Alfred Uhry swept though a corridor backstage at the Mark Taper Forum last week, greeting actors dressed in early 20th century garb with a robust “Shalom, y’all!” The Southern Jewish playwright was on hand to offer advice and answer questions for the cast of “Parade,” the musical about the anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1913, which failed on Broadway but was later revised for a London production that will now make its United States premiere at the Taper on Oct. 4.
The author regarded the backstage action like a proud parent during this technical rehearsal, as T.R. Knight, who is playing Frank in his first role since leaving “Grey’s Anatomy,” tried out the Brooklyn accent he is perfecting for the show.
“‘Parade’ has a deeper meaning for me than anything else I’ve ever done,” Uhry said, settling onto a couch in a dressing room. “I always hoped that it would be revived, but I wasn’t sure that I would live to see it.”
Uhry’s Southern Jewish roots go deep. His German Jewish forbears settled in the environs of Atlanta in the early 1800s. “They were staunch Confederates,” he said. “My grandmother even had an uncle who was a blockade runner during the Civil War, like Rhett Butler.”
But when Leo Frank — who managed a pencil factory owned by Uhry’s great-uncle — was wrongly accused of murdering a teenaged employee and lynched, the family was reminded of their pariah status as Jews in the South.
“Lucille Frank used to play Canasta with my grandmother,” Uhry said. “My mother said she would always sign her checks ‘Mrs. Leo M. Frank’ ... But whenever anybody mentioned the Frank case, certain members of the older generation just got up and walked out of the room. I wanted to know why, but my mother was always very evasive. So as soon as I was old enough, I got on the bus, went to the library by myself, and looked it up. After that, I always knew that the Frank case was theatrical, and I hoped I’d be able to write a play about it one day.”
In 1998, Uhry’s musical about the trial and murder of Leo Frank, “Parade,” premiered at Lincoln Center, with music and lyrics by the then 24-year-old wunderkind Jason Robert Brown. It was the latest of Uhry’s plays, including “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” to revolve around Jews trying desperately to assimilate in the South. But the production closed after only 84 performances in February 1998, just a month before Uhry and Brown took home Tony Awards for the musical. The failure of the show, as well as some poor reviews — including one from The New York Times — greatly disappointed its creators.
Then, several years ago, unexpected news came from Rob Ashford, who had served as the show’s assistant choreographer and dance captain. He had been offered a chance to direct at the prestigious Donmar Warehouse in London, and the theater’s artistic director had been enthusiastic when he suggested creating a revised version of “Parade.” The piece resonated with Ashford, in part, because of his own Southern upbringing in West Virginia — in his case, as a Baptist.
Uhry said he and Brown revised at least 20 percent of the show. The first challenge was adapting the massive production for the 250-seat Donmar; the cast was cut from 36 actors to 15, and the orchestra from 20 to nine musicians. “We needed to come up with a chamber version of the show,” Brown said. “We reconceived it so that it made sense on an intimate scale, rather than sounding like we were apologizing for not having more people onstage.”
A superfluous ballad and at least one other major number was cut from the show, and a new character was added: Minnie McKnight, an African American who had worked as Lucille Frank’s maid, who is virtually forced to testify against Leo in the first act but retracts her statements in the second. The set was redesigned with two tiers to maximize space; and a faded mural embellished with antebellum scenes dominated center stage, like a peeling billboard, which at times would light up as characters from the past came to life.
Most importantly, the revised book and several new songs zeroed in more precisely on the developing relationship between Leo and Lucille, even as his lynching loomed. “I kept the influence of the minimalists, of Charles Ives, and the sense of ostenati, repeating themes, which indicate a marching toward something, an unrelenting ticking of the clock,” Brown said.
Uhry said he hoped to improve on the original production, “which didn’t have quite the element of understanding the Southern character I’d wanted. You didn’t really understand why these people acted as they did, and why they were still so embittered and angry about what had happened to them during the Civil War.”
The rewriting reflected this dangerous atmosphere for the Cornell-educated, Brooklyn-bred Frank; it also explained why violence had erupted after condescending Yankee reporters descended upon the trial.
This intimate new version of “Parade” opened to excellent reviews in London, and will arrive at the Taper virtually intact save for the cast. On Oct. 6, The Jewish Journal will co-sponsor a pre-show event and performance and on Oct. 14, the new PBS documentary, “The People v. Leo Frank,” will premiere at The Music Hall in Beverly Hills.
Outside Uhry’s dressing room, Knight wears suspenders and brown contact lenses to play Frank, whose bespectacled photograph is embossed on the cover of his script. “Often when you have a tragic tale involving a real person, it’s easy to canonize the character. But this piece didn’t do that,” he said of why he was drawn to “Parade.” “The piece veers away from melodrama. Leo is presented as flawed, as everyone is. And while certain things detailed aren’t exactly how things really happened, there is a respect for the truth in the piece that is compelling.”
Brown, who is now 39, is also present for rehearsals: “I love being part of this show,” he said. He met his wife, Georgia, during a tour of the original production and the couple’s 2-year-old daughter was on hand as Brown reworked the piece in London. “When I got hired to do the original version, I hadn’t written a single thing, but [the show’s original director] Hal Prince had faith in me. So this prickly Jew in his 20s was suddenly thrown into a world that wasn’t his own. That was exactly the Leo Frank story, and I thought, ‘I get who this guy is…. It’s my hope that for the rest of my life I’ll get to peek in on ‘Parade’ from time to time.”
The Journal’s Oct. 6 event will feature 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 and information, call (213) 972-7513 or visit centertheatregroup.org.
For information about the documentary screening on Oct. 14, to be followed by a discussion with filmmaker Ben Loeterman, call (310) 446-8000. Admission is free, but reservations are required and ID may be requested at the door.
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