This past weekend, we had the amazing chance to see the New York City Center production of Parade. I knew the plot of the show, but had never heard the music prior to going in Saturday evening and finding our seats. We knew we were in for something special…this was a fundraiser, the show is scheduled to run only 6 days and stars Ben Platt, features Gaten Materazzo of Stranger Things fame, and has an absolutely mind-blowing cast. The show was also garnering rave reviews, and it seemed certain to be something we wouldn’t forget.
Days later, I’m still thinking about it. Some of that is the sound, the sheer overwhelming emotion drawn out by a fully-orchestrated New York show conducted by Jason Robert Brown himself. Some of it are the voices, the power and beauty and pain that was on display by the entire cast (when the full-cast harmony kicks in during “Old Red Hills of Home” I dare the hairs on your arms not to stand at attention). Standouts include Michaela Diamond as Lucille Frank and Alex Joseph Grayson as Jim Conley, the latter of which got the longest and largest ovation of the night for his jaw dropping That’s What He Said.
But no, the reason I’m still rolling this show around in my head is the story and the way it’s told. The story of Parade is the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man in Georgia in the early 1900s who was accused of the murder of a 13 year old girl at the pencil factory he managed, and was ultimately convicted and sentenced to be hung. When the governor interceded to commute his sentence, he was dragged from prison by a group of men and lynched. As is the way of musicals, this story is also the story of racism, the story of the history of the South, the story of child labor and abuse, the story of the abuse of the power of the press, the power of politics, and the relationship between anti-semitism and broader racism in the South.
Told with a deft touch by Alfred Uhry (writer of the book of the musical which won the Tony in 1999) and Jason Robert Brown (who wrote the music and lyrics and won the Tony for Best Score), the show doesn’t pull punches in showing the horrors of the time.Nor does it in its portrayal of the villains of the piece that are all too familiar in the modern era: members of the press who are happy to lie if it sells papers, politicians who are happy to lie if it increases their ambitions, and the public who are willing to lie to protect themselves and their way of life. The victims? Minorities, both racial and religious, who challenge the status quo.
But there’s another layer to the show, a cultural one, especially for someone who has basically lived my whole life in the South. For all the cultural baggage that gives me, it was a truly surreal experience to see this show. The South, capital T capital S, is its own character here, in the form of Atlanta and Marietta Georgia. Alfred Uhry was born in Atlanta, which explains why so much of the show’s representation of the South felt so true. But the framing is such that it’s a continuously uncomfortable truth, the type of truth that makes you slightly embarrassed to admit, the type of truth that you really don’t like to look at too closely for fear that you may burn out your eyes. The type of truth that means that you don’t see the same way afterwards.
It’s no secret that my favorite type of theater are the shows that tear out your heart and leave it bleeding on the ground…not that I don’t enjoy happy shows, it’s just that they don’t change me in the same way. Give me Cabaret, Fun Home, Sweeney Todd, and Hadestown…and add to that list Parade. If this production gets moved to a Broadway run, if it has a cast album….just see it, listen to it. I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long time.