NEW YORK CITY: It’s been 100 years since factory owner Leo Frank was lynched after being convicted of murdering one of his workers. It’s been 20 years since composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and playwright Alfred Uhry began writing Parade, based on the true event. And it’s been 16 years since the musical closed on Broadway, before going on to win the Tony Awards for best book and score.
“In the time we are currently living in, the story of Leo Frank is entirely relevant and sort of sadly obvious,” Brown says. “This is a story of America. We can all pontificate about how we want this to change and how things have gotten worse or things have gotten better, but there is something about the American story that is embedded into Parade, and I think we have to own that part of who we are.”
The musical will come to life once more on Monday night at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a one-night-only event tonight, Feb. 16, produced by Manhattan Concert Productions and starring Laura Benanti, Jeremy Jordan, Joshua Henry, John Ellison Conlee, Ramin Karimloo, Andy Mientus, Emerson Steele, Allie Trimm, Eric Anderson and more.
“I don’t know if we could get all these people to do it in a real production!” Uhry exclaims, adding that it’s been nice to just sit in the room and watch. “We struggled with Parade for a long time,” he says. “We’ve been through several incarnations.”
After closing in New York, the show toured in 2000, then went on to have a major remount under director Rob Ashford at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2007. Ashford later brought the production to Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum in 2009. Uhry and Brown worked on rewrites for the London revival, which is the version that will be presented on Monday.
“All of my shows have this life outside of New York that makes the New York part of it vaguely irrelevant,” says Brown, currently represented on Broadway by Honeymoon in Vegas, an ostensible hit, while last season’s The Bridges of Madison County attracted more ardent admirers than paying audiences.
Parade originally sprung out of a conversation between producer Hal Prince and Uhry. Uhry had just written The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a comedy about a 1930s Jewish family assimilated into the Southern culture, and Prince asked Uhry why the Jewish people were so eager to blend in. Uhry then told Prince the story of Leo Frank, and Prince told him to write it as a musical.
Stephen Sondheim was originally supposed to write the music and lyrics, but he was in the midst of Passion at the time and didn’t want to work on any more heavy material for a while. So a 24-year-old Brown, whose only prior theatre credit was the 1995 revue Songs for a New World, came in on spec, and, after talking with Uhry over six months, Brown invited Uhry over to his house and played the opening number, “The Old Red Hills of Home.”
“I got teary,” Uhry recalls. “I’m prouder of Parade than anything I’ve ever done. The show was such a collaboration between Jason and me that I feel like I wrote the entire thing and so does he!”
For Brown, looking back on the show that marked his Broadway debut teaches him more about the work and about himself as a writer.
“As I get older, I understand the piece a little better, and I even understand what I was doing a little better,” he explains. “I keep finding little secrets that I buried in the score. I really do look at it not so much as the guy who wrote, but now as the guy who gets to bring it into the world.”
After a career that has had its ups and downs, Brown is philosophical about the form his shows take. Parade, he says, “is a story that [theatre people] feel is important to tell. We’re not biographers and we’re not newscasters. We make theatre, and to make theatre out of something we feel was a grave injustice and we feel really matters, that’s what we do. It counts to us, and I think it counts to spread the story that way.”