The real history behind 'Parade' on Broadway

Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's Tony Award-winning musical is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a factory manager who was charged with a heinous crime in 1913.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

There’s a Parade in town. On February 21, a new Broadway production of Parade starring Ben Platt begins performances at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

The 1998 Tony Award-winning musical by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry is based on an infamous true slice of American history. Leo Frank, a 29-year-old Jewish factory manager in Atlanta, was arrested, incarcerated, tried, and lynched for allegedly raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl who worked at his plant.

The still-shocking events occurred more than a century ago. As seen through the artistic lens of Parade, the forces that shaped Leo's fate then – anti-Semitism, racial divides, mob rule, sensationalized media, and political maneuvering – are as resonant as today’s news.

Get to know how the people and events depicted on stage merge and diverge from history – and be sure not to let this Parade pass you by.

Who was Leo Frank?

Leo Max Frank was less than a year old when his family moved from Cuero, Texas, to Brooklyn, New York. In 1908, after graduating from Pratt Institute and attending Cornell University, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at age 26. He rose to a management position at the National Pencil Company.

In Atlanta, Leo met Lucille Selig, who was from a prominent Jewish family. They wed in November 1910. The musical covers this faithfully while suggesting that Leo felt shaky in Atlanta – and his marriage.

As locals prepare to celebrate the Confederate Memorial Day Parade (the musical's namesake), Leo’s wistful song “How Can I Call This Home” expresses his misgivings. “I’m trapped inside this life and trapped beside a wife who would prefer that I said ‘Howdy,’ not ‘Shalom!’” he sings. As Leo chooses the factory over a meal with her, Lucille expresses her own yearning for a loving marriage in the revealing “Leo at Work” / “What Am I Waiting For?”

“I was always fascinated by the story, in part because my grandmother personally knew Lucille Frank,” Uhry, an Atlanta native, told Backstage before the show’s 1998 Broadway premiere. “I surmise from their published letters that theirs was an arranged marriage without much passion.”

Why was Leo Frank arrested?

On April 26, 1913, a young factory worker named Mary Phagan went to the pencil plant to collect her wages from Leo, her superintendent. The girl was later found dead in the factory basement.

Newt Lee, a Black night watchman at the factory, found Mary’s body and became a suspect. Jim Conley, a factory janitor, was also considered a suspect but later became the key witness against Leo. Leo was the last person who admitted seeing Mary alive, which automatically raised a red flag. The songs “Interrogation” and “I Am Trying to Remember” convey the chaos and urgency as the crime is discovered.

Public outcry for swift justice put the police under pressure to make an arrest. Officials noted that Leo appeared nervous during his interview with officers. Lee had claimed that Frank had called the factory on April 26 to confirm everything was all right – something he’d never done before. All this circumstantial evidence led to Leo being arrested but not immediately charged or imprisoned.

Historical figures featured in Parade

Other historical figures woven into the show include Detective Starnes, who worked the Mary Phagan case, and Judge Roan, who presided at Leo’s trial. The character Frankie Epps, a witness at Leo’s trial, was also based on a real person named George.

Also present is prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, who is ready to condemn Leo despite the lack of hard evidence against him. The show’s creators make this clear in Dorsey’s ominous and inciting number, “Somethin’ Ain’t Right.”

At the time, the power of the media earned the Atlanta case national attention. Tom Watson, a fundamentalist publisher, and Britt Craig, a sensationalist reporter, churned up anti-Semitism with their accounts.

“My career has been revived; all I needed was a snippy, pissy Yankee all along!” belts Craig in the ghoulish “Real Big News,” a number that reveals his plans to boost his career by vilifying Leo. Lucille rebuffs Craig’s efforts to get her to speak against her husband, extolling his virtues in the simple and soaring “You Don’t Know This Man.”

Leo and Lucille Frank-1200x600-NYTG

What happened at Leo Frank’s trial?

Leo’s lawyer, Louis Rosser, was determined to see that Leo was released. But during the 25-day trial, prosecutors alleged that Leo had had sexual relations with his female employees. Dorsey’s star witness, Jim Conley, testified against Leo. As Conley spins this tale for the court in the show it emerges as a fiery, crowd-rousing song called “That's What He Said.”

Leo mounted the witness stand on August 18, 1913 and spoke for nearly four hours, according to The Leo Frank Case, an account published by Leonard Dinnerstein. In Parade, Leo pours out his soul in the pleading “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”: "These people try to scare you with things I've never said... I swear I don't know why. You see me as I am; you can't believe I'd lie."

Shortly afterward, Leo was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Leo’s legal team filed appeals to the Supreme Court of Georgia and the U.S. Supreme Court, which were ultimately denied.

A change in the outcome

Leo’s defense team went to Georgia governor John M. Slaton to reopen the case, moving him to review court documents and visit the pencil factory. But in the musical, Lucille’s efforts and appeals to the governor prove the most invaluable. Slaton agrees to commute Leo's death penalty to a life sentence in prison, and Leo and Lucille rejoice in the soaring duet “This Is Not Over Yet.”

“The dramatic form needs a love story,” Uhry told Backstage. “We emphasize the growing warmth between them.” That evolution comes through in Lucille’s commanding song “Do It Alone,” in which she declares she can do more than stay in the shadows. Finally, Leo and Lucille's love shines through strongly in the heart-stirring “All the Wasted Time.”

How did Leo Frank die?

On August 16, 1915, a masked mob of some two dozen people kidnapped Leo from prison, drove him to Mary's hometown of Marietta, and lynched him by hanging him from an oak tree. In Parade, Leo’s wedding ring is eventually returned to Lucille.

In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Frank posthumously. The pardon was sparked by the 1982 testimony of 83-year-old Alonzo Mann, a factory office boy who said he saw Jim Conley carrying Mary Phagan’s body to the basement on the day of her death.

This aftermath is not included in the Parade musical, and the infamous case remains controversial and complex. But while Parade captures all the shades of darkness and controversy associated with the case, the show also ends with a glimmer of hope.

Editor's note: The section of this article titled "What happened at Leo Frank’s trial?" includes information from an account of the Leo Frank case published through the University of Georgia Press. A link and clarifying language have been added to differentiate the source used in this article from the Leo Frank Case Archive and the Leo Frank Case Research Library, websites maintained by anti-Semitic groups.

Originally published on

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