Who’s Gonna Swing That Hammer?

Leo Frank was born in Texas but raised in Brooklyn.  He attended Cornell University and moved to Atlanta in 1908, where he became the president of his local B’nai B’rith chapter.  He worked as the superintendent of a pencil factory at a time when child labor practices were being challenged—and blamed on Jewish factory owners.  After an employee, a thirteen-year-old girl, was murdered, Frank was arrested.  He fought his conviction for two years, and when Governor John Slaton commuted his sentence from capital punishment to life in prison, Leo Frank was lynched.  Slaton promised to apprehend his killers, but no one was ever charged with the crime.  Slaton lost reelection, and two years later, the district attorney who convicted Frank had his job.

Most of this story is captured in Parade, a late ’nineties musical with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Alfred Uhry.  The title comes from the Confederate Memorial Day parade, and the action is bookmarked by war.  It begins with “The Old Red Hills of Home,” sung by a young Confederate soldier (Charlie Webb) returning from battle and ends with a reprise; this time the soldier is heading to World War I.  The rendition is straight Lost Cause nostalgia.  Brown and Uhry frame the story as a clash of cultures between the northern, Jewish Frank (Ben Platt) and his gentile, southern surroundings.  In “How Can I Call This Home?” Frank sings that he is “trapped beside a wife / Who would prefer that I said ‘Howdy’ not ‘Shalom.’”

But the Jewishness of the story seems to be watered down here, as if Parade were written for a gentile audience.  A few religious customs are observed—Frank sings the Sh’ma in one of the musical’s best scenes—but nothing, for example, is mentioned about his role in B’nai B’rith.  In light of their commitment to battling antisemitism, this strikes me as relevant.  Or consider the line quoted above: would Frank really use the Hebrew greeting shalom rather than the Yiddish a gutn tog?  The decision, like many here, seems to have been made for legibility rather than truth.

More importantly, this version of events avoids the sociopolitical climate that made Frank’s murder possible (and, needless to say, the climate that makes it possible still).  For Brown and Uhry, Frank is a fish out of water rather than a victim of white supremacist violence.  Without this context—legitimate anger over child abuse scapegoated on Jews—some of the major dramatic moments of the musical lose their sense.  For example, when the police consider a Black suspect (Eddie Cooper), the district attorney (Paul Alexander Nolan) dismisses him as insufficient: “Hangin’ another nigra ain’t enough this time.  We gotta do better.”  Huh?  In the end, little attention is paid to Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle), who was a child working fifty-six hours a week.  The violence her death inspired does not dim its tragic qualities.

To be sure, Parade is not a bad show.  The music is well-written.  The performers in this production have wonderful voices.  But authors Brown and Uhry choose a heavy subject and come up with little to say about it.

Parade runs through June 26th at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.  242 W. 45th Street  New York, NY.  2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.


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