Last November, Jim Vagias had to be a little worried.
Earlier in 2022, Vagias, the producing artistic director of American Theater Group, had arranged with Music Theatre International to produce PARADE in Basking Ridge, NJ in March of 2023.
And why not? PARADE had resulted in Tony wins for Best Book (Alfred Uhry, of DRIVING MISS DAISY fame) and Best Score (Jason Robert Brown). PARADE was clearly a work of quality.
Then Vagias learned that Encores! would be reviving the 1998 musical in mid-autumn. Would MTI pull the rights? That often happens to regional theaters when a Broadway production is announced. It doesn’t want the competition, and Vagias’ theater is fewer than 45 miles from Broadway.
To Vagias’ relief, MTI didn’t renege. “But I went to see the Encores! production with Ben Platt, I knew, absolutely knew, that it would be moving to Broadway.”
Such a situation could send many a producing artistic director thumbing through catalogues and suddenly saying to his staff, “How about THE SOUND OF MUSIC?” But Vagias was on a mission to produce PARADE “because,” he said, “with all the anti-Semitism that’s sadly raging, PARADE must be seen again.”
Vagias said this before PARADE’s first preview on Broadway, where neo-Nazis came to protest. “That,” he said afterward, “only reinforces our decision that PARADE is even more relevant now than when it was written.”
It’s the story of meek and mild Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew. In 1907, he took his uncle’s suggestion to become a partner in a pencil factory in Atlanta and literally lived to regret it.
Listen to the superb original cast album, where Brown and Brent Carver establish him as a fish-out-of-water in “How Can I Call This Home?” He mourns, “I’m trapped inside this life and trapped beside a wife who would prefer that I’d say ‘Howdy!’ not ‘Shalom!’”
She’s Lucille Frank, an unhappy spouse who early on sings, “Why do I wait for more?” Oh, she’ll get more, in no uncertain terms.
That comes as a result of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old who works in the factory. After she’s murdered, Frank is suspected. African American Jim Conley is more likely responsible, so we’re surprised that in the South, which has a reputation for historically not being amenable to Blacks, he isn’t fingered. In 1913, Jim Crow was flying high in a state that had once been in the Confederacy.
PARADE suggests that Georgia whites felt that Blacks who were native Southerners were preferable to damn Yankees, especially Jewish ones.
Frank had another strike against him for being “college educated.” We learn that from Britt Craig, a reporter for an Atlanta newspaper, who obviously isn’t. As he sings in “Real Big News,” he’s thrilled that Mary was murdered because now he has a story that will put him on the front page.
That Leo will be put in a noose isn’t his concern – nor is the parade of Atlantans who’ll testify that Frank did it. One of them is Mary’s mother, who sings a song of forgiveness that’s followed by a word that may well give you chills.
One of the most dynamic ideas in all musical theater history comes during the trial. A number of young girls who work in the factory describe Frank as a pedophile who’d try to corner each of them. That leads to Frank’s singing “Come Up to My Office,” where his Clark Kent persona is replaced by a salacious wolf in Frank’s clothing.
The ominous-sounding melody and eerie lyrics (“We got lots of things we both can do”) results in a fine showpiece for an actor, and it had to be an important component in getting Brent Carver his Tony nomination. David R. Gordon in Jersey must be licking his lips in happy anticipation of doing this one. (For that matter, Ben Platt must have savored it at Encores! and has to be glad that he’s getting more chances to reprise it on Broadway.)
Meanwhile, Lucille spends every waking day trying to have Leo exonerated. “You Don’t Know This Man” may very well have been the moment when Tony nominators nodded and decided that Carolee Carmello would have to be included in the Best Actress in a Musical category.
Theatergoers who scanned their programs for a song list before the show may well have made an assumption when they saw that “All the Wasted Time” would be sung by Leo and Lucille. Obviously, husband and wife would ruminate about the lost months that he’d spent in prison.
Brown was wiser. The wasted time to which he referred was the period before the murder, when the spouses took each other for granted and didn’t appreciate what they’d had. It was a sobering message for couples whose marriages had been on automatic pilot for some time, too.
Vagias had long admired Brown’s music and lyrics, so in late 2021 he went to Deal, NJ to see the composer-lyricist’s THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. He was hardly the only one who made the trip; Kate Baldwin and Aaron Lazar received raves as did director Hunter Foster.
You may know Foster as the original Bobby Strong in URINETOWN or as one of the Leo Blooms in the Broadway production of THE PRODUCERS. In recent years, though, Foster has been segueing from performing and concentrating on directing. Vagias liked what he saw of BRIDGES, began chatting with Foster and, when each expressed admiration for PARADE, Vagias knew he had the right person to steer his revival.
Back in the late ‘90s, Foster actually appeared in early workshops for PARADE, when Matthew Broderick was portraying Leo Frank. “I could have been part of the original production,” he says, “but I had plans to get married.”
(And he still is, to the very talented Jennifer Cody. A silver anniversary is not far away.)
Foster knew that Gordon, whom he’d directed in ROCK OF AGES in Aspen, would be an ideal Leo. Megan McGinnis, who’ll play Lucille, is hardly a stranger to the show; she appeared in the original PARADE as one of Mary’s teenage friends.
So, why see PARADE in suburbia when it’s on Broadway? I spent close to 20 years covering every production that dozens of New Jersey’s professional theaters mounted, but I also fit in virtually every Broadway and off-Broadway show, too. What I found time and time and time again was that the quality of Garden State productions was equal to and sometimes even superior to what I was seeing in Manhattan’s theater district.
One reason is that even actors who are astonishingly talented don’t have nearly as many opportunities as their forebears. Most musicals that are produced today have fewer roles than were offered in previous decades. Shows now run longer than ever before, and performers keep their coveted jobs. George Lee Andrews stayed with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA for years – nay, decades.
That situation leaves plenty of terrific but uncast performers who then cross the Hudson to appear in Millburn, Princeton and Basking Ridge. Don’t be surprised if Hunter Foster and Jim Vagias give a show that rivals the one that the folks on 45th Street are offering. Attend before the PARADE passes by.
PARADE plays March 2-5 at American Theater Group’s home theater at 8000 Fellowship Road in Basking Ridge before moving to the Levin Theater at 760 Northfield Ave., West Orange for a March 9-11 run.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.