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    Miller's Column

January 22, 1999 - #4

Sondheim and the Next Generation -- "Parade"

Just as Rodgers and Hammerstein influenced an entire generation (or maybe two) of theatre songwriters, who continued to perfect and build on the ideas that R&H developed, so too, Stephen Sondheim's influence is just now being felt in the current crop of young songwriters, including Michael John LaChuisa ("Hello Again" and the upcoming "Marie Christine"), Adam Guettel ("Floyd Collins," "Saturn Returns"), Jason Robert Brown ("Songs for a New World," "Parade"), and others. And nowhere is that influence more evident than in Jason Robert Brown's score for the current Harold Prince musical, "Parade."

Jason Robert Brown burst onto the New York scene in 1995 with his abstract concept musical "Songs for a New World" (there is a cast album and I highly recommend it), an evening of independent songs that connected and intersected so completely that it rose above the revue genre to become something more (as "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" did in the 1960s). The show presented a collection of characters all of whom find themselves face to face with that moment in life when disaster strikes, when we must choose which path to take, when your life changes forever, when the old rules no longer apply and you find yourself in an entirely new world. Even in this first work, the influences of Stephen Sondheim were obvious in the complexity of the accompaniment, the sophisticated and acrobatic rhymes, in the serious and unlikely subject matter, and in the intelligence and deep, deep emotion of both the music and lyrics. But Brown's second work, the new musical "Parade," shows us even more.

Not since "Assassins" have I seen a show this brave, this brutally honest, this shattering, or this thrilling. Brown, Prince, and bookwriter Alfred Uhry have fashioned a story that assaults us, accuses us, cautions us, and -- what too many critics have missed -- breaks our hearts. Like "Assassins" and other Sondheim shows, this show breaks many rules, and the result is both horrifying and brilliant.

The "Parade" team begins with an unlikely, and what's most surprising, unlivable hero. Leo Frank, the real world northern Jew accused of murdering a Georgia girl, is a hard man to know. He keeps his feelings hidden deep down inside, and in an art form where feelings are the primary currency, that makes the show a real challenge for both authors and audience from the outset. Frank is distant from his wife, distant from his employees, and most importantly, distant to the audience. Like Fosca in "Passion," Franklin Shepard in "Merrily We Roll Along," and Booth and Czolgosz in "Assassins," Leo Frank doesn't make friends with the audience. He doesn't share his secrets with us or ask us to understand why he is the way he is. The authors have put us in the place of the jury at his trial. We can't sympathize with him because he won't let us -- but that's what makes the journey of this musical so wrenching, and ultimately, so satisfying. When he does finally open up, to his wife, and therefore to us, we know how changed he has been by the ordeal he's been through. We can see how the jury would convict him, even though we know he's innocent. His personality makes the case and the story so much more complex, so much more difficult to navigate. Motives are blurred and people can change from bad to good. And it brings to mind the O.J. Simpson murder trial, in which the vast majority of white Americans believed him guilty and the vast majority of black Americans believed him innocent. Here, a "jury of his peers" is no such thing. He is a northerner and a Jew, pleading his case to twelve southern Christians. The parallel is clear.

Like "Assassins," Jason Robert Brown uses the music of America's past to give context to the action. In "Assassins," Sondheim uses "Hail to the Chief" and its automatic associations, as well as well-known historical American music styles to evoke the period of each assassin's story. In "Parade," Brown not only uses various musical styles -- waltzes, marches, hymns, etc. -- in a similar way, but he also quotes as traditional American hymn, "There is a Fountain," to lend truth to this very true story. And like many of Sondheim's scores, this score is stitched together with dozens of musical themes, which are repeated and developed over the course of the show to lend unity to the score and to draw dramatic and thematic connections between characters and scenes. Brown's extensive use of ostinato -- a minimalistic accompaniment figure repeated over and over -- through the score reminds us of Sondheim's pervasive use of ostinato in "Passion," "Into the Woods," "Pacific Overtures," "A Little Night Music," and most extensively in "Sunday in the Park with George."

Like Sondheim has done in "Assassins," "Sweeney Todd," and other shows, Brown has written some of his most joyful, most tuneful songs for the most horrific scenes. As Sondheim wrote "Pretty Women" in "Sweeney Todd" to underscore the Judge's (near-) murder, and the Act II "Johanna" to accompany Sweeney's murder spree, as Sondheim wrote his most upbeat music for Guiteau's ascent to the gallows in "Assassins," as he wrote "Pretty Lady" to describe an attempted rape in "Pacific Overtures," Brown has done the same. In "Parade," Britt Craig, the reporter, sings "Big News," a big raucous celebration of a song to describe the big journalistic break that he'll get from Leo's murder trial. And the whole town sings and dances to one of the most joyful songs on Broadway this year as Leo's guilty verdict and death sentence is handed down.

"Parade" shows us one man -- an outsider -- against society, a callous society that lets injustices go unpunished, an echo of Sweeney Todd, Fosca, and to an extent, George Seurat. Perhaps this is Sondheim's influence on Brown, or perhaps it's the presence of Hal Prince, who explored this scenario in "Sweeney Todd," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Cabaret," and other shows. This show accuses us of allowing Leo's tragedy, of turning a deaf ear to his cries of injustice. Here in New York, we can remove ourselves from the indictment by seeing only turn of the century Southerners as the culprits. But racism and scapegoating have not gone away in America. Both practices are alive and well today, both fueled -- as they were then -- more by religion and its misuses than by anything else. The rabidly anti-Semitic Reverend Watson has contemporary counterparts in too many national religious leaders today. They may no longer target Jews as the enemy, but there are still enemies to be found and feared in fundraising letters -- feminists, gays, and others.

As Sondheim has done on more than one occasion, "Parade" asks us to confront the pure evil -- hatred, racism, and the fear of outsiders -- that still thrives in our culture today. Nothing is sugarcoated. Nothing is toned down. This is a difficult, challenging, disturbing, and finally brilliant show. Even New York audiences had trouble taking the assaults it fires from the stage. This is not a musical that will show up in community theatre seasons, and I'd love to see the first production in the South. But it is thrilling theatre, better than the critics give it credit for -- because the critics (aside from Ken Mandelbaum, who appreciates its considerable gifts) have not put forth the effort this show requires of its audiences. Like "Assassins" and "Passion," you can't just watch this show. It asks more of us than most musicals would ever dare. But that doesn't make it a problem play; it makes it special. It assures us that Sondheim's brand of edgy, take-no-prisoners musical theatre will continue on. We must work, but when we do, the rewards are enormous.

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