Leo Frank was the Jewish manager of a pencil factory who was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee, in the 1913 “trial of the century” in Atlanta.
“Every single day of the trial, the courtroom was absolutely packed and huge crowds of people gathered outside,” said Eric Craig, who plays Frank in a concert production of Parade, Jason Robert Brown’s musical about the trial.
The prosecutor, Hugh Manson Dorsey, needed a high-profile win for his career, Craig said. “Just as today, they had politicians who understand that fanning the flames of xenophobia was sometimes an effective way to get ahead in politics.” Dorsey went on to become the governor of Georgia from 1917 to 1921.
As a northerner who was raised in Brooklyn, and a Jew, Frank was an outsider in the South. At the time, some workers felt they were being exploited by northerners who had opened factories in southern states.
Frank was convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of the testimony of a janitor, who had been found rinsing what appeared to be bloodstains out of a shirt. However, the janitor was never charged and became the state’s main witness against Frank.
After five unsuccessful appeals, Frank’s lawyers sought a commutation from Georgia’s governor, John Slaton. He reviewed more than 10,000 pages of documents and decided Frank was innocent. Slaton commuted the sentence to life imprisonment because he assumed that Frank’s innocence would eventually be fully established.
In August 1915, a mob, identifying themselves as the “knights of Mary Phagan,” broke Frank out of jail and lynched him. Frank’s lynching is often attributed to anti-
Semitic columns published in Atlanta’s Weekly Jeffersonian, which whipped portions of the public into a frenzy, Craig said.
The lynching led to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.
While preparing for the role of Frank, Craig came across a white supremacist website that argued Frank was guilty, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. “We like to think the world has changed. We like to think that everything is so much better than it was back then and the story is a product of its time. That hatred is still out there,” Craig said, also pointing to the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
The title of the show, Parade, refers to an annual parade held on Confederate Memorial Day in several southern states.
When Parade opened on Broadway in 1998, reviewers praised Brown for writing an intellectually stimulating score, but criticized him for using such dark material for a musical. Parade won Tony Awards for Best Book, written by Alfred Uhry, and Best Original Score.
Brown’s composing style is rhythmically dynamic and harmonically unconventional, so his songs aren’t easy to sing. He’s more interested in telling the emotional story of the characters, rather than writing a catchy tune, Craig said. “I find the easiest way is to figure out the road map of the emotional journey of the song. If you can do that, the complicated rhythmic structures open themselves up.”
In Parade, Brown draws on several musical genres, including pop-rock, folk, R&B and gospel. “He can write through the lens of many different styles, to give us a feeling of who’s speaking, what their background is. So you get the feel of the antebellum south, you get to feel a little bit of Jewish Brooklyn from time to time,” Craig said.
The musical styles clash in the same ways the cultures would have clashed at the time, he added.
Parade in concert is presented by Toronto Musical Concerts at the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre on March 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. For advance tickets ($25 and $20), visit paradeinconcert.brownpapertickets.com.