Actually, I'd argue that this kind of subject matter is far more appropriate--or, at least, more satisfying and conducive to real humanitarian impact--to be rendered as a musical than what normally receives the treatment. Comedy and romance are most effective when they dig up the right tiny details and piece them together into a mosaic that looks like me and the people in my life. They touch me in only the most intimate and understated and ironic contexts. Being in love might make me want to sing, but it's the very specific sights and sounds and tastes and touch of a lover that stir this desire. Musicals have it backward: They, too, often skip the texture of the particulars and head straight to the delirious rapture and torture. When they can't locate and relate the motivation, the results--all that self-absorbed caterwauling--reminds me most of all how foolish and fixated and annoying romance can make us.
Tragedy, I would further argue, can earn--in fact, deserves--a more communitarian and cooperative approach. I might not need or want the same things out of love that you do, but if a mob carries us or one of our loved ones off to be strung up from a tree, I'd warrant our responses--if not necessarily their expression--would be mighty similar. And that's where the singer steps in: Sorrow and fear are the great equalizers of the human condition, and the performer who skillfully vocalizes them embraces all of us in the same lyric. A show such as Parade also expresses moments of hope and affection and mercy, but in a crisis situation. There's the key, because in the confrontation with our mortality, when it all seems pretty futile, an exhilarating last stand is to open your mouth and let 'er rip.
Director Harold Prince is the primary New York interpreter for the indispensable Stephen Sondheim, so he's helped chart this territory since the beginning. Parade seems even less whimsical--if that's possible--and more overtly political and documentarian in tone than Sondheim. In a new-millennial America where racial slights are sometimes protected zealously by those who've been slighted, Uhry and Brown's book and score reveal some ugly new wounds--chiefly, the fact that historical evidence reveals that the killer-rapist was, most likely, a black man who fingered the Jewish fellow lynched by the Atlanta mob.
In the exultant tune "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'," the probable killer Jim Conley (Keith Byron Kirk) dances with other black men on a chain gang, delighted that for once, a paleface will take the rap. Leo Frank (David Pittu) is a rather cold man who has two other strikes against him in pre-WWI South--he's Jewish and a native New Yorker--but the governor of Georgia (Rick Hilsabreck) is convinced to spare him from death by Leo's tireless wife Lucille (Andrea Burns), who can document how corrupted her husband's trial was. "Hail the resurrection of the South's least sacred son!" Leo calls out in triumph, but we know it's a short-lived reprieve: Designer Riccardo Hernandez's gigantic oak looms silently over the proceedings, ready to pounce.
This touring production of Parade is watertight, eloquent, and sometimes harrowing, but it's always expert at translating unpleasant, intertwined emotions and unsympathetic characters into touching musical expression. It comes closer than Sondheim ever has to successfully interweaving elements of Greek tragedy and opera. The Greek influence seems especially forceful in the centerpiece trial sequence, in which prejudiced jury members combine with unscrupulous lawyers and perjuring witnesses in a chorus of condemnation against Leo Frank. When Frank attempts to defend himself, voice trembling, with "It's Hard to Speak My Heart," we see with crushing clarity that a commonplace weakness--the inability to express one's feelings--has been transformed into a tragic flaw.