June 23, 2024
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Broadway’s ‘Parade’ and the Tragedy of Leo Frank

Platt and Diamond as Leo and Lucille.

On Sunday, August 6, the Broadway revival of the musical “Parade” ended its limited run at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. The show details the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who is believed to be wrongly convicted and murdered for the rape and killing of a 13-year-old girl. The production stars Jewish actors Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond as husband and wife Leo and Lucille Frank.

 

The Leo Frank Case

Leo Max Frank, a Jewish American, was raised in Brooklyn. An anxious intellectual, Frank was a quiet man, and he mostly kept to himself and his books. He attended Pratt Institute and Cornell University before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1908. There, he married Lucille Selig in 1910 and began a happy marriage. She hailed from a prominent Jewish family; her grandparents had founded the first synagogue in Atlanta. Two years after Frank’s wedding, he was elected president of the B’nai B’rith Atlanta chapter.

Frank took on a job at the National Pencil Factory in 1908 and devoted his entire life to his work. Being a college-educated Jew from New York, Frank felt a deep sense of estrangement from the people and culture of the southern United States even in his own assimilated Jewish neighborhood. On April 26, 1913, the day of the Atlanta Confederate Day Parade, a 13-year-old White girl named Mary Phagan, who worked under Frank, went to the National Pencil Factory alone to collect her pay. The next day, her dead body was found in the basement of the factory by the African-American night watchman, Newt Lee.

Frank, Lee and Jim Conley, the African-American factory janitor, were all suspects in the murder. However, Frank was the only man who had to stand trial, in Leo M. Frank v State of Georgia.

Despite ample evidence that Frank was innocent, many factory girls were forced to testify against Frank by Frank’s prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey. These girls were told to accuse Frank of being a pedophile. Dorsey also persuaded the Franks’ African-American maid, Minola McKnight, to testify against him. Conley told the prosecution several different versions of the events of April 26, changing the story each time he was questioned.

The court also used Frank’s nervous demeanor and anxious fidgets as evidence of his guilt, when in reality, he was just a perpetually shy man. In addition, at the time, the state of Georgia didn’t allow the defendant in a murder trial to testify on his own behalf, so Frank was only permitted to give a short speech declaring his innocence.

Leo Frank

The trial was riddled with antisemitism, and the Atlanta press exploded, claiming that Frank was a blood-thirsty pedophile. The articles published about Frank employed countless antisemitic tropes that served to further pit the Atlanta public against Frank. Outside the courthouse, angry antisemitic crowds gathered and rioted, advocating for the death of a Jew. At the end of the trial, Frank was sentenced to death by hanging, and the city lit up at the prospect of what they saw as justice being served.

Frank spent his time in jail writing a paper that would prove his innocence and disprove every single piece of evidence used against him. Governor Slaton finally agreed to reopen Frank’s case after speaking with Lucille Frank and reading the over 100,000 letters requesting that he do so. After examining 10,000 pages of documents and all of the evidence against Frank, Governor Slaton deemed Leo Frank completely innocent. Governor Slaton reduced Frank’s death sentence to a sentence of life, and Leo and Lucille were hopeful they could eventually see him free.

After this announcement, riots broke out across Atlanta. Many wielded signs with messages such as “Hang the Jew.”

This new verdict was so unpopular that Slaton lost the next gubernatorial race and was succeeded by Frank’s prosecuting attorney, Hugh Dorsey. Dorsey’s entire career was built upon the Frank trial, on the back of the condemnation of an innocent man. On the night of August 16, 1915, a group of terrorists known as The Knights of Mary Phagan abducted Frank from his jail cell and drove him to Marietta, Georgia, Phagan’s hometown. There, 31-year-old Leo Frank was hanged at 7 a.m. the following day, facing Phagan’s childhood home. After his death, the lynching site drew a large crowd, with many tearing off the fabric of Frank’s shirt. Frank’s lynching is the only known case in U.S. history where a Jewish man was hanged by a mob.

Mary Phagan

Frank’s trial and death led to the rise of two contrasting organizations: B’nai B’rith founded the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), aimed at fighting antisemitism. The Knights of Mary Phagan gave rise to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), aimed at promoting white supremacy.

Today, most historians agree that not only was Leo Frank innocent, but Jim Conley was likely the true perpetrator of the crime.

In 1986, the state of Georgia officially pardoned Leo Frank. In 2019, the Fulton County task force declared that they would reexamine the entire case, an assignment that is ongoing.

 

Ben Platt

This production’s star, Ben Platt, is the first Jewish actor to play the role professionally. However, Platt is no theater novice; this is the 29-year-old’s third Broadway show. But Platt has never before played a Jewish character on the Broadway stage. His family is deeply immersed in the Jewish world. His mother, Julie, was a board chair of Camp Ramah and is also the current chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America. Platt attended Camp Ramah in California as a child. He cites winning his camp’s color war in Maccabiah (he was on Team Adom) as one of his proudest achievements. Platt said that it is due to Camp Ramah’s influence that he feels very close to his Jewish identity today. In fact, Theater Camp, the 2023 movie that Ben co-wrote and co-starred in, was partially based on his real-life camp experiences. The film was even shot at the URJ Kutz Camp.

Ben Platt performing at Camp Ramah in California.

Both on and off screen, Platt continues to advocate for the Jewish community. In addition, Platt and fellow Jewish actor Zoey Deutsch took to social media to sing a light-hearted Yom Kippur theme song before the holiday. Platt also wore a Star of David necklace as part of his outfit for the Met Gala.

He said he feels honored to portray Leo Frank in this revival. Platt and his co-star, Diamond, showed off their Jewish pride by performing a song from Parade this May at the White House for Jewish American Heritage Month. Also, before almost every performance, Platt, Diamond and the rest of the cast say the mourner’s kaddish for Frank. After Parade’s 100th performance, Platt said, “As a Jew and lifelong musical theater devotee, the experience of Leo has already been, as we say, dayenu.”

Before the show premiered on Broadway, Platt had already stated that it is a timely piece given the uptick in antisemitic attacks. However, during the first preview of the show this February, neo-Nazi protesters gathered outside the Jacobs Theatre, handing out antisemitic flyers and wielding signs warning theatergoers that they are about to go see a show that worships a pedophile, serving as a juxtaposition to the antisemitic parades that protested Frank in the play itself.

That night, Platt took to Instagram to address the situation. In a video, he said, “It was definitely very ugly and scary but a wonderful reminder of why we’re telling this particular story and how special and powerful art and, particularly, theater can be. Now is really the moment for this particular piece.”

 

The Show

The show is a revival of the 1998 musical written by Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics). In 2022, the musical began a week-long run Off-Broadway at New York City Center in November starring Platt and Diamond. It transferred to Broadway with a strictly limited run set to end on August 6, with previews starting on February 21. The demand for tickets was so high that the Telecharge ticketing site crashed.

The show got rave reviews, with The New York Times calling the production “a timely and gorgeously sung Broadway revival.” Variety wrote, “This theatrically thrilling revival of ‘Parade’ teaches lessons that still need to be learned from a wicked past that haunts us still.” The show was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Revival of a Musical this June.

 

Major Highlights

ADL’s Georgia Anti-Lynching Memorial

Arden’s directing makes the show even more moving. His choice to have Platt remain on stage during the entire 15-minute intermission effectively makes the anxiety that Frank felt after being convicted palpable. As each character was introduced in the show, photos of the real-life people that these actors were depicting flashed on a screen, serving as a reminder to audience members that this tragic tale is true.

The show’s beautiful score is peak Brown, complete with catchy tunes, upbeat numbers and heartbreaking ballads. Alex Joseph Grayson, who plays Jim Conley, sings the show-stopping song, “That’s What He Said,” which left this audience member in awe. The presence of Platt and Diamond’s onstage chemistry is powerfully demonstrated when they sing the hopeful “This Is Not Over Yet.” Platt’s rendition of “Come Up to My Office” is a disturbingly poignant portrayal of how strongly the Atlanta public felt that Frank was a vile human being.

The show also focuses a lot of its energy on the love story between Leo and Lucille. Leo died when Lucille was only 27. After his death, Lucille’s doctor, Dr. James Kauffman, said that “Leo might have been killed, but she served a life sentence.” This sense of a romantic, inseparable bond is evident in the show via Lucille’s insistence on helping her husband be freed. In one of the show’s final scenes, where the Franks believe they have a chance at proving Leo’s innocence, they have a picnic in Leo’s jail cell, an act that Leo had previously been too busy with work to engage in. As they talk, the cell walls around them fade away and an open field replaces them, effectively emphasizing how the Franks kept each other’s spirits alive. After Leo’s lynching, Lucille never remarried and died in 1957 at age 69.

Throughout the show, Lucille implores Leo to assimilate his Jewish identity to fit the time and place in which they live as she herself puts her Southern identity before her Jewish one. However, this show serves as a reminder that assimilation does not stop hate. In reference to Lucille Frank’s assimilation, Diamond said, “Antisemites have never cared what kind of Jew you are, whether you attend synagogue or throw around Yiddish words.”

The most heartwrenching scene comes right before Frank is lynched. He was pulled out of his jail cell so fast that he was not even honored with the dignity of putting on his pants. Thus, before he is killed, he does four things. First, he asks for a sack to be tied around his waist. Next, he requests his wedding ring be given to his wife. Then, he once again states that he is innocent, despite the prospect of being freed if he admits to the deed. Lastly, he defiantly says the Shema before being hanged from an oak tree.

On the day of “Parade”’s final performance, Platt said, “Leo and Lucille Frank, you will not be forgotten.” In an age when prejudice, misinformation and bias run rampant, Parade is a story that needs to be told. The show is a painful demonstration of the importance of critical thinking and not following the crowd on the road to ignorance. “Parade” serves as a reminder of all of the tangible consequences of unbridled hate.


Dina Shlufman of Tenafly is a Jewish Link summer intern and is a rising freshman at Cornell University.

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