Alfred Uhry won’t let antisemites rain on his ‘Parade’
'Parade' hits Broadway as antisemitism is soaring. 'The story has haunted me all my life,' the celebrated playwright told JI
For the veteran playwright Alfred Uhry, the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was hastily convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl more than a century ago in Atlanta, has long been a source of morbid fascination.
“The story,” he told Jewish Insider, “has haunted me all my life.”
So much so that Uhry, an Atlanta native who has explored his Southern Jewish roots in several plays over the years, ultimately chose to dramatize Frank’s infamous case in a chillingly rendered musical, “Parade,” that briefly debuted in 1998 and is now returning to the stage in a highly anticipated Broadway revival, set to premiere next month.
The show, which previously won two Tony Awards, centers on the relationship between Frank and his wife, Lucille, as he finds himself scapegoated through a fatal miscarriage of justice so egregiously antisemitic that it would precipitate the creation of the Anti-Defamation League. Decades after its initial run, the updated musical is no less timely, Uhry observed, amid a recent profusion of antisemitic attacks and conspiracy theories, which the decorated book writer hopes to expose with his revival.
“Unfortunately, it has a lot of resonance right now because all of this antisemitism seems to be in the air,” Uhry, 86, said in a phone interview last month from his apartment on the Upper West Side. “It’s always burbling underneath, but it seems to be bubbling up right now — and this addresses that.”
Even more than 100 years after Frank was abducted from a prison cell and hanged by a bloodthirsty mob in 1915, his harrowing tale still serves as a stark and uncomfortable reminder, Uhry suggested, that some age-old hatreds may never entirely fade away.
As if to underscore that point, a small group of neo-Nazi demonstrators gathered outside the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in Manhattan on Tuesday night to heckle attendees who were lining up for the musical’s first preview before it opens in mid-March.
The dozen or so masked protesters, some of whom held posters identifying with the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group in Florida whose logo features a swastika, distributed antisemitic fliers and accused Frank of pedophilia while criticizing the ADL, according to video footage and photos posted by spectators on social media.
In a phone conversation on Wednesday afternoon, Uhry, who attended the preview, said he was largely unfazed by such efforts, even as he expressed concern that the show had been targeted for its association with Frank.
“It was disturbing, but it’s happened before with ‘Parade’ in other iterations,” he told JI somewhat wearily, hesitant to describe instances where the musical has, he said, provoked street protests from similar groups as it has toured the country in previous years. “These people are sick,” he emphasized. “It makes us even more determined to present our show to the world.”
“It’s amazing that after all these years,” he added, “it still raises all this fear and hatred.”
His comments were partly echoed by Ben Platt, a Jewish actor and Tony Award winner starring as Frank, who said in a video posted to Instagram after the performance on Tuesday that the protests had only underlined the necessity of “telling this particular story and how special and powerful art and, particularly, theater can be.”
The show’s producers released a similar statement condemning the protesters. “The big thing we’ve seen in the past 20 hours is that this is a story as urgent as ever,” Alex Levy, a co-producer of “Parade,” told JI by phone on Wednesday. “For many Jews, and certainly even beyond the Jewish community, it’s a forgotten episode in the history of antisemitism,” he said of the Frank case. “There are lessons to be learned from it.”
Scheduled to run for five months, “Parade,” which concludes in early August, joins another high-profile Broadway production focused on the Jewish experience through the prism of antisemitism. Tom Stoppard’s moving, semi-autobiographical play, “Leopoldstadt,” which opened last fall, presents a richly layered intergenerational portrait of a family of assimilated Viennese Jews who are forced to reckon with their increasingly precarious standing in pre-Holocaust Austria as the Nazis rise to power.
But while “Leopoldstadt” pivots on a sort of biographical amnesia experienced by Stoppard, a British playwright who belatedly discovered he was Jewish after a cousin informed him that his grandparents had all died in the Holocaust, “Parade” extends in large part from Uhry’s intimate relationship with a gruesome story he has never had any trouble remembering.
Just a generation removed from the murder of Leo Frank, Uhry, born in 1936, holds an unusually personal connection to the case. His great uncle owned the pencil factory where Frank worked as a superintendent and where he was accused of murdering a young teenage employee, Mary Phagan, despite an absence of convincing evidence to support the charge. Meanwhile, Uhry’s grandmother was a social acquaintance of Frank’s widow, whom he remembers meeting as a boy.
“I knew who she was, Miss Lucille, and I went in and shook hands,” Uhry said of his solemn if perfunctory encounters with his grandmother’s canasta partner. “But she didn’t mean much to me.”
The story of her husband’s lynching, on the other hand, “was always with me,” Uhry added, though he acknowledged that the subject was never openly discussed among friends and family members while growing up. “If somebody mentioned Leo Frank, people would get up and walk out of the room,” he told JI. “They didn’t want to talk about it. It was too horrible to contemplate.”
Uhry, however, detected the foundation for a compelling narrative long before he began his storied career in theater. “As soon as I got old enough, I got on a bus by myself and went to the library and looked it all up and talked to my family about it,” he explained. “It was interesting and scary and all those things — and it seemed theatrical to me, even as a kid.”
The nascent dramatist was then a long way from realizing that vision, which first coalesced around the original installment in his celebrated “Atlanta Trilogy,” dealing broadly with Jewish life in the South in the first half of the 20th century. The play “Driving Miss Daisy,” for which he is best known, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and became a better-known movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy. Uhry, who adapted the screenplay, was awarded an Oscar the following year.
Arriving as the third and final part of his trilogy, “Parade,” which had long been gestating, was in some ways the culmination of Uhry’s effort to harmonize his conflicted relationship to a story he had understood to be off-limits as a child in Atlanta.
Still, turning it into a musical, a potentially sensitive decision given the painful subject material, wasn’t Uhry’s idea, he claimed. Instead, it came from Hal Prince, who led the original production.
In an early conversation with Prince, who died in 2019, the legendary stage director had asked Uhry if he would divulge how he came up with “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” which precedes “Parade” in the trilogy and is “about Jews who were kind of unhappy or just uncomfortable being Jews in Atlanta” in the late 1930s, according to the playwright.
“I said, ‘I guess a lot of it came from the Leo Frank case,’ and he said, ‘You know, I sort of know about that, but exactly what was it?’” Uhry, who was then in his 50s, continued. “I told him, and he literally put his glasses on top of his head and he said, ‘That’s a musical.’”
“I went, ‘Oh boy,’” Uhry said. “It’s pretty steep territory.”
Thinking big, Prince, whose credits included “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Cabaret,” among other hits, sought to enlist Stephen Sondheim as the musical’s lyricist. Though he initially expressed interest in the job, Sondheim had recently concluded a heavy project of his own, and he ultimately passed rather than doubling down on another intense story. Next, Prince suggested they recruit a young man in his 20s, Jason Robert Brown, a little-known colleague of Prince’s daughter who “turned out to be the man for the job,” Uhry recalled.
“He really got it,” said Uhry. “He really listened to me. We talked for about six months before he wrote anything. I told him what it was like for a Jewish boy to grow up in the South and love the South and be scared of” the Ku Klux Klan, which saw a resurgence after Frank’s death. “It was a very conflicted place to be, for me, and he listened to everything, and he didn’t write, he didn’t write, he didn’t write, and I thought, well, this is just an exercise in futility.”
Then, he got a call. “I went over to his apartment and he played me two songs and they just knocked me out,” Uhry said. “We were on board, and we wrote it.”
The original show, whose short-lived run at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center lasted just two months, was panned by the The New York Times and dogged from the start by financial troubles thanks to a foundering producing partner, the Canadian company Livent, that filed for bankruptcy shortly before “Parade” made its debut. The musical closed in February 1999 after 84 regular performances. “It really wasn’t finished,” Uhry sighed.
To his continued disappointment, the musical, despite subsequently claiming a pair of Tonys, struggled to locate another equally august home in the ensuing years, even after Uhry and Brown had fine-tuned the piece during a successful if pared-down run in 2007 at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
By the time it returned to New York City fully staged for the first time in nearly 25 years last November, Uhry had not looked at the “Parade” script in about 15 years, he admitted. The show, which was rapturously reviewed during a limited seven-performance run at New York City Center in Manhattan, starred Platt as Leo Frank alongside Micaela Diamond as Lucille. Both actors are, along with Michael Arden, the director, continuing with the follow-up revival that began previews on Tuesday, which Uhry described as the unexpected but welcome fulfillment of a longstanding ambition to redeem the show.
“It came up out of the blue,” he said of the revival. “What I would call it is, really, a dream come true.”
In a first for the show, the two leading actors are both Jewish, a feature that Uhry seemed to recognize more as an amusing bit of theater trivia than a meaningful claim to historical authenticity. “It’s like, do you have to have a Jew playing a Jew or a drunk playing drunk or whatever?” he said in the interview with JI, casually stepping into a heated debate over Jewish representation in the entertainment industry. “I think that’s basically ridiculous, myself,” he asserted. “A good actor is a good actor.”
Still, he allowed, “it certainly doesn’t hurt to have these two be Jewish and to intuitively understand things about being Jewish,” much in the same way he feels that Arden, who is from the South, brings a useful perspective to the musical that non-Southerners might not possess. “It helps,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that only Jews should play Jews. I don’t believe that at all. But this is just an extra little fillip. It’s a nice little thing to have happened.”
Jewish or not, Uhry left no doubt as to whether the casting is to his liking. “I think God sent me Ben Platt on a silver platter,” he said of the actor, who has previously appeared in “The Book of Mormon” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” among other productions. “He got it. He asked me some questions. He’s got a good director. And he just intuits how to do it. I don’t have to tell him much of anything.”
“He’s also, I didn’t even realize this because I’m such an old fuddy-duddy, a big star!” Uhry exclaimed. “He’s exactly right for this part, and so is Micaela. That doesn’t always happen.”
As for his own connection to Judaism, Uhry said he grew up “very, very Reform” and was largely dissociated from religious traditions in Georgia. “I never went to a bar mitzvah. I had Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts,” he told JI. “Being Jewish was sort of like having a club foot. It was something you endured. There was just no ritual involved, and it was just dreary. I missed out on a lot.”
“My own particular set of Jews happened to be the German Jews who came to Atlanta before Atlanta was named Atlanta,” he explained. “I don’t know how they exactly got there, but they did get there. So being first, they thought themselves better than all the Eastern Jews who came a couple of generations later, and they thought of themselves pretty much first as Southerners, maybe second as Americans and third as Jews. But this just kind of rubbed it in their face, because for the Frank case, Jews were just Jews.”
It wasn’t until he moved to New York as an adult that Uhry acquainted himself with an array of rituals and came to feel a stronger sense of affinity for his Jewish roots. “I didn’t know,” he said, “how lovely a Seder is.” He also took a couple of trips to Israel in a broader effort “to learn to be sort of proud of being a Jew,” he said. “I certainly didn’t have that.”
The actor Joshua Malina, who is preparing to step into a leading role in “Leopoldstadt” next month, recalled traveling to Israel with Uhry and “a group of theater people” led by the producer Manny Azenberg, he told JI, some 10 or 15 years ago. “I got to know him,” he said of Uhry. “He’s a wonderful writer, and I am very eager to see ‘Parade.’ I’m happy for him.”
Uhry, who has seen “Leopoldstadt” and said it “hits hard,” believes his musical shares some fundamental commonalities with Stoppard’s play, at least as far as the Jewish characters are concerned. “I don’t know that much about Viennese Jews, but they were the crème de la crème, they were the least Jewish Jews there were, and my antecedents were all German, but it was the same thing,” he said. “They weren’t so rich and fancy, but they prided themselves on not acting like Jews. Yiddish was something to be laughed at.”
The context, of course, is entirely different for each of the works. “You’ve got to realize how these people felt in 1913, 1915 — 50 years after the Civil War,” he said of the Southerners who targeted Frank. “They were defeated. They were occupied territory. There were a lot of veterans alive who had lost a leg, lost a farm, who believed in the cause whether the cause was right or not. They were defeated, they felt vanquished and they felt wronged, and antisemitism wasn’t really a huge issue.”
“I mean, I don’t have to tell you that antisemitism was always there,” he added. “But they sort of ginned it up. The newspapers and politicians worked it up for this case, and as a result, the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed in the 1860s after the Civil War, was this mild, polite thing turned out with the robes and the hoods.”
“This case, if you stuck your finger in the water, the ripples just went on and on and on,” he mused.
Uhry clarified that his musical is by no means an attempt to exonerate Leo Frank of murder, even as the reserved Jewish businessman, who was born in Texas and grew up in Brooklyn, is now widely viewed as unlikely to have committed the crime. In 1986, Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which made clear that it was not acknowledging his innocence but instead recognizing “the state’s failure to bring his killers to justice” in “an effort to heal old wounds.”
“Did him a lot of good,” Uhry scoffed.
Frank was lynched, at the age of just 31, after his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 2019, the Fulton County district attorney said a new panel would re-examine the Frank case.
“There’s a possibility, a very teeny one, that Leo Frank could have done it, although every bit of research says he didn’t and that the sweeper did,” Uhry said, referring to a janitor at the National Pencil Company who is portrayed in the musical by Alex Joseph Grayson. “We don’t know, so we didn’t try to solve it. We didn’t try to say who was guilty or not guilty. We just presented it as was.”
The show “just deals with America,” Uhry told JI, summing up its ethos. “This happened in America.”
With the musical’s premiere fast approaching, Uhry said he is not currently working on any other plays and is in no rush to do so as he spends more time with his children and grandchildren. “It’s time to put on the brakes a little bit,” said Uhry, whose wife died a few years ago. As both a Tony and Oscar voter, he is also availing himself of unfettered access to free Broadway shows while streaming more new movies that he can “begin to watch” on his computer. “Life is pretty good,” he said in the phone conversation, as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” his ringtone of choice, chimed frequently in the background. “I don’t get lonely.”
There is one idea for a TV show he is tentatively developing with a “young friend” who used to be his assistant and is now a writer for the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in Los Angeles, he said, but declined to provide more details. “Bad luck to talk about it,” he said.
In the meantime, Uhry remains gratified that his long-suffering musical has at last found the platform he feels it deserves, made significantly more prominent, it seems, by the group of neo-Nazi detractors whose protest this week incidentally contributed to a wave of media coverage about the production.
“Somehow or another,” he said, “the timing is right for ‘Parade.’”