For some poor, unfortunate individuals, musical theatre is the audible equivalent of fingernails upon a blackboard. They perceive it as a trite, pointless art form. The goal of this regular feature is to introduce readers to worthy, quality contributions to the musical theatre genre in the hopes of increasing the art form’s appreciation.
If there is any composer that may take on the label “The New Stephen Sondheim,” it would be Jason Robert Brown. Stylistically, they’re very similar, with scores that feel more like mathematical theorems in their precision than the more typical soaring, lush, romantic scores that often dominate musical theatre. However, that would hardly be sufficient reason to name Brown as a worthy successor to the Stephen Sondheim musical dynasty. What really makes Brown a follower in Sondheim’s footsteps is his tendency to dive into the more difficult, unpleasant aspects of human interactions, the neuroses and petty, selfish, sometimes vindictive drives that guide everyday human dealings. Whether he is mining that territory for dry comedy or poignant tragedy, his lyrics always place his characters’ insecurities and worries front and center.
With dialogue written by Driving Miss Daisy playwright Alfred Uhry and direction by Broadway legend Harold Prince, Jason Robert Brown’s first Broadway musical, Parade, may have looked like a sure-fire hit. Alas, when it hit the Great White Way in 1999, it was met with audience indifference and a divided critical response. It tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory runner in 1913 Atlanta who was wrongfully accused of murdering thirteen-year old, female employee Mary Phagan. He was found guilty and sentenced to be executed, only to have his sentence commuted to life in prison by the governor of Georgia. Instead, an angry mob abducted him from prison and hanged him in 1915.
Parade’s subject matter was always going to make it a difficult sell, given the bleak, rather hopeless ending that accompanies the true story, and its close time proximity to Ragtime, a musical (based on a novel) involving another early twentieth century, racially-charged miscarriage of justice, audiences may have felt a bit weary of courtroom denouncements, but it’s score features some of the best Broadway songs of the past twenty years.
The song presented here is the show’s most optimistic number, in which Leo Frank, waiting in a jail cell, is informed that his wife has gotten the Governor to review his case. When a show’s most optimistic moments basically amounts to, “yay, I might not be executed,“ you know you’ve got a pretty bleak show on your hands. However, this song, full of triumphant, hopeful lyrics and an exultant score makes you hope, just for a few minutes, the world will work out the way it should.
Check out the song from the show’s 1999 Tony Awards performance below:
I love this song’s lyrical structure. Listen to the lyrics of the first verse. They’re all short, declarative sentences, regarding all of the actions connected to his approaching execution and the fact that this new development means those actions should now be placed on hold. Parties and parades celebrating his imminent demise can be forgotten, his mother can stop crying, his rabbi’s eulogy can be placed aside, and his cousin can stop counting his inheritance. It’s a series of brief, exciting bursts, spoken by a man so excited by this new revelation, he can barely form sentences to express his elation. Much of the play, especially the first act, presents Leo as a taciturn, borderline unsympathetic, protagonist. The show’s heart really involves the thawing of the chilly Leo and the blossoming of his relationship with wife, Lucille.
At the show’s onset, they exist in an icy, estranged, near-loveless marriage. Here, for the first time, he’s allowed her to help him with his case, and she has been able to come through. When he proclaims, near the end of the first chorus, “I’ve got the greatest partner any man can get,” it feels like a major breakthrough, both for Leo and his spouse.
The second verse beautifully demonstrates Brown’s lyrical dexterity. With lyrics such as “make the hangman stop his drumming, ‘cause I’m coming into town to win the day,” with its end and middle rhyme combination and “somehow, I haven’t, with my scheming, screwed things up beyond redeeming,” with its alliteration of the “s” sound creates a lyric that borders on tongue twister. It’s a brilliantly constructed set of lines that are wonderfully clever, but their cleverness doesn’t overwhelm the emotional heights the song is able to hit. It feels as though Leo’s elation is spilling out faster than even he can process. We still feel Leo’s emotions through the lyrics, and they’re craft heightens those emotions rather than dampening them.
The second chorus also has one of my favorite homophone pairings, the word “Hell,” in the line, “Hell, it’s just begun,” and “hail” in the line “hail, the resurrection of the South’s least favorite son.” The lines sound defiant and triumphant and serve as the character’s rallying cry. The song closes with a reemphasis of the new connection between Leo and Lucille, and promises hope, even though the audience knows it is a promise that won’t be fulfilled. Yet, the song sounds so hopeful and optimistic that the eventually tragic ending feels all the more brutal as a result. At least Brown gives the characters one brief moment to believe they can succeed.