The musical Parade debuted on Broadway in 1998. It dramatized the true story of the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man in the American South who was questionably convicted in 1913 of murdering a young girl who worked at his factory. The production was a critical success, garnering Tony Awards for its book by Alfred Uhry and score by Jason Robert Brown. It was also a popular flop, lasting just 84 performances on Broadway before closing. Despite several revivals elsewhere, it has never returned to the country’s greatest stage—until now.
On March 16, Parade reopened on Broadway, headlined by Tony winner Ben Platt as Leo Frank and Micaela Diamond as his wife, Lucille—the first time both roles have been played by Jewish actors in a performance of this scale. The show works. As I wrote in my review, the new staging sweeps the audience up in the emotional excess of the anti-Semitic mob that seals Frank’s fate, and expertly exposes the essence of anti-Jewish prejudice.
Perhaps more than any other character Platt has inhabited on screen or stage, Leo Frank and his tragic story are closest to the performer’s experience. Judaism is foundational to Platt’s family and his commitments. Platt’s mother is the chair of the Jewish Federations of North America. His father has produced Broadway shows and TV films on Jewish and Israeli themes. Ben and his brothers have even recorded Jewish songs in Hebrew together.
In advance of Parade’s opening, I spoke with Platt about how he approached this deeply personal role, his own conception of American anti-Semitism, and what it’s like to die each night on-stage with the words of Judaism’s most iconic prayer on his lips.
Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity, and includes plot points from the musical.
Yair Rosenberg: I know that this production did not come about easily, and almost didn’t happen at all. Can you tell me how it got to this point, and how you came to the project and the role of Leo Frank?
Ben Platt: It’s a role I’ve loved always. It’s been in the back of my mind on my “maybe someday” list along with George in Sunday in the Park With George and Bobby in Company. So my interest was piqued anytime someone brought up Parade. Then [the director] Michael Arden called me in 2018 and said, “I have an idea for a revival, and I’m going to do a reading, so will you come and do Leo Frank?” Michael is really a genius at reinvigorating material, and so of course I did the reading, and he brought Micaela Diamond on to do Lucille. It was really about the two of us clicking, and there was definitely something there—but then it fell apart because of the pandemic. Then in 2021, I got a call from Michael again, saying, “I think City Center is gonna let us do it as part of their season, with a hope to do a larger production if it goes well.” Micaela was coming back, and Jason Robert Brown was going to conduct, and so I was like, “Obviously, count me in.” And then here we are.
Rosenberg: As you mentioned, this is a reimagining of a show originally staged on Broadway in 1998, then revived several times elsewhere since. When you were preparing for your performance, did you consult the previous versions? Or did you try to avoid them to stop yourself from being overly influenced?
Platt: As soon as I knew I was going to be playing the role, I completely stopped immersing myself in the original. I loved it so much growing up, and I listened to the soundtrack a lot. So I’m very familiar with Brent Carver’s interpretation [of Frank], especially vocally, because that’s what we have: some clips on YouTube of the Tonys and then that great soundtrack. I knew already that I had more than enough reference points, and if anything, I needed to combat that. My focus became primarily on just the text and what’s actually there in the source material.
I also read And The Dead Shall Rise, the Steve Oney book on Frank, just to have a greater context for Leo and who he was and the general situation. I think that when you’re playing a real person, especially somebody that’s such a martyr and a symbol that you want to respect, there’s a lot of unplayable details you can get bogged down in. So once I had a sense for his essence, I tried to let the script and score, which are a little bit fictionalized, be more the primary source, with the history as a backdrop.
Rosenberg: Which it literally is, in this case—historical documents and photographs from the period are projected behind the performers while you are on stage.
There are two deeply difficult moments in your performance that I wanted to ask you about. First, there is the intermission, where you actually stay on stage imprisoned in your cell while the audience goes about its business. What is going through your head when you’re sitting up there, entirely alone?
Platt: It varies. Conceptually, for me, it’s a lot about paying homage to Leo and having one moment each night where my only goal and objective is just to think about what it might have been like for him to be trapped in there for two years. Something the show simply can’t do, because it’s a musical and needs to be kinetic and tell the whole story in two hours, is really dwell on the fact that Leo spent the last two years of his life sitting in a cell. And as much hope as there was towards the end, the end of his life was really taken away from him. I derive a lot of joy and pride from getting to tell this story, but I think it’s important for me to tap into some of the grief of it as well.
Rosenberg: The other moment I was wondering about is much in the same spirit. Just before Frank is lynched, he sings Shema Yisrael, including the part of the prayer that’s usually only said out loud on Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish day of the year, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto leolam vaed.” “Blessed is the glory of God’s kingdom forever.” This is the credo recited by many Jews before they die, including as a mantra of martyrdom during the Holocaust, and its appearance here is absolutely devastating. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that every night. How did you approach that moment? What are you envisioning and feeling?
Platt: I went to Jewish day school and summer camp, and so the Shema is so reflexive. For me, that moment just becomes a moment of pure instinct. Even I, who have tried to get as much into Frank’s mind space as possible to play the role, obviously could never imagine what that moment might feel like. But what I can guess is that a lot of your facilities go and what’s left is just what’s truly reflexive and instinctual in your mind.
What’s nice is that the Shema really is that for me. I know it like the back of my hand, the way that all my family does. So it feels like a comforting, just impulsive thing to get to do, in the sense that I get to lean back on the comfort of this prayer and know that it’s in the annals of my mind all the time, always. When you have no facility to be making choices or to wrap yourself up in any kind of satisfying way, what’s left is what’s always just kind of repeating in your mind, and I certainly can relate to that being the Shema.
Rosenberg: Stepping back to the broader themes of the production, I wanted to talk a little about anti-Semitism. As you know, the show made some headlines when a handful of unwell people protested one of the first previews. I’m curious, before you got involved in this project, what was your own personal sense of American anti-Semitism?
Platt: I certainly felt it ever-present long before this show. It’s like this well-kept secret that rears its head now and again. It’s obviously frightening, but it’s not surprising—it’s just peaks and valleys of something that’s constant. I think that even if our production hadn’t come in such a quote-unquote politically urgent moment, it would always have been an urgent thing to do. The circumstances are just an affirmation that this is necessary storytelling.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with telling a story that’s just purely for joy, or just to create some compelling drama, or just to be an escape, or to showcase your abilities. It’s wonderful to do pieces like that too. There’s a million different pieces of art worth making. But I think it’s a special privilege to do one where you very tangibly feel the urgency of what you’re communicating. Especially when you’re doing it over and over and over again, it’s a great motivator on, like, Wednesday afternoons. [Laughs.]
Rosenberg: I want to just go back in time a little. Your last appearance on Broadway was Dear Evan Hansen, a very different sort of musical about an anxious high schooler and his personal struggles. How has this production differed from that one for you?
Platt: I can only speak to what it’s like for me to be inside of each of them. Dear Evan Hansen was very much a solo experience. It was a very isolating experience, because as wonderful as the rest of my cast was, Evan really goes on the journey alone, and each night, while there were moments of connection with everybody, it was a very solitary experience.
With Parade, there is an incredible ensemble that’s really telling the story, as a living organism. Everybody’s really carrying it at different times and stepping forward and taking on different moments of it. But additionally, even at the center, I’m getting to share it every moment with Micaela. She is very special and singular, and other than—obviously—the very tragic ending, I really have no moments without her. So to have a partner in crime and someone to shoulder the whole thing with, and to never feel like it’s completely on my shoulders, is a really wonderful relief.
The part still has a lot of challenges, and is a little bit closer to my own circumstances than Dear Evan Hansen, which makes some of the emotional and mental bleed a little more difficult. But in terms of the physical and energetic weight of it, it’s a much easier pill to swallow, because I have so much more.
Rosenberg: Since opening at New York City Center in November 2022, you’ve been doing this for a while. Have any reactions to the show particularly surprised you or otherwise stuck with you?
Platt: Mostly, it’s been what I expect, because I just have a lot of faith in the piece, and it seems like people are really ready to hear it. From what I can gauge from the first time it came out in 1998, there was just not necessarily a readiness, for whatever reason, to receive all of the greatness of this show and conversation. Today, there seems to be a much more open-arms feeling from people.
I appreciate that people are noticing the way in which the story tries to hold multiple conversations about American justice and oppression in one piece. That we can acknowledge the way that Black people in America have been treated wrongfully and oppressed by the same system that has, in a very different way, oppressed and wrongfully treated Jewish people, and those conversations don’t need to be in competition with each other. They can coexist. I think that’s a really powerful thing that people maybe don’t expect when they come in, because obviously, the center of the story is Leo and Lucille, and the anti-Semitism is very much upfront. So I do appreciate people’s awareness and receptiveness to that gray, nuanced area.
Rosenberg: That’s one way the show feels prescient, like it just came early in 1998. I’ll be listening to something in the score and think, This had to have been changed and added in for this production. It seems too relevant. It’s almost like they wrote it for now.
Platt: You know, it’s crazy, that song “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” [which includes Black service workers archly observing: “I can tell you this, as a matter of fact, that the local hotels wouldn’t be so packed if a little Black girl had gotten attacked”]. It feels like something you might have to add today, but Jason [Robert Brown], to his credit, understood the need for that perspective from the start.
Rosenberg: It’s actually remarkable, because when you’re listening to it, it feels like someone wrote an intersectional interlude for 2023. But that’s not what happened. It was always there. Which is a good way to sum up the themes of the entire production.
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