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A musical about lynching a Jew is striking a new chord

One hundred years after the murder of Leo Frank, a show based on his story has won the Tony for Best Musical Revival on Broadway. Now it is getting an Australian airing with Jewish leads.
Steve Meacham
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Man and woman in 19th century dress

Aaron Robuck and Montana Sharp as Leo and Lucille Frank in Parade.

Published: 14 July 2023

Last updated: 26 April 2024

When he was in primary school in Cleveland, Ohio, Aaron Robuck learned the horrific story of Leo Frank, a Jew who was lynched by a mob in the Deep South of the US in 1915.

The son of Rabbi Gary Robuck and Executive Manager at Union for Progressive Judaism Jocelyn Robuck, Aaron moved with his family to Australia aged 11 but never forgot the impact of that early tale.

“I grew up with the legacy of the Jewish American story,” he says.

Now Robuck, 31, is playing Frank in a new production of Parade, a musical about Frank’s story. Parade had three legendary godfathers when it opened on Broadway in 1998. The show played in Melbourne last year and will run in Sydney during May.

Produced by the legendary impresario Harold Prince, the show was a critical success, winning Tony awards for Best Book (Alfred Uhry) and Best Original Score (Jason Robert Brown).

But audience numbers weren’t good, Robuck says. “The US wasn’t ready for a story of this weight about antisemitism and a cultural divide.”

"When a chorus of white Georgians chants 'hang ’im, hang ’im, make him pay,' the words can’t help but echo uncomfortably in the post-Jan. 6 air."

Jesse Green, New York Times

The US appears to be ready now. A Broadway revival has had great success, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The New York Times critic Jesse Green wrote, "What struck me ... in this well-judged and timely revival is the quick path hysteria has always burned through the American spirit if fanned by media, politicians and prejudice of any kind. When a chorus of white Georgians chants “hang ’im, hang ’im, make him pay,” the words can’t help but echo uncomfortably in the post-Jan. 6 air."

The subject matter remains challenging for a musical. “When people hear it is a musical, they expect a certain entertainment value. Especially with a name like Parade, they presume [it will have] that old school Americana glitz. Parade plays with that,” says Robuck.

(The name Parade derives from the Confederate Memorial Day Parade, which serves as a symbol for the values of the American south in the musical.)

Although Robuck grew up with the Frank story, he didn't know the musical adaptation well. But when he saw that the production was looking for Jewish actors who could sing to audition for the two key roles of Frank and his wife Lucille, he knew he was admirably suited: Jewish, an American accent and able to sing. He even works as the cantor for the High Holy Days at The North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney. Lucille will be played by Jewish singer-actor Montana Sharp.

The tragic story of Leo Frank began in 1913, when Frank was accused of the murder of a 13-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. The girl had gone to the National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta, Georgia, where Frank was the factory superintendent, to collect her weekly wages. A day later, her body was discovered in the factory basement.

The Atlanta police were quick to act. Two days after Mary’s body was found, the 30-year-old Frank was arrested and charged with her murder. After a three-week trial, he was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Frank was born in Texas, raised in New York and had earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University in 1906. He served an apprenticeship in Germany at a leading pencil manufacturer before moving to Atlanta to work in the factory partly owned by his uncle, Moses Frank. In 1912, he was sufficiently well regarded in the Jewish community to be elected president of his local B’nai B’rith chapter.

These achievements, however, weighed against him in both investigation and trial, which was influenced by “sensational” journalism in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and fuelled by a local white supremacist, Tom Watson. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the police investigation “was fraught with controversy and included the torture of witnesses”.

“As a Northerner managing hundreds of teenage girls working long hours for paltry compensation, Frank elicited little sympathy.”

The main witness for the prosecution was Jim Conley, an Afro-American janitor who withstood three days of cross examination by some of Georgia’s top defence lawyers.

“Prejudice and ignorance about Jews and blacks ultimately decided the trial.” And misguided references to circumcision formed part of the prosecution.

Frank was found guilty on August 25, 1913. For the next two years, the case was constantly in the news. Every appeal was denied. 

In June 1915, shortly before his scheduled execution, Frank’s throat was slit in prison after Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, commuted his sentence to life in prison.

Watson led a group of men calling themselves “The Knights of Mary Phagan” who broke into the prison, abducted Frank, drove him 240kms to Mary’s home town of Marietta and lynched him. None of the perpetrators was ever named or charged. The Knights of Mary Phagan inspired the rebirth of the Klu Klux Klan.

In 1982, Alonzo Mann, who was 14 years old and Frank’s office boy at the time of the murder, came forward with new evidence pointing to Conley as the real murderer. It took another three years before Frank was pardoned. 

The case has become one of the most studied in US human rights law.

But how much of Parade is authentic given such bleak subject matter?

“Most of it is true,” Robuck says. “There’s a little bit of licence with the details. But it’s mainly about how Lucille Frank and governor Slaton fought against a corrupt legal system, and how people change and grow in the middle of horrific events.”

Parade, by Soundworks Productions, is at the Seymour Centre, Sydney 9-25 May. More information and tickets.

About the author

Steve Meacham

Steve Meacham is a senior features writer whose work has appeared in many Australian and British publications. He has also written several authorised biographies.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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