About a month ago now (can you tell my day job is keeping me busy) I attended the Donmar Warehouse’s musical of the season, the London premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. I previously saw Brown’s The Last Five Years at the Menier Chocolate Factory, so I was hopeful about this show – and it is always interesting to see new musicals (especially given the time-lag which tends to intervene between a New York premiere and the arrival of the show in the UK – when is The Light in the Piazza ever going to reach us?) There is no denying that parts of this show are powerful, particularly the two lead performances, but it ultimately came across, as my better half suggested afterwards, as a show which had been workshopped to death.
The show dramatises one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in American history – the trial of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn Jew transplanted to Georgia, for the murder of a 13 year old child labourer in 1913. Apparently the show did not play well in the States, and it is easy to see why. It exposes the nastiest sides of the post-Civil War South, but it is not altogether friendly to the Jewish man in the dock. And yet, when one compares it with similar attempts to expose the darker side of the American dream through musical theatre, perhaps most obviously Sondheim’s Assassins, this show ultimately has too many agendas, and lacks real savage bite.
The major problem, possibly a consequence of that over workshopping already mentioned, is evident through the lengthy first half. While Leo and his wife Lucille (powerfully played by Lara Pulver) come across very convincingly, the characters around them tend towards the stock. This is particularly the case with the murder victim herself. The murder occurs roughly about scene three, by which point we have had only the very briefest acquaintance with the victim. She seems flirtatious in a deliberately provocative way – and she certainly does not come across in Jayne Wisener’s portrayal as a 13 year old. For me the consequence was that her actual murder left me cold – like something you might read of in the “in brief” column of a broadsheet newspaper. This had a knock on effect through the first half because, for the dramatic tension really to work, one needs to believe in the image of the victim presented by family, friends and trial witnesses and one had not seen enough of the victim to be convinced (and what one had seen somewhat contradicted their story). A further problem in this first half is the number of characters jostling for attention. A washed up newspaper man, the governor worrying about his popularity, the scheming police chief, the fire-eating reverend all get their moment in the sun of centre stage but again none of them is given enough space to develop as a fully rounded character. The show goes off in too many directions. Consequently, crucial arenas of the narrative are too condensed, most notably in the trial which concludes the first act. It is explained towards the end that a defendant in a murder trial is not allowed to take the stand, and I’m sure this is historically accurate. I find it more difficult to believe that throughout the forty day trial, the defence attorney never cross questioned any of the witnesses or made any significant statement at all – yet this is the scenario the show requires you to believe. The trial is simply too staged.
In the second half things do improve considerably. The show seems to settle down and decide that what it actually wants to be about is the relationship between the Franks. This is accompanied by a picking up in the musical quality. One of the problems in the first half is that too often I didn’t really feel there was a compelling reason for this to be a musical – the music was not adding much to the drama. In the second half this changes. The Franks have three excellent duets, the Governor has a nice dreamy dance number, and the Judge and the police prosecutor a telling ballad about the lost glory of the Southland. The direction also tightens up – the segue from husband and wife’s reunion into the chilling final scene is especially effective.
That direction needs a little additional comment. Maybe it’s a consequence of the emphasis on the persecution of the Jewish outsider, but the colour barrier in this staged South is not effectively dramatised. The company includes at least two black performers. The characters they are given to perform are either stock servants of the merry plantation type (which made me more uneasy than any of the attacks on Jewish ways), or they are slotted into ensembles as if their colour was irrelevant. In 2007 casting terms of course this is perfectly correct, but in 1913 Georgia it is wholly incorrect. Thus you have these cast members happily cheering Confederate Memorial Day, and later donning KKK hoods with the rest of the white company. This is not my specialist period so it is possible the former might have historical evidence to back it up, I find it unbelievable that any black would have been admitted to membership of the KKK. If you are going to try and conjure a historical period you have to get this kind of detail right.
It’s good to see darker musicals being written in the States, and getting a hearing over here, and this is a show worth seeing for the two central performances. It also seems probable that some of the use of Jewish idioms (particularly the mockery of the wedding ceremony) would have a much stronger impact with a New York audience. As a complete musical though it doesn't ultimately work.