Parade Goes By, But Does It Move?

Can a “serious” musical succeed? Or do you have to be a cartoon? Those are the somewhat defensive questions asked by the righteous supporters of the seriously earnest Parade , the new musical about the Leo Frank case, directed by Hal Prince, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

A musical about anti-Semitism? Whatever next! Possibly a revival of Fiddler on the Roof . But Mr. Prince’s own record of choosing unlikely subjects for his musicals suggests there was life before Disney– Cabaret (Nazi Germany), Sweeney Todd (murderous barber in Victorian London), Kiss of the Spider Woman (torture and fantasies of political prisoners in South America). However, we do not think that Mr. Prince’s Evita (glamorous dictator with heart of gold) could be serious . Parade is, for sure.

The Disneyfication of Broadway continues apace, but there’s just about room for a rare new musical of adult intelligence. After all, what is the immensely successful Bring in da Noise … but the danced history of black America from slavery to the present? That’s a pretty serious subject!

So, of course, is the challenging, ambitious subject matter of Parade : anti-Semitism, child murder, a terrible injustice and lynching. This is not, then, The Lion King . Parade , with a book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown in his Broadway debut, tells the story of Leo Frank, a college-educated Brooklyn Jew who in 1913 was accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl in the Atlanta pencil factory he ran. Frank was sentenced to death on negligible evidence. He had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1915, only to be lynched by an anti-Semitic mob.

Too serious for a musical? To say so would be like Mrs. Frank claiming, as she does in the show, that Leo is too Jewish. Either we’re committed or not. But I’d say the only test of a musical that’s serious and “important,” or mindlessly entertaining, is whether or not it works. Does Parade ?

I’m afraid that it actually makes such incendiary themes as injustice and anti-Semitism seem remote and virtually depersonalized. Parade doesn’t move us, as it should and as it longs to do. To the contrary, we know all the moves only too well, like watching a dutiful TV movie of the week. (The story of Leo Frank has already been a TV movie, as well as a feature film with the teenage Lana Turner, and the subject of several books.)

The Leo Frank case may be familiar to some, but it should make our blood boil even so. Yet it fails to engage and outrage us emotionally. We experience the solemn production from a distance, as if watching the parade go by. Why did Mr. Prince, who also co-conceived the musical, go along with its commonplace title, Parade ? It’s a curiously neutral title–meaning a procession. How does a procession connect to the Leo Frank story and bigotry, except in the vaguest way?

Mr. Prince opens and closes the show with a Confederate memorial parade–setting the Southern scene. But it takes place in the dreamlike distance. We can only glimpse the metaphorical parade over the heads of the crowd. Some of the figures passing by are cardboard, and the crowd is swelled by cardboard cutouts, too. Another peculiar choice. The production has a big cast. Why not use real people?

We connect better to human beings. Again, during the lengthy Act 1 trial scene, the jury is also cardboard with one live actor (who might be cardboard). What’s the point?

The opening scene surprises us because it seems to belong to a different show. A young Confederate soldier is setting off to fight the Civil War, singing wistfully “The Old Red Hills of Home.” He reappears as an old crippled soldier. Hmm. Food for thought there. Something to do with the troubled destiny of the South. The prologue is as heavy-handed as the symbol of the sinister oak tree that overshadows the stage throughout the action. We know from the outset why that tree–a hangin’ tree–is there.

The long first act–21 songs–is almost entirely a solemn uphill slog of exposition, from the framing of Frank, to the cartoon fury of the yellow press, to the cardboard kangaroo court proceedings (which repeat what we’ve already learned: that poor Leo Frank was framed). Frank’s innocence is never in doubt. He’s an emblem of martyrdom rather than flesh and blood. A fussy emblem at that. When Frank is thrown in jail, the first thing he complains about is the food. The food ! How about a plea for his life ?

The epic Parade often becomes a surprisingly small musical. As it can turn a tragedy of Southern justice into a question of culinary taste, so our first glimpse of the Frank marriage concerns a cute little spat about Leo’s use of the Yiddish word meshuggeneh . His more genteel, assimilated Southern wife, Lucille, would sooner Leo were less of an uptight Jewish alien who says “shalom” instead of “howdy.” To shalom or not to shalom in the South is a familiar theme of the dramatist, Mr. Uhry, whose awesomely sentimental The Last Night of Ballyhoo raked over the same territory.

Then again, virtually every character arrives prepackaged, an instantly recognizable type–the drunken reporter going after his chance of fame and fortune; the satanic fundamentalist newspaper publisher denying Jesus was a Jew; the Good Ol’ Boy defense council in the crumpled white suit; the corrupt District Attorney; the venal politicians; the Southern governor with a conscience (“We gotta get to the bottom of this one fast…”). They are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.

Is it too surprising that Parade doesn’t stir us? There are echoes of other Hal Prince productions (and of Ragtime ). There are isolated scenes that spark energetically into the premise of creative life (the fantasy song and dance sequence, “Come Up to My Office”). But the dogged narrative is conventional, overliteral and uninspired, the show’s rhythm ponderous. Even the moment when Leo is hanged fails to shock. Compare Mr. Prince’s mundane staging of it to the danced lynching in Bring in da Noise … , a terrifying solo mime that has frightened and shamed us every time we’ve seen it.

Was Leo Frank, when all is said and done, a good subject for a musical? Mr. Prince has explained: “I think Parade tells a terrific story. It’s a musical about two people living a sterile, dreary, Victorian marriage arranged by their families. She’s a Southern belle–accepting, grateful to be married to a hard-working, upstanding man. He’s persnickety, anal, humorless, didactic, but yes, upstanding and hardworking.”

Anal, humorless, didactic, hard-working, dreary, sterile–those buzzwords aren’t the happiest augury for a sparkling musical, even a serious musical. Little wonder that the excellent Brent Carver seems to be performing in a straitjacket as Leo, or that Carolee Carmello’s lovely, touching voice is restrained by Lucille’s refined righteousness. According to the creators of Parade , however, the musical is really a love story–the story of how Leo and Lucille found each other, and love, through tragedy.

But their love is never shown until the eleventh hour and the last ballad in the show, the aptly titled duet, “All the Wasted Time.” No, the unarguable focus of Parade is on the mad injustice done to Leo Frank. But what if it were the love story the show’s creators claim? Moral: Wrongfully sentence an introverted chap to death and he’ll find true love. There’s selling a serious musical for you!