The True Story That Inspired Jason Robert Brown’s ‘Parade’

In 1913, Leo Frank was sentenced to death for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan. It is this true story around which Parade – the 1998 musical with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown – is based. The scandal began shortly after his move to Marietta, Ga. (just outside of Atlanta). Frank had just married Lucille Selig and secured a job managing a pencil factory. On the day of the Memorial Day Parade, young Mary Phagan – one of his employees – left his office, having collected her pay, only to be found murdered early the next morning. The night watchman, Newt Lee, discovered her raped and strangled body in the basement of the factory. Leo Frank, an easy target, was charged with the murder several days later. The region’s solicitor-general, Hugh M. Dorsey, was pressured by the public and his political aspirations to convincingly indict someone with her murder. Though a generally mild-tempered man, Frank was victim to a still-sensitive south after the Civil War and an overzealous press and spread of rumors. Frank was targeted, in part, as a Jew in the South. The newspapers showed Phagan’s murder as the confirmation of fears that had been born about factories at this time of local industrialization and idealized her as a symbol of oppression.

For the Grand Jury, Dorsey painted Frank as an immoral womanizer. It was the false witnesses he arranged, though, that would prove pivotal, particularly one by factory janitor (and Phagan’s true murderer) Jim Conley. His testimonies against Frank continued to vary; however, even when evidence leaked to pin the murder on him, the public was not interested and Frank continued to be the prime suspect. This clearly illustrates how strong an influence the public opinion had in shaping the outcome of this trial. By the time of the trial, news reports and rumors had been so unfavorable towards Frank that a jury was sure to be biased against him. A number of solid witnesses and a very convincing account by Frank himself on the part of the defense could not overshadow the extremely well-rehearsed, detailed and well-acted account given by Conley, an account which Dorsey managed to remind the jury of with each cross-examination he conducted. When the jury returned the verdict of “guilty,” Leo Frank was sentenced to death by hanging. Frank and his lawyers believed themselves to have presented a strong case, but many threats of lynching if Frank was not found guilty-made by the general public to the jury members, judge and defense lawyers-made the outcome somewhat predictable.

Frank’s case went on to the appeal process. After being denied by the judge, then by the Georgia Supreme court, repudiations of testimonies against Frank were sought as an additional step. Several more appeals, all rejected, made their way as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. During this period, some new positions were taken by the press (though primarily in the North, as this had become a nationally known case) exploring Frank’s possible innocence. Conley’s lawyer, William Smith, claimed to have re-evaluated the evidence only to decide that Conley was the true murderer; with this, Governor John M. Slaton reduced Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison. The public was enraged, and a wave of Anti-Semitic acts erupted across the city of Atlanta. Slaton had to declare martial law within half a mile in all directions of his home as well as relocating Frank to a more secure facility. It was there that he remained for one month, writing letters to his wife and other supporters in his belief that he would still receive justice; he was also attacked there by a fellow inmate, receiving a near-fatal gash in the throat. However, late on Aug. 16, 1915, a group of 25 men broke Frank out of the prison and drove him seven hours to Marietta where they attempted to get a confession from him of Mary Phagan’s murder. He never conceded, and his denials were apparently so honest that many in the lynch mob abandoned their plan at that moment. However, the rest of the group proceeded furiously, and Frank was lynched after requesting that his wedding ring be returned to his wife. Crowds of all ages formed to see the body for themselves, with many wanting to witness the public murder that they believed to be just.

This was the unlikely story that was taken and adapted for the Broadway stage. Co-conceived by Harold Prince, the project was first presented to Stephen Sondheim. When he turned it down, Jason Robert Brown gladly undertook the task of scoring this new musical for which Alfred Uhry wrote the book. Though the story of the musical does not depart from the truth of the events, it focuses on certain aspects of the events more than others and leaves out some of the smaller details. It is also the nature of adapting a story for the theater to sacrifice some of the detail for the drama, spending more time developing the characters and their relationships that will contribute to the overall plot than to give factual details. For example, Frankie Epps vowing to a friend at Mary’s funeral that he will kill the man who murdered Mary foreshadows Frank’s lynching, but it personalizes it rather than to make it known that lynchings were common public spectacles of the time. Similarly, we as an audience are not shown evidence to prove Frank’s innocence; rather, we “know” it because we have seen the story from his point of view and therefore trust him inherently. The love story is also dramatized for the musical, and a lot of attention is paid to Lucille and Leo’s relationship leading up the trial. Carolee Carmello, who played Lucille in the original cast, called this relationship “probably the most fictionalized” aspect of Parade. The degree of anti-Semitism was also stressed in the stage adaptation.

Parade, a heavy theatrical undertaking, was immediately sure to be something unlike what most musical theater fans had ever seen. Its serious, tragic and true roots in American history made complications and comparisons inevitable, and as its broad spectrum of reviews would suggest in an instant, there were many places where Parade fell short of what it might have achieved. Parade profoundly touched many of its viewers and made its own mark, however small, on theater history.

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