Parade Revival Brings Century-Old Murder Trial Back to Broadway

Until recently, Parade was an underrated musical that I never noticed. In its original Broadway run, it was often compared to Ragtime, one of my favorite musicals. This is not an unfair comparison, as both shows represent stories about “American life,” highlighting the subjects of class, racism, and the American experience. But it’s because of this that it went to the bottom of the list of musicals I needed to listen to. The March 23 release of the 2023 revival album, however, prompted me to finally listen as I was headed to New York and thinking about seeing it live. And though I didn’t end up seeing it in person during its first weeks, I now intend to see it live, because the album was absolutely show-stopping.

The story of Parade alone makes it a must-see performance, and the album is art that everyone should listen to. Based on a true story, Parade takes us through the 1913 trial of Leo Frank (Ben Platt), an American Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta who was convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle). With Frank initially convicted in the first act, the play takes us through the appeals of the verdict. However, right after the court commutes Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, he is kidnapped and lynched by residents of the city. The musical takes us through Frank’s journey through the trial and eventually his subsequent death while highlighting the relationship between him and his wife, Lucille Frank (Micaela Diamond), as they fight to prove his innocence in court. The musical, which first premiered in 1998, is based on a book by Alfred Uhry and has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.

One thing that I adored about this musical was its dedication to showing the perspectives and ideals of each character in the lyrics. The album on its own shows each character’s journey, which is particularly showcased in Leo Frank’s character development. At the beginning of the show, Frank starts off with the song “How Can I Call This Home?” and laments about being a man out of place — he just moved from the North and is struggling to understand Southern culture and what it means to be Jewish in the South. These conflicts strain his relationships with those around him, particularly with his wife. This struggle comes to a head toward the end of the first act, as Frank, finally allowed to speak in court, pulls on heartstrings in his ballad “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.” Even without the stage or a face to envision, I was moved by the rawness within the song and how well it conveys the desperation of a man who has everything to lose in a room full of people who do not know him. One of his last songs, “This is Not Over Yet” — a duet with his wife, who, through this journey, has also gotten closer to him — occurs when both have just found out that Frank’s case will be reopened. The song is hopeful and beautiful as both characters seem to see each other for the first time. This theme is carried on in a later duet, “All the Wasted Time.” These songs act as both reconciliations and songs of hope for Lucille and Leo, which only makes the story more heartbreaking when you know the inevitable end is not a happy one.

Not only do the lyrics convey a story, but the melodies throughout all of the songs maintain a musical motif. For example, at the end of “How Can I Call This Home?” the motif is the same as in “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.” Another example is at the start of “All the Wasted Time” — the lyrics are “I will never understand,” which match the tune and resemble the lyrics, “I pray you to understand,” at the end of “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.” These small nuances add to the story, making it so intriguing to listen to over and over again.

Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed about Parade was the stories of other characters within the play. The song that got me into the musical, “That’s What He Said,” is not sung by Frank but instead is performed by witness Jim Conley (Alex Joseph Grayson) when he takes the stand against Frank and spins the story of how Frank committed the murder and tried to get away with it. Not only were the vocals from Grayson knee-shakingly good, but the ensemble did a masterful job voicing a public opinion. This was especially exciting to me because so much of this case in real life was decided and led by the media and public opinion within the South, and many songs reflect this. “Big News,” sung by reporter Britt Craig (Jay Armstrong Johnson), shows how biased journalism swayed public opinion against Frank. Additionally, the song “Twenty Miles from Marietta” shows the local prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan) slandering Frank and creating evidence and stories to vilify him to the jury.

The song, however, that made me realize Parade would be my next obsession for the rest of the semester was “Rumblinʼ and a Rollinʼ.” As an Africana Studies major who is personally invested in African-American history of the 1900s, I had one thought in the back of my head throughout the first act: how interesting that this case was getting so much attention during a time when Black American citizens were being harassed and attacked nationwide without the same amount of media coverage. And it was as if Jason Robert Brown read my mind — “Rumblinʼ and a Rollinʼ” is sung from the perspective of African-American townsfolk who are present in the play. In the song, the characters question if the reaction would have been as strong if the victim had been a little Black girl or if Frank had been Black in the first place. This song does not remove the threat of anti-Semitism that permeates these charactersʼ lives, only adding to the play’s message by forcing audiences, specifically white audiences, to consider another perspective. Parade breathes life into a story that occurred more than 100 years ago. It tells the stories of the innocent and what happens when hate and prejudice have a place in the courts and our law system.

Because of Frank’s case, the Anti-Defamation League was created as a Jewish international non-government organization based on civil rights law and the defense against the defamation of Jewish people. This story is not only a musical, but a representation of something that still affects minority communities. Parade pays homage to this story with music that encapsulates the beauty and pain of our history. I hope to see it live in the coming weeks and implore you to take a look at the album.