Murdered at 13 a century ago at National Pencil Co. in Atlanta, Mary Phagan’s demise still confounds us not only as an unsolved mystery, but for the first sensational 20th-century court spectacle.
Leo Frank’s lynching by a vigilante mob pressed every hot-button issue of its time: North versus South, black versus white, Jew versus Christian and industrial versus agrarian.
Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jewish factory manager, is accused of Mary’s murder.
By manipulating witnesses and tampering with evidence, the prosecution convinced jurors of Frank’s guilt and turned everyone but his wife, Lucille, against him.
Not only will Southwestern Michigan College’s Visual and Performing Arts Department tackle this challenging piece of theatrical non-fiction as its spring musical March 20-23, but Jason Robert Brown, the composer who won a 1999 Tony Award for “Parade,” will be in residence for two days at the Dowagiac campus.
Brown plays a free concert at 7:30 p.m., March 19, in the theatre of the Dale A. Lyons Building; and conducts a public master class with students at 11 a.m. March 20.
“I have two perspectives, one as an educator and one as a humanist,” Dr. Will Tomory, professor emeritus of communications, humanities and social sciences, said. “I admire the fact Paul Mow is taking on such relevant theatre. We could be doing a light, fluffy spring musical. And yet, our job here is to be educators. A play such as this, with its tragic ending, is not a smiley face.
“We’ve got students to educate, not just in terms of English and math, but in terms of what America’s about. To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been,” Tomory said. “Our young people live in a very different world where almost everything is questioned and there seems to be a lack of historical perspective. This play takes us into real events and dramatizes them.”
“Anybody who thinks some of this is not still going on does not pay attention to the news,” said Dr. David Fleming, SMC vice president of instruction. “It’s sad to believe we still have huge blind spots in our culture. That’s what art does. It reminds us of who we are and how we have to grow. This musical is so timely.”
Brown arrives in Dowagiac on the heels of an $8 million project, “The Bridges of Madison County,” opening on Broadway Feb. 20.
“Bridges” adapts Robert James Waller’s blockbuster novel about the romance between an Italian immigrant farm wife and a photographer roving Iowa circa 1965.
“As a singer, actor and director myself, I have wanted to produce ‘Parade’ for a very long time,” Paul Mow, SMC theatre director, said. “It’s a most ambitious project, as we all realized working on it for months. It’s a powerful story. No composer is better right now at balancing musical and dramatic complexity than Jason Robert Brown. The music advances the storytelling. ‘Parade’ does an incredible job recounting the press frenzy and public outrage surrounding Frank’s trial and conviction, as well as his own crusade for justice amid religious intolerance, political corruption and racial tensions.”
“People often think of musicals as a release, a happy distraction to their everyday lives,” Mow said. “With ‘Parade,’ we have socially relevant theatre that will truly provoke public discourse and community engagement. In my opinion, during a time of less one-on-one interaction by our students hiding behind text messages, tweets and Facebook, what better purpose could theatre serve?
“With heavy themes of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, it is current with events today, from our first African-American president to Trayvon Martin and stand-your-ground cases. It is also a conversation on the power of the media, sensationalism and fear-mongering tactics many TV outlets use. News stories from Leo Frank’s time provide present-day readers an opportunity to better understand prejudices and tensions of the time period we live in now.”
“Parade’s” book, which also won a Tony, was written by Alfred Uhry, an Academy Award-, Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner who created “Driving Miss Daisy.” He had a personal interest in the case. His great-uncle owned National Pencil Co.
Dr. Jon Korzun, SMC director of bands, compares “Parade” to “West Side Story” for its mix of passionate topics with a “grandiose score of very difficult music.”
Where most musicals rely on a pit orchestra of 20 to 25 musicians, there will be nine players. “Each musician has more to do, which makes it tougher.”
“There aren’t pieces that are going to stick with you for a long time,” said David Carew, SMC director of choral activities. “It’s very driven by the story. This is my ninth musical, and the talent runs deep into the chorus. We’ve got a very strong ensemble,” led by Danny Ferenczi of Edwardsburg as Leo and Eliza Carpenter of Schoolcraft as Lucille. “The choral parts are not easy, but students are very motivated and working on their own. Working with a director (Mow) who is a vocal coach himself makes my job much easier.”
For ticket information, visit swmich.edu/parade.