Musical Examines Atlanta Lynching

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The Civil War left Atlanta in ruins, but after the war the city quickly rebuilt and became a dynamo for the New South. But the tensions between the old and new boiled over in 1913. That’s when frenzy erupted over the rape and murder of a young girl. Accused of that murder: a Jewish businessman from New York named Leo Frank. The events of that time are told in a musical-Parade. Birmingham’s Magic City Actors Theatre and the University of Montevallo are producing the musical’s Alabama premiere. WBHM’s Bradley George reports.

Parade opens on April 26, 1913–Confederate Memorial Day. The residents of the Atlanta suburb of Marietta are decorating the town in celebration of the 50th anniversary of General Johnson’s surrender to General Sherman. But Leo Fank would rather be doing other things.

Frank moved to Georgia from New York City. That ‘good job’ he refers to is supervisor of a pencil factory. Frank takes his job seriously. In fact, he seems to take most things seriously. He’s a slight, nervous man. He appears edgy and uneasy, even around his wife. Chris Sams plays Leo Frank in Magic City Actors Theatre’s production of Parade.

‘I believe in a lot of senses he was very socially awkward and didn’t know how to put into words his thoughts and feelings. So the only place he did feel comfortable and safe was when he was working.’

And it’s at work that Leo Frank encounters 13 year old Mary Phagan. She’s stops by to pick up her pay. Then, later that evening, the police pay a visit to Frank’s home. They lead him back to the factory, and Phagan’s body.

At first, police don’t suspect Frank of the murder. But soon, suspicion turns. And so begins a hellish, two year ordeal for Leo Frank. The people of Marietta, outraged by Mary Phaghan’s murder, vow to seek revenge on her killer. Newspaper reporters, eager to tell a juicy story, sensationalize the case the case even further. Chris Sams says the Leo Frank case was a like a pressure valve for all the frustrations of Georgians coming to grips with the realities of the New South.

‘You know, they didn’t like the idea of a new age of Georgia, of industrialism, of northern people coming in and taking over the city and building it up even larger. And Leo Frank represented that. He was from a different world, he was from New York, he was Jewish, he was different. And I think that ultimately kind of enabled what eventually happened.’

What happened next is the trial, where witness after witness testified to Leo Frank’s guilt. Frank is found guilty and sentenced to die, but the governor later commutes his sentence to life in jail. An angry mob kidnapped Frank, took him back to Marietta, and lynched him. That was August, 1915-two years after Mary Phagan’s murder.

Playwright Alfred Uhry and lyricist Jason Robert Brown tell this harrowing story with music, and a bit of humor. On her way to the factory, Mary Phagan flirts with a boy on a trolley. There are also songs about the Franks’ marital strife, and the night watchman finding Mary Phagan’s body. It’s heavy material for a musical, but Chris Sams says music helps tells the story in a compelling way.

‘What Jason Robert Brown did with the music is so beautiful and so haunting. And I really feel that it really helps put you in the mood and in the minds of these characters.’

Though it’s almost been a hundred years since the events of Parade, the case still provokes strong reaction in Atlanta. Leo Frank was awarded a posthumous pardon in 1986. But descendants of Mary Phagan maintain he was the murderer, even though later evidence pointed to the pencil factory’s janitor as a possible culprit.

There’s renewed interest in the case, too. A documentary on Leo Frank recently aired on public television. And there’s a production of Parade running in Los Angles. Kristen Sharp plays Leo Frank’s wife in the Birmingham production.

‘There’s buzz about it all over, so it’s interesting to see it just maybe it could open a lot of doors to a lot of really cool things.’

Opening doors for a musical and perhaps opening minds to a tragic event in Southern history. For WBHM, I’m Bradley George.