It was Presidents’ Day Weekend in 1999. I was 15 years old and had gone with my family to the TKTS booth to grab tickets to a matinee. I was expecting to see “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” but they had just run out of tickets. In fact, TKTS only had tickets available for Parade,” a new musical I had not yet heard of, over at Lincoln Center. This would turn out to be a critical moment in my continuing exposure to more adventurous and challenging musicals.
“Parade,” which had songs by a 28-year-old Jason Robert Brown, a book by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”), and direction by the legendary Hal Prince (in what would turn out to be his last new musical on Broadway), examines the circumstances surrounding the trial, conviction, and murder of Leo Frank, a Jewish male in early 20th Century Georgia, originally from Brooklyn, who was wrongfully accused of the murder of a 13-year-old factory girl.
It is an unapologetically dark and tragic musical (exploring anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, mob violence, the appeal of the “Lost Cause,” and the corruption of nationalism, media, history, and the courts) that nevertheless depicts a complete hero and heroine’s journey, contains one of the most genuinely romantic and rhapsodic duets in all of musical theater, a stirring choral anthem, and some pleasant period pastiches. Although uneven, unwieldy, “Parade” is a deeply moving, critical-minded, extraordinary piece.
Upon its debut, “Parade” received sharply divided reviews and quickly played out its limited run and lost the Tony Award for Best Musical to “Fosse,” a forgettable dance tribute. Thankfully, a cast album was made, and “Parade” went on to receive many college and regional productions. (It has also become a perennial favorite at French Woods Festival of the Arts, a theater camp that Brown attended in the 1980s, and that I myself attended in the 1990s.)
The first major New York revival of “Parade” now comes in the form of a week-long production at City Center directed by Michael Arden (“Spring Awakening,” “Once On This Island”) and starring Ben Platt (marking his first stage appearance following “Dear Evan Hansen”) and Micaela Diamond and Leo and Lucille Frank respectively. The strong supporting cast includes Gaten Matarazzo (“Stranger Things”), Paul Alexander Nolan (“Bright Star”), John Dossett (“Gypsy”), Jay Armstrong Johnson (“On the Town”), and Howard McGillin (“Phantom”).
Six years ago, at a discussion about “Parade” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Brown addressed how timely “Parade” felt in the midst of the 2020 election. Well, “Parade” is even more relevant today, in the midst of flagrantly anti-Semitic remarks by public figures, and with the memory of January 6, 2021 (which involved along violent mob) still lingering.
Arden’s heavy-handed, documentary-style (relying on historical photos and captions) direction is questionable, particularly the decision to stage most of the scenes on a small raised platform, which the rest of the cast is seated around, as if they are jurors in Frank’s trial or spectators of the media “parade.” Nevertheless, on the strengths of the casting, score, and storytelling, this makes for a gripping and thrilling production.
Brown himself conducts the large orchestra – and there is no question that the score is far more sweeping and powerful when heard with its complete orchestrations. (Many of the show’s other post-Broadway productions, including the London premiere, have relied on cut-down arrangements.)
As Leo, Platt (who remains onstage, and in character, throughout intermission) exhibits many of the same qualities of his Evan Hansen – soft-spoken, tense, scared – and it works. Unsurprisingly, he sings beautifully. Diamond nicely depicts Lucille’s transformation from mousy to mighty. But the real casting coup lies with Matarazzo, who plays an earnest, tenderhearted young boy – who just happens to be proudly waiving around the Confederate flag and committing homicide.
There is already chatter of whether this production will transfer to Broadway. Though I certainly hope it does, that may depend on the strength of Platt’s fan base and a judgment call over whether, a quarter century after its premiere, with the urgency of its story more than apparent, Broadway is finally ready to embrace rather than belittle “Parade.”
City Center, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org. Through Sun.