In the aftermath of the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed, Southerners found themselves mourning the loss of the war and battling to hold on to the last vestiges of their unique way of life-one filled with grace and high ideals (if one is to believe the storytellers) but one that was, without a shadow of a doubt, built upon the backs of slaves. Amid revolutionary change for a society loath to accept it, the story of Atlanta factory manager Leo Frank and young Mary Phagan perhaps seemed predestined given the tenor of those quickly changing times. In fact, it reads as if it were created from whole cloth (cotton, of course) by yellow journalists seizing upon the public hunger for scandal and intrigue.
Playwright Alfred Uhry (who has created some of the most evocative Southern works of recent memory, including Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo, both of which focus on the lives of the Southern Jewry) and composer Jason Robert Brown (whose The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World are two of the finest musical scores of contemporary musical theater) have brought the true story of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan to the stage in the moving and elucidating Parade, a remarkable adaptation of the story that filled reams of newsprint in 1913-14 with a story that still tantalizes and scandalizes.
Now onstage in a thoroughly effective production directed by Sondra Morton at Franklin's Boiler Room Theatre, Parade is not your mama's or your granddaddy's musical comedy, to be certain. Instead, it's a very modern take on the legend of Leo and Mary, using contemporary idioms to relate their story amid a palpable feeling of tradition and history that informs everything that happens in the so-called "New South." The simmering rage and barely masked racism and virulent anti-semitism that flow throughout Parade continue to reverberate. Don't believe me? Consider the continued presence of the Ku Klux Klan (originally established in Pulaski, Tennessee, as a response to the perceived indignities of Reconstruction), which was given new life in the aftermath of Mary Phagan's brutal slaying and the conviction of Leo Frank for the crime, and you'll realize that despite all the progress that has been made, there's still a long row to hoe before a post-racial society can be realized. And it's been almost 100 years since the Leo Frank/Mary Phagan story sold newspapers and 147 years since Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox supposedly ended the War Between the States.
Thus, Parade remains a relevant work of art. Uhry's book is a richly drawn, remarkably accurate account of the story that provides its basis: Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew, comes south to run Atlanta's National Pencil Company and ends up marrying Lucille, a completely assimilated Jewess, whose uncle owns the factory. As legend has it-and newspaper accounts at the time trumpeted-14-year-old Mary Phagan, a poor white Southern girl, came to the factory manager's office on Confederate Memorial Day (a holiday still written in red on some Dixiefied calendars and venerated by aging belles and their gallant male counterparts) in 1913 to pick up her meager pay envelope before heading out to enjoy the festivities of the late April day. She never made it. Mary never took the first sip of cool lemonade on an already balmy late Spring day, nor did she meet her would-be beau Frankie Epps at the nickelodeon for the latest silent picture show.
Instead, her bruised and battered body was found on the clammy cement floor of the factory basement by the company's night watchman, setting off a media frenzy in the days before anyone ever knew-or even gave a good goddamn-what a media frenzy was. In short order, Leo Frank was arrested and convicted of the crime, sentenced to death by hanging at the behest of a screaming mob who may as well have been carrying torches and pitchforks while calling for the quick and merciless death of the Yankee Jew.
Hardly sounds like the stuff of musical theater, does it? Particularly, in a world filled with silliness and frothy, confectionary musical comedy, one wonders what it was about the story of Leo and Mary that "hooked" Uhry and Brown. Well, in the same way that his other, more famous scripts are drawn from family history and Atlanta-bred legend, Uhry's uncle owned National Pencil Company, the happenstance of life providing him with a uniquely personal perspective on the story.