Anti-Semites Steal the Show in Broadways Parade – The Atlantic

Posted By on March 27, 2023

Theres a moment in Parade, the musical revival that opened last week on Broadway, that encapsulates the shows subversiveness. Its also the moment that seals the demise of the dramas protagonist, Leo Frank.

Frank, played by Ben Platt, is on trial for the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who was found dead in the Atlanta factory where he served as superintendent in 1913. (The plot is based on a true story.) A nerdy northern Jew in Georgia, Frank is an easy target for the ire of the public and the prosecution. In a taut and tense courtroom scene, he is implicated by a succession of coached but compelling witnesses. The most damning testimony comes from a janitor, Jim Conley (Alex Joseph Grayson), who claims that the Jew stereotypically attempted to buy his silence, recalling Franks words in a sinister song:

You got money in your pocket and theres plenty more of that.I got wealthy friends and family, and a wife whos dumb and fat.I got rich folks out in Brooklyn, if I need somewheres to go.And these stupid rednecks never gonna know!

As Conley concludes this recollection with a rousing refrain of Thats what he said, the chorus behind him thunders, Hang him! Hang the Jew! Its a showstopper. Audience members have already seen how Conley was coerced into contriving this story by the ambitious prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan). But faced with the emotional power of Graysons performance, the nearly 1,000 people at the preview I attended could not help but do what felt right in the moment: applaud.

This is the genius of the entire affair. Parade is a musical about anti-Semitism in which the anti-Semites steal the showand thats precisely why it works. Outwardly, the production tells the story of one of the great anti-Jewish injustices in American history: the lynching of Leo Frank following his questionable conviction and the commutation of his sentence. But emotionally, the production reenacts the experience of the event and makes the audience into an accomplice, sweeping its members up in the ardor of the anti-Semitic mob and co-opting them into complicity.

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This is probably not what one would expect from a production headlined by Platt, last seen on Broadway in his Tony-winning turn in Dear Evan Hansen. Both Platt and his co-star Micaela Diamond, who plays Leos wife, Lucille, deliver mature and moving performances, and are capable of vocal virtuosity that can bring a crowd to its feet. But for much of Parade, the actors are not given the chance. Platts Frank is instead shackled to a cell and to simple songs with little backing or adornment, unable to compete charismatically or emotionally with his accusers.

Again and again, the show hands its most potent numbers not to its leads, but to its anti-Semitic characters and their allies, including the bombastic Conley and the unctuous Dorsey. Franks plaintive appeals to reason cannot possibly counter these impassioned anthems. Tellingly, the only time Platt gets to musically command the stage in the first two-thirds of the show is when he discards his characters anemic affect in order to playact as the debonair Don Juan conjured by his accusers. One of the most talented young Jews on Broadway is not permitted to fully shine in his own show unless he is playing into the villainous caricature of anti-Semites and reciting their lines. This is also an all-too-apt representation of how anti-Semitism acts on Jews in society: stifling their voices and restricting them to roles assigned by their enemies.

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Pitting the bookish Frank opposite the aggrieved masses, Parade illustrates how the case against him, like anti-Semitism through the ages, satisfied the deep-seated desires of the public, as emotional needs overrode rational considerations. Through the dialogue of Alfred Uhry and the music of Jason Robert Brown, we see how Franks trial gave Georgian admirers of the Confederacy a way to symbolically strike back at the Norths cosmopolitan corruptors. It also gave the local prosecutor a suitable scapegoat and offered the press a perfect target for popular vilification, selling papers and reviving flagging journalistic fortunes. Franks indictment provides Phagans mother with closure, while his lynching offers the victims guilt-ridden teenage suitor personal satisfaction. And it gives Conley, who some historians believe was the true killer, a patsy on which to pin his crime. Each of these characters songs carries the show, which deftly intertwines heartbreaking laments with coarse cries for revenge, and at the preview I attended, the performances regularly compelled the audience to clap even when their contents were disturbing.

Late in the show, when Leo and Lucille finally sing a duet of defiance, and it momentarily appears as though Frank will escape his fate, the audience applauds almost in relief, finally able to lend its support to the victims, rather than their antagonists. But this reprieve is short-lived, as the machinery of anti-Semitism reasserts itself and Frank is abducted, bound, and hanged.

With its perceptive understanding of anti-Jewish prejudice, critique of sensationalist journalism, and brief but sensitive treatment of anti-Black racism, Parade feels like it was written yesterday. But the show first debuted in 1998. At the time, although it found fans among critics and captured multiple awards, it did not find an audience, and closed after just 84 performances. That outcome seems unlikely today, when the production could not feel more relevantor perhaps it is better to say that more are ready to acknowledge its enduring relevance. If anything, the show feels too on the nose, but that is less its fault than our own.

Now as then, anti-Jewish prejudice proliferates because it fulfills profound but unstated needs in those attracted to its addled ideas. It is easier to blame an ailing economy on the Rothschilds, a failed marriage on the Jews, a flawed foreign policy on the Jewish lobby, or unchecked American police violence on the Jewish state than it is to look within at the internal causes of these calamities. Now as then, we face a rise in conspiratorial grievance, which inevitably falls upon imagined Jewish culprits. As Parades continued significance demonstrates, the siren song of anti-Semitism never stopped and never lost its appeal. The fact that some no longer tune it out and seek to confront it is a form of progress. The real test, however, is whether we can write better songs that give voice to Jews not just as they are envisaged by their despisers, but as they truly are.

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Anti-Semites Steal the Show in Broadways Parade - The Atlantic

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