and opened to good reviews in September 2007.
T.R. Knight, who plays Frank, stars in this United States premiere at the Taper, the actor’s first major project since he announced he was leaving the hit ABC medical drama, “Grey’s Anatomy.” As Dr. George O’Malley on that series, he won an Emmy Award nomination and became a household name — and he endured a very public scandal after a co-star referred to him with a homophobic slur. “Parade” will showcase Knight’s considerable stage experience, which began at age 5 and progressed to leading roles at the prestigious Guthrie Theater in his hometown of Minneapolis. Knight has appeared on Broadway — most notably opposite Patti LuPone in the 2001 revival of “Noises Off,” and he received a Drama Desk Award nomination two years later for his role in “Scattergood” off-Broadway.
In “Parade,” Lara Pulver will reprise her role as Lucille, Frank’s devoted wife, from the Donmar’s London production, but the rest of the cast is new and includes Christian Hoff, who won a 2006 Tony Award for his original role as “Tommy DeVito” in the Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.”
For tickets and information about “Parade,” which begins previews on Sept. 24, opens Oct. 4 and runs through Nov. 15, call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org. Along with Center Theatre Group and the Anti-Defamation League (which was founded in part as a response to the Frank lynching), The Jewish Journal is co-sponsoring a pre-show event and the performance on Oct. 6, featuring a wine and cheese reception and conversation with Steve Oney, author of “And the Dead Shall Rise” and the chief consultant for the new PBS documentary, “The People v. Leo Frank,” as well as the Hon. Bruce J. Einhorn, past regional board chair and lifetime national commissioner of the ADL. Tickets are $50 for the event and show. For tickets, which are available by phone only, call the RSVP line at (213) 972-7513.
Scenes from the London production of “Parade.”
T.R. Knight rehearses music with director Rob Ashford, left, and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, at piano, on the first day of rehearsal for “Parade.” Photo by Craig Schwartz