Posted in Observations

Museum of Jewish Heritage

This week I was all set to begin tackling HBO’s “Westworld” which seems to be THE latest water cooler television show. However, far weightier matters are on my mind.

Two days after the election I paid a return visit to New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. This was something of a spontaneous trip: I’d been wanting to go for weeks to see its exhibit, “Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case yellow-starRevisited,” a subject which has interested me for a very long time. A gap in my work schedule appeared on one of those spectacular autumn days we’re lucky to get in the New York area, so I finally had the time and the opportunity.

The exhibit, which was created by the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum of Atlanta, is a comprehensive examination of one of the most unbridled episodes of American anti-Semitism in our history. To say the Leo Frank case is a sobering example of what happens when a corrupt police force, an ambitious prosecutor with his eye on the governor’s office and a virulently prejudiced newspaper publisher combine is not saying enough.

But what really shook me was the sight of a huge Nazi flag in the Museum’s permanent exhibit: blood-red with a swastika front and center and an eagle in the left hand corner. We’re so used to the history of the Hitler years being told in black and white photos and newsreels that seeing an emblem of that time in color, as it was then, is not only shocking–it takes what is behind that emblem out of the history books and makes it contemporary and real.

As do the Museum’s videos of survivors of that era, especially those who were children in 1930’s Germany, whose lives were incrementally but ultimately and completely torn apart. They’re senior citizens on the tapes we view now, but you can still see the childhood bewilderment in their eyes as they relate how it felt to be forbidden to play with their non-Jewish friends, barred from attending their schools and witnessing the growing fear of their parents in the face of a government of hate.

Resonant, isn’t it?

Fortunately there is a bit of light, courtesy of the exhibit focusing on those now honored at Israel’s Yad Vashem as the “Righteous Among the Nations”:┬ápeople who took tremendous risk to save the targets of Nazi oppression. I was particularly intrigued by the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuana, who bucked the instructions of his government and hand wrote visa after visa, permitting 6000 Jews to escape in 1940. The testimony of several he saved is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, all may not be lost.

One can only hope.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Observations

Parade

leo-frank-portrait-clear222If you view the images that result from an internet search of the name “Leo Frank,” the majority of hits will fall into two categories. One group will consist of various old photographs, seemingly from the turn of the last century, of a sad-faced, bespectacled young man wearing a high celluloid collar and in some pictures, an ornate stick-pin. The other group of photos, similarly dated, will show the aftermath of a lynching, the blindfolded victim hanging from a tree, his neck unnaturally elongated. Various country folk pose with and/or point at the body in triumph. The date is August 17, 1915; the victim is Leo Frank, 31 years of age at the time of his murder.

The bare facts are these: Leo Frank, a product of Brooklyn and Cornell University, was the superintendent of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia. The body of Mary Phagan, a 13 year-old factory worker, was found in the basement of the premises on April 27, 1913, a day after she came to collect her pay. Her head had been battered, she had been strangled and possibly raped. Her purse and wages were missing. Frank was indicted and stood trial for first degree murder. His conviction on the testimony of Jim Conley, a factory janitor who had changed his story to the police on at least three separate occasions, was deemed unusual for that time and place given that Conley was African-American and Frank was white, albeit a Jew. Appeals ensued and were denied, but ironically it was Governor John Slaton’s commutation of Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment, while well-intentioned, that became a death warrant. The Knights of Mary Phagan, comprised of various judges, a former governor, at least one minister, and other pillars of the community, took the law into their own hands, broke into the jail, kidnapped Frank, drove him to Marietta, Mary’s home town, and lynched him.

In later years both Conley’s own attorney and a former office boy at the National Pencil Company revealed that Jim Conley’s trial testimony was shot through with outright lies; the attorney maintained on his deathbed that Frank was innocent and his former client the real murderer of Mary Phagan. Ultimately the State of Georgia issued a posthumous pardon to Leo Frank, but refused to exonerate him.

Given the grim subject matter, it may come as a surprise that Leo Frank’s story is the basis of a musical. The result, “Parade,” which premiered in 1998 with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry and direction by Hal Prince, has one of the finest Broadway scores ever written. The material is rich indeed: Northern exploitation of Southerners via the pittance paid to child labor, virulent anti-Semitism and resentment of “outside influence,” the occurrence of Mary Phagan’s murder on Confederate Memorial Day, the indefatigable efforts of Lucille Frank to free her husband. While “Parade” ran only two months on Broadway, it’s had quite an afterlife as presented by colleges and amateur groups, with recent professional revivals in Los Angeles and London in a revised version prepared by the show’s creators.

paradeFortunately “Parade” also survives because of its original cast album, recorded the day after the show closed. Jason Robert Brown’s score is a marvelous work, rife with dance rhythms of the era, but laced with two devices that serve to emphasize the dramatic conflicts in the story: the threatening ostinato that accompanies the anthem “The Old Red Hills of Home,” and the Charles Ives-like cacophony of colliding musical styles, most prominently in the aftermath of Leo Frank’s conviction when a tolling bell, “The Old Red Hills of Home” and a sarcastic cakewalk bring the curtain down on Act One. Brown also uses leitmotifs: Mary’s “oh, yeah”-like “Go on, go on” to Frankie Epps, becomes the mob’s “tell me more” cue to spread more scurrilous rumors about Frank. And chillingly, the melody of “The Old Red Hills of Home” becomes the setting of Leo’s final prayer before the chair is kicked out from under his feet and the rope goes taut.

The characterizations of Leo and Lucille Frank are unforgettable. We come to know Leo so well as the somewhat persnickety head of the pencil factory that when several of Mary’s young co-workers testify against him in “Come Up to My Office,” their depiction of the man as a malevolent lecher strikes us as cruel caricature (And Brown does a wonderful job here, dropping Leo’s lewd insinuations down into the bass clef, in contrast to the tenor range he maintains throughout the rest of the show). When Brent Carver as Leo finally sings his response during the trial (“It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”), he utterly breaks ours at the line “I stand before you now/incredibly afraid…”.

And Carolee Carmello. As Lucille she’s introduced in a lovely waltz in one in “What Am I Waiting For?,” a quintessential Broadway heroine’s “wanting song.” In an unusual move, Jason Robert Brown scored the accompaniment himself, giving her a string quartet and piano setting. It’s an arresting moment, given the brass bands of Confederate Memorial Day that precede the number. But it’s Ms. Carmello’s searing performance of “You Don’t Know This Man,” Lucille’s rebuke to the press and its sensationalism, that will stay in your memory. Composer and performer seemingly outdo each other to produce an incredible result.

As a theatrical work, “Parade” in its original form is overwhelming. It’s a BIG show—it requires a large cast and chorus, all of whom have to be able to really sing. No fakery will do. I took a pass on “Parade” during its Broadway run for the simple reason that I just didn’t believe a musical could be fashioned out of Leo Frank’s story. But when I finally saw the production four years ago, courtesy of the Theater on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, it was an incredible experience. I can’t recommend the original cast album more highly.

Note: A number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, not to mention movies, documentaries and TV mini-series, have examined the Leo Frank story. The most comprehensive account by far and the most recent is Steve Oney’s “And the Dead Shall Rise”; I’d also recommend Leonard Dinnerstein’s classic “The Leo Frank Case”.