In 1913, a Jewish man named Leo Frank was convicted for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta. Frank was the director of the National Pencil Company at the time, where Phagan was employed. Two years after his conviction, his death sentence was commuted, and he was kidnapped and lynched by an angry, antisemitic mob from Marietta.
Today it is widely believed by historians that Frank was innocent, in part due to a 1982 confession from Alonzo Mann, who was Frank’s office boy at the time. Mann reported seeing Jim Conley, a janitor, with Phagan’s body that day.
The story of Leo Frank was brought to a national stage in 1998 with the Broadway production of “Parade.” Directed by the legendary Hal Prince, the musical’s book was written by Alfred Uhry – who grew up in Atlanta and whose great uncle owned the pencil factory that Frank ran – and featured music and lyrics from a young Jason Robert Brown.
After “Parade,” Brown went on to compose favorites of musical theater lovers everywhere, such as “The Last Five Years,” “13,” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” But, with the 2023 Broadway revival of “Parade” starring Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond, the show and Leo Frank are back in the spotlight.
On April 11, Brown will be joining Neranenah at the Alliance Theatre for a night of conversation and performances, unpacking the music and lyrics of the Tony-winning show. I was lucky enough to speak with Brown ahead of this performance, and he was very candid about the importance of remembering Leo Frank and the timeliness “Parade” has always held.
“There were a lot of people who like to say bullshit like, you shouldn’t make a musical out of something like this. This isn’t what I want to see when I see a musical,” Brown said. “Which, fair enough. But this is the musical I wrote, so there you go.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I know a bit about how you came to this project, but I wondered how much you knew about the story of Leo Frank beforehand?
Jason Robert Brown: I didn’t know the Leo Frank story at all. One of the weirder things that has happened in this most recent revival is we were doing a press day the other day, and Ben Platt and Micaela [Diamond] both mentioned that the only reason they know the Leo Frank story is because of “Parade,” which was a heavy thing, because you know, Alfred [Uhry] and I are not historians. That’s not what we do. We just felt it was an important story to tell. So the idea that we have become the conduits for that history, it feels like a real responsibility. I feel like we took it seriously and we did it well.
When I started working on the show, all I knew about it was what Hal [Prince] and Alfred were able to tell me. I was given a pile of articles from the Tennessean that had come out in the mid-80s when Alonzo Mann was on his deathbed. That reopened a lot of investigation in Tennessee, and that ultimately is what led to the reinvestigation in Georgia.
That’s interesting. I never thought about how much of a burden it might be, that you’ve become a way for people to learn this history.
JRB: I mean, people see it through the lens we put in front of it. And again, I feel like we were fair and I feel like we took care of it. But it does sort of call into question what voices might we have left out, and what are our real responsibilities as storytellers when we take on a true story?
Coming to work on “Parade,” you’d already done “Songs For a New World.” Obviously, this was a much bigger project, with giants like Hal Prince and Alfred Uhry, and they’d asked Stephen Sondheim to do it before they came to you. That must have been a ton of pressure – how did you cope with all of that?
JRB: The short answer is yeah, there was a lot of pressure. I was 24 when Hal asked me to meet with Alfred for the first time. There’s a lot of pressure, but at the same time if it’s the thing you think you’re destined to do in this world – and I always thought I was supposed to write shows, so if that’s what you’re supposed to do – I thought well, take the meeting! I could sit here in my tiny studio apartment and you know, stare at the walls. Or, I could go and meet with Hal Prince and Alfred Uhry and write a musical. I guess I know which is the better option. You’re either ambitious or you’re not. I was always ambitious, so I thought let’s get started – let’s do this thing.
It was entirely unexpected that I would get to a place where I was in Hal Prince’s office talking about his next musical with him as early as I did. I never thought that would be when I was 24 years old. But, I always did sort of think that would happen. So, I just had to step up as fast as I possibly could. To Hal and Alfred’s credit, they treated me as a collaborator. If they were spending all of their time frustrated about this kid, they never shared it with me. They never talked down to me and they never were like, let’s bring in somebody else to help you. They just treated my work with enormous respect and allowed me to be an equal voice in the room. That’s the real privilege – that’s the real gift of the time I had with them.
“Parade” was originally on Broadway in 1998, so it’s been more than 20 years. What’s the process been like, of bringing it back to Broadway after all this time?
JRB: Over the years, people would always say we want to bring it back. And I was like, you can’t. You know, it’s a very expensive show. It’s very difficult, it’s very big by design. We had done the production at the Donmar [Warehouse] in London in 2007, which was with what I would say was definitely a much smaller cast. But even that was 16, I think, or 15 in the cast, and nine in the orchestra. So, by the standards of a Broadway show, that’s still pretty big these days.
I think once [former President Donald] Trump was elected, there was a lot of motion on the part of theater artists who wanted to really raise their hand and say, there is work that we can do that speaks to the way America is right now. What “Parade” has always said is, this isn’t just what America was in 1913. It’s right here. This is always right here. I think it was harder to see that it was still right here in 1998. We were coming at the end of the Clinton years then, and so everything – for good, happy liberals like ourselves – everything felt like it was moving upwards. But in the context of the Trump era, everything feels like it goes downwards. There were certainly a lot of the theater artists looking for things that they could do to express that frustration. “Parade” started coming up a lot in conversation, often in the context of some limited thing – can we do a concert, and stuff like that.
I’m fairly protective of the piece. I don’t want it to be done in a way that doesn’t honor the music of it and the story of it. There was a reading that got done at The Roundabout Theatre – which is a non-profit like Lincoln Center – with Ben and Micaela, and Michael Arden directing it, about three years ago. I think the idea then was maybe we can do this at the Roundabout. But I was not of the belief at the time that Ben Platt was really going to give up his time to do it.
And then there was this pandemic, and nothing happened to anything for a very long time. Coming to the end of the pandemic … [New York] City Center called and said we would like to do “Parade” as a gala, for a week in the fall and a concert version. That sounded like the perfect thing to me. That sounded exactly right. We could do it with the right size orchestra and Ben and Michaele both wanted to do it, and Michael wanted to direct it. I thought, this is ideal and perfect.
There was then a producer named Greg Nobile who was around and saying, well if it works, I want to move it to Broadway. My response to him then – as it would still be now! – was, oh come on! No one’s moving it to Broadway, that’s ridiculous. But, I’m glad you’re interested and good luck! But I was surprised … to find out just how much people wanted to be in the room with this story, and how much they wanted to be in the room with this storytelling. We were sold out at City Center from virtually the minute we went on sale. I was astonished by that. I conducted the run at City Center, which means that I had 3,000 people behind me every night, locked into this story, really wrapped up in it. It was like a bit in their teeth.
Once it was done, and Greg said I want to move it to Broadway, it did feel sort of inevitable and wonderful. But it was never something I could have planned or even expected.
You said a couple of things I want to touch on there. I watched an interview with you recently where you were talking about this new Broadway production and how it draws from Hal Prince’s direction back in 1998, but also Rob Ashford’s Donmar Warehouse production. What are the discussions like when you’re thinking about how to bring something back to the stage and what to incorporate from past productions?
JRB: I think that’s really mostly on the director. Hal’s production was very much Hal’s show, and he was building it from the ground up. Alfred and I always felt like we were in service to Hal’s vision. Obviously, we’re strong artists and we have our own thoughts about things, but what was going to get on that stage was going to be the Hal Prince production. So we felt like that was our obligation – to make sure we were serving where that was going to go.
When we revisited the piece with Rob 10 years later, there was a certain degree to which we were trying to find Rob’s vision of the piece, but it really was also about, in the absence of Hal, what parts of the story did we not feel like we told well – now that we have a little more time, now that we’re all older writers and we have a different perspective on it. There was a history of the piece that had come out, the Steve Oney book [“And the Dead Shall Rise”] had come out since the Broadway production. So there were new insights into the way things had gone, and new evidence that had shown up.
We really went into the production with Rob to say, alright, we have an opportunity to reexamine the show. What is it that we meant it to be originally that we maybe didn’t get to? But having done that, we then really wanted to close the book on writing “Parade.” At that point, it had been 15, 16 years of our lives and it had been in Alfred’s life since he was a little boy. So I think we were ready, in 2009 after we did the production at the [Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles] to say alright, this is “Parade.”
My only frustration then was that the size of the orchestra for that production had only nine musicians. We got an opportunity to do the show at Avery Fisher Hall [now known as David Geffen Hall] here in 2014, 2015. That was an opportunity for me to reorchestrate the show back to its original scale. Everything that happened from there on in is really Michael being able to look at a piece the way he would look at a Tennessee Williams play, or a Shakespeare play, or a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and say alright – what do I want to do to approach this?
This production was not on me and Alfred to reconceive it in any way. I think we were both very much present and very involved. I think we’re both very happy to raise our hand and say, that thing that you’re doing there is not an idea that I support, or I don’t understand what you’re doing and how can I help support what you’re doing, because that feels weird to me. But always with enormous respect, because Michael has just a beautiful mise en scène. He had such a clear sense of how he wanted to tell the story visually that we basically came to rehearsals and made sure everybody was saying the lines right and singing the notes correctly and got out of the way.
How large was the orchestra for the original production?
JRB: The original was 19. We did nine at the Donmar. I think we had 28 at Avery Fisher Hall, and at City Center we had 24. They really wanted me to go to 15 for Broadway, and I just said, I can’t guarantee you the same experience of the show. So we’re at 17, and I feel like we managed to sort of retain the feeling that we had at City Center with a lot of electronic trickery. I’m very proud of the way it sounds on Broadway, and it took a lot of work to get there. That’s also thanks to our sound designer in New York, a guy named Jon Weston who I’ve been working with for 20 years on various things.
In that same interview I mentioned before, you said this is the first time you’ve had actors play Leo and Lucille Frank who are both Jewish, with Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond. What does that bring to the piece that it didn’t have before?
JRB: It’s something that’s entirely intangible but is very obvious, I think, to the Jews in the audience. There’s something about what lived experience brings to your performance. I think that’s true no matter what the character is. I don’t think that acting is about putting on a funny hat. I think that acting is really about refracting through yourself this text and these notes. So, the more you have in yourself that connects directly to the experience of this character, obviously the more that’s going to show up in your performance.
There’s nothing that I can explain to Brent Carver [Leo in 1998 Broadway production] or to Bertie Carvel [Leo in Donmar Warehouse production] – these two extraordinary actors who did fantastic work – but there’s nothing I can explain to them about the lived experience of, for example, saying the Shema in temple every week of your life. There’s nothing I can say to them about the lived experience of hearing people speaking Yiddish and Hebrew around you in a casual way. I don’t have to explain any of that to Ben and Micaela, because that’s their life, and that’s their lived experience. You can hear in the way that they approach the dialogue and they approach the music of the show, that when those things come up that are very true to my own experience, and were true to Leo Frank’s experience, they come out of their mouths as very true and very lived in a way that doesn’t feel put on.
I think I’m probably not alone among Jews in the business who feel always a little uncomfortable at the way that non-Jewish actors portray Jewish characters. I’ve seen it done very respectfully, and I’ve seen it done very subtly, and I’ve seen it done very well. But nonetheless, there’s something about when you watch Rachel Brosnahan do [“The Marvelous] Mrs. Maisel,” or you watch John Turturro doing “Barton Fink,” when you watch what needs to be a recognizably Jewish character played by a clearly Gentile actor, there is always something that is right on the tip of being caricature. I know it’s not meant to be mocking and it’s not meant to be critical in any way, but it’s there. It’s not as extreme as asking a white actor to play a Chinese character – it’s much more subtle, and it’s, I believe, broadly acceptable. I get it. As a Jew, I totally get it. I don’t need every Jewish character played by a Jewish actor. It’s not necessary with a capital N. But there is a real difference when a Jewish character is played by a Jewish actor, and I feel it resonate through “Parade” in a way that I have never been able to before.
I think you’re right – especially when the character’s experience in the show is so connected to their being Jewish.
JRB: I’ve written a number of Jewish characters over time, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to get Jewish actors to play them, and sometimes I’m not. With [the musical] “13,” when we had Graham Phillips do the show on Broadway, Graham was not Jewish and had to do the Haftorah at the end. It was very moving hearing him to the Haftorah, because I knew that it wasn’t something he knew, because I sensed how much work it was for him. But then when Eli Golden did the  movie, and Eli does his Haftorah at the end, that to me broke my heart in a very different way, because I know how much it meant to him to do his own Haftorah – you know, what it is for a Jewish boy to do his bar mitzvah.
Likewise, when Jamie Wellerstein in “The Last Five Years” is played by Jeremy Jordan, who grew up with a Jewish background, he knows what that material is. When Adam Kantor did the show Off-Broadway, he gets the Jewish part of it, in a way that Norbert [Leo Butz, original Off-Broadway cast], who was unbelievably sensational, simply doesn’t get in his bones. You get something different from every actor, and ultimately you’re deciding if what they give you is going to pay off enough for the things that you don’t get. Obviously, Norbert was worth everything in the world. The fact that he hadn’t had a bar mitzvah was not going to be the deal breaker on that. But again, it just resonates differently with an actor who is Jewish.
There were Neo-Nazi protests outside of the Broadway revival back in February. You put out a statement where you said something that resonated with me – I’m glad they feel threatened enough to emerge into the light and show their faces. We’ve had a few instances of blatant anti semitism here in Atlanta recently, including graffiti and fliers. You touched on this a bit before, but how important do you think it is that “Parade” is back at this particular moment.
JRB: Without getting overly crazy about it, you know – I haven’t heard from the top down the broad condemnation of anti semitism that one would want to hear from the state of Georgia. The state of Georgia – which has a history of antisemitic incidents, not just the Leo Frank cast, but incidentally, the Leo Frank case very heavily among them – continues to have enormous trouble reckoning with its own past, not just with antisemitism, but obviously with anti-black racism as well, and anti-immigrant racism, which is a really huge thing in that state all of the time.
So to be talking to someone in Atlanta at the moment, is to be saying, what is the normal response when the people in power refuse to counter this sort of populist horseshit that keeps coming up all the time in order to continue propping up the power structure that is straight white males? And I say that as white being separate from Jewish – which is a complicated question, and I’ll let it all sit there. But there’s no question that [Gov.] Brian Kemp is not Jewish and does not consider himself to be Jewish, and that the power structure of Georgia was not built by Jewish people and was designed to exclude them, as well as to exclude Black people and Latino people, and Asian people.
Why is it important to be on Broadway at this time? Anytime that we can get a megaphone where we can say to the vast parts of this country that really believe that we’re really all good people and we really do treat everyone equally and it really is a place where if you just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you can get anything in this country – it’s just total bullshit. I know that it’s bullshit. Most of us who are not in that power structure totally understand that it’s bullshit. I wish we did not have to say it as often as we do. But human nature is such that people are going to be tribal. People are going to cling to their own kind, people are going to try and exclude anyone who they feel is a threat to them.
This country was designed, in a lot of ways, with a philosophy that says no, we’re going to break all of that apart. It wasn’t true even then, but when people came to this country, it was with the idea that that was a thing it was supposed to do. So, if we want to hold to that lofty philosophy, if we want to hold to this grand aspiration of who we are as a society – that we’ve never met, but we hold to it and continue to say it’s what we believe in, and what our ethos is – then we need to make room for the things that show where we don’t come up to it. Where we fall short. I don’t think all entertainment has to be that, but I do think we have to make plenty of room for entertainment that does say it, especially at a time when this sort of populist, racist, xenophobic sentiment is at its highest in my lifetime. Certainly, we need to be raising our voices as loud as we can and telling those stories as fervently and passionately as we can.
Tickets for Brown’s performance on April 11 can be bought online.